The non-profit sector eats its own or it must be nice to be parsnip rich

Sixteen years ago, I jumped into the non-profit sector with the type of wide eye idealism and hope that often brings people to the sector. A chance to make a difference in the world in a meaningful way. Whether it’s working with an advocacy group, a shelter or a soup kitchen, the common thread that brings people into the non-profit world is the belief that we can be the change that we seek in the world. Yet that desire to make a difference means that often the very people who are on the frontlines of greater societal change are often being set up for emotional and even financial abuse by the very agencies that they dedicate themselves to with full body, mind and spirit.

In many pockets of the non-profit sector, the workforce is not very diverse even if the population being served is diverse and this is not a fluke. In many ways it is a structural design flaw of the sector. Very few people can afford to dedicate their lives to making a difference in the world while earning a pittance and often saddled with astronomical student loan debt because certain segments of the non-profit world require graduate degrees, most commonly the Masters of Social Work (MSW) degree.

As I get ready to make the move from working at a direct service agency to an agency whose mission is not direct service oriented, I find myself reflecting on the past sixteen years of my professional life and frankly it saddens me.

Over the years, I have worked at many amazing agencies with amazing missions. In the vast majority of agencies though in the midst of all that is awesome, what is often not awesome is how little disregard there is for the men and women who are actually doing the work and making a difference and carrying out the mission of these agencies.

Early on in my career, I saw the flaws (People who work with the homeless, should not have to “borrow” shelter food to eat until payday) and I asked myself how could I change things? The result was choosing a graduate program where I could learn organizational management and apply it to my work in the non-profit sector. In the years since graduating though, too many times I have found myself beating my head against the wall and frankly feeling full of despair.

When you are a frontline worker at a non-profit, you often assume the leadership is inept, after all why is the non-profit sector one of the few sectors where people as a whole are asked to make do often with outdated and even secondhand equipment? Where everyone accepts that they will work far more hours than they will ever be compensated for and even benefits are taken away if the demands of the agency mean that you can’t take your vacation time and you won’t ever receive compensation for that missed time.

For years I coasted along thinking that this was just normal but frankly there is nothing normal about mistreating people in the name of creating change in the world. The nonprofit world suffers from structural deficiencies ranging from funders whose expectations around funding place a premium on creating yet ignore the need of sustainability and the very tools that change makers need to create change like functioning computers. There is also the fact that the very people who sit on the boards that are the legal and fiduciary overseers of agencies are often though not always disconnected from the on the ground work that their agencies do.

In our culture there is a popular idea that if you are not happy with your work, that you should just get another job. Never minding the mechanics of making that happen, what would happen to our society if the people who want to make a difference decided to leave the sector en masse? Very much like the plight of service workers who are often maligned, if these people ceased to be, it would create huge gaps in our society.  

In the end, the non-profit sector’s nasty habit of eating its own for the betterment of mission means that we all lose out when highly qualified and skilled people take their marbles and decide to go play in another sector. In the meantime, I am holding out hope that I can continue to make a difference in the world and as an administrator, I strive to balance mission with the needs of the people who journey with me to create change.

This post was inspired by a few hardworking souls who have hit the wall and shared their struggles with me.


3 thoughts on “The non-profit sector eats its own or it must be nice to be parsnip rich”

  1. This is so very true. All my life I have worked in non profits as does my mother. Those at the top pad their pockets and take all the thunder and we at the bottom run ourselves ragged with our silly work ethics and dreams of helping people. It sucks. It sucks so much but even still I feel better at the end of the day than I did when I worked in boutique retail. I make a lot less, work a lot more and am happier but that doesnt make me forget the unfairness or take away the frustrations.

  2. Amen, amen, amen. I have been in the nonprofit sector for basically my entire professional life and I am currently at an organization that is either going to eat the entire staff or go under. As I look for a job, I realize just how stuck I am. I don’t have the experience to move into another sector (or the desire, honestly) but I am terrified of ending up in this position of abuse again. I’m a single mom and I need stability that nonprofit has a difficult time offering. Not because it’s impossible, but because so many don’t make it a priority.

  3. I have not worked in the non-profit world but I have seen with my friends and have wondered the same thing. Wouldn’t there be so many more great people doing great work if they could get paid a living wage to do it? It’s exciting for you to transfer your skills to a new level of work, but also, it’s a shame that your local venue loses someone so passionate and competent.

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