My local newspaper periodically selects community members to write opinion columns on topics of their choice and publishes the columns one Sunday per month. One of these current ”Visiting Editors” happens to be a friend of mine and is the director of a local non-profit agency addressing the issue of literacy. Her most recent column encouraged government agencies to contract with non-profits because they can provide services at a far lower cost than government itself can. Unfortunately, while I can’t argue the premise; non-profits can and do provide services at a notoriously low cost, I can’t quite get behind the reasons why.
My friend’s piece makes two significant assertions: that non-profit salary and benefit packages are usually at or below market level and that employees of nonprofits will sacrifice pay and benefits for the opportunity to work for a cause they believe in. I would argue that while non-profit employees often do sacrifice pay and benefits, it certainly isn’t because they want to. The bigger question is why does working for the common good and performing a job that has value to you and the people you serve often mean not being able to make ends meet? Why should someone who is working for social justice and social good find it necessary to hold down a second job to pay the mortgage? More importantly, why does society assert that because people hold a passion for their work, a livable wage or health insurance are somehow unnecessary?
Just as is true in the for-profit world, part of it depends on where you’re working. State and national-level organizations have more attractive pay and benefit packages than local charities. Large foundations can afford to pay more because of their ability to raise funds from individuals and groups around the country where local agencies largely rely on the immediate community. Geography makes a difference as well; urban agencies will likely pay a little better than a small one in a rural community, again because they have more resources from which to draw. Another reality is the type of non-profit work you do and the cause you further. As I quickly learned, people are much more open to hearing about and supporting breast cancer research than women who have been assaulted by their partner. But aside from these differences that occur between non-profits, I think a significant factor is that the majority of employees of non-profit agencies are women. Whether you agree with feminist philosophy or not, the reality is that women are still paid less than men, are not as prone to try to negotiate a higher salary when they interview for a job and are more likely to consider their income as the ”second”. Historically, occupations in which the majority of employees are women have been grossly underpaid and under appreciated. It is only in recent history one will notice progress in fields such as teaching and nursing. Even that progress is limited because while the pay and benefits for a teacher in Modesto are fairly generous, the same cannot be said for a teacher in rural Florida.
I find it fascinating to look at what people are paid for the work they perform. The disparity between and within professions is mysterious to me. Why do plastic surgeons rank near the top of the pay scale among physicians? I realize they perform reconstructive surgery on patients who have been badly injured and disfigured and I applaud them for doing so. I would be curious, however, to know the ratio of these types of procedures to the cosmetic surgeries performed to enhance one’s ego. Is this service more important than that of the urban emergency room physician who treats gunshot wounds, rape victims and victims of car accidents on a regular basis? Does the computer software developer deserve to bring home a bigger paycheck than the police officer who puts her or his life on the line every time they put on the uniform? And would someone please explain to me in what universe is it rational that the President of the United States, the leader of the free world, only makes a little more than $200,000 a year? I understand the big white house comes with the job too, but seriously, folks.
I am here to debunk the myth that people who work in the non-profit world don’t care about money. While it is probably true we don’t need to become rich, a comfortable living wage is not the same. Perhaps the perception arose from the idea that if you choose to work with the needy, you won’t mind if you become needy. These are frequently people with post high-school education and degrees who work 40-plus hours a week, at jobs that can be very physically and emotionally draining. They are people with families and bills and illnesses and dreams. The work we do is important and if we have learned nothing from our recent collective economic spiral, it is that virtually any of us can stumble and find ourselves in a position of needing help. It is a shame that our society places so little value on our work that many non-profit agencies can’t even provide a retirement plan for their employees.
Finances remain a taboo topic of discussion in our society. Attempting to talk to people about their salaries, benefits, retirement and personal wealth makes them extremely uncomfortable. This is a critical conversation, however, to those currently working in the non-profit field and those considering such a career path. It is certainly worth the time of non-profit leaders, directors and board members, to advocate for change and pay equity for the employees who give so much of themselves to help others.
Haven Women’s Center of Stanislaus