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.


Whose responsibility is it?

Due to the fact that I am no longer an anonymous blogger, after all in Maine it’s not as if there is a plethora of Black women working as Executive Directors of small non-profit agencies. I am about to share a story but won’t be able to fill in the back story since while I like to talk much shit, I am rather fond of the paycheck I collect a couple times a month. So I apologize that I can not get too juicy with this story but it’s a story that needs to be shared.

I run a small agency that works primarily with low income youth and their families through a variety of services that we offer. The economic downturn has increased our workload at a time when frankly the money to fund such operations especially in smaller communities is drying up. I spend my days plotting to keep the doors open so not only do the area youth have a safe space to come to but so that I can make sure that the college boy will be able to attend college in the fall and that rice and beans don’t become a staple in our house. (Nothing wrong with them, I’d just rather eat them a couple times a week and not daily)

To be honest it’s a hard time to be in the non-profit sector, it’s never been a cakewalk but in the past several years it’s gotten even harder. Which is why I was stunned to find myself in a conversation with someone who is very knowledgeable about the field tell me point blank, they just don’t understand why people cannot provide for themselves. In a nutshell this person told me they think that most poor folks are lazy bums who are coddled. Furthermore that while the work that folks like me do is good; it bugs them how much bureaucratic waste goes on at agencies. To further elaborate this person felt that too many times folks like me (but not me) get hooked on good salaries and don’t do jack. ….Ummmm, wow! I could go on but the takeaway is that there is too much governmental waste supporting bums and maybe if we stopped helping folks they would pick up their own slack.

Like I said, I’d love to give you more details but I can’t. On the other hand this conversation made me wonder what would happen if social services simply did not exist? I wish I had faith that people would suddenly do the right thing and provide for their own families but in many cases, I see people daily who lack the means to do that. Of course there are scammers, over the years I have met many people who burn out of the helping professions because frankly it gets hard to do your job when you see people work the system. But I truly feel that at the end of the day the folks who do that are in the minority, most folks who use government and social services would probably rather not use them.

In a society such as ours whose responsibility is it to take care of the less fortunate among us? Once upon a time family connections were tighter and people could rely on family for help but as our connections to family have shifted often the help is not there. Either people physically are not able to assist or in these tight times cannot afford the monetary assistance.

Should we even have safety nets (are they really that safe) in place to catch our less fortunate?

Let’s talk about it. I am not even going to discuss the assumption that folks in social services are paid too much. I can count the number of coworkers I have had in almost 15 years in this field who were only a hair above the clients financially speaking. I am convinced that no one does direct social services without it being a calling, low pay, paltry benefits for jobs that require a certain level of experience and suck the life out of you. Yeah that’s the high life baby!

Burnt Out

I don’t like to blog about my job because one of the drawbacks of living in a small state like Maine is folks tend to know who you are so things like anonymity just don’t exist even on the web. Hell, a good portion of my Twitter followers are Mainers and it turns out the degrees of separation even on a site like Twitter when it comes to Mainers is probably about 2 degrees at best.

Yet as I have been reading some real cool blogs lately that talk about the non-profit sector as well as related articles, I feel there is a segment of the non-profit world that writers and consultants leave out. That would be those of us that work at the tiny of tiniest agencies. I am talking the agencies and organizations in many parts of the US that do serious front line work like food pantries, soup kitchens, homeless shelters where at best there is 1-2 paid staff members and a cadre of volunteers that provide the services. The IRS recently instituted guidelines this year that all 501c3’s must now file a 990 so that they can get a better sense of who really is out there in the non-profit sector. The best estimate is that there is approximately 31% of all US charities have gross receipts under $25,000. That means until recently those folks didn’t have to file a tax return, yet that is a hell of a lot of agencies doing work and making do in many cases with some less than optimal situations.

I know because I work at such a place, granted our gross revenue is higher than the previous  minimum threshold required to file taxes but our budget doesn’t even tip 6 figures. Which when you consider the fact we are in the business of providing after school and summer programming for kids is a miracle. It’s a good thing we are faith-based because we are praying daily to keep the doors open.

Lately I have been encountering others like me though who love the work we do yet we are burnt out. However unlike life in any major sized city where even with the economic downturn if one gets truly tired of their job, one can generally make the decision to look for work at another agency it becomes virtually impossible to do that in a rural state. In 8 years of living in Maine, very little of mid and senior level management positions have turned over at any of the larger agencies in my part of the state. Of course not! Where would these folks go? Unless they are leaving the state or hanging out their shingle as a consultant or retiring from the work force, there simply is no place to go.

Which means for Gen X’ers or even some of the Gen Y folks the only viable options to get management experience is to take on the leadership roles at the tiny agencies. Yet after 18 months in my current position, I am burnt out. I wear multiple hats at my job, oh let’s share all the hats I wear: program director and designer, chief fundraiser and sole grant writer, director of volunteer management, manager of the actually site (though I do have a solid volunteer who works directly with the kids as well). On a bad week though I might even have to physically clean the facility! Two months into my position, my site guy was out on sick leave and I had to con the Spousal Unit into assisting me as I mopped and cleaned toilets. Yeah baby! Talk about the glamorous life of an Executive Director.

Though as you can imagine after 18 months of juggling all these balls in the air, it was only a matter of time before I started asking myself what the hell am I doing? I earn peanuts, have no paid healthcare benefits, thankfully I have a flexible schedule (why the hell not, I am the creator of the schedule) and generous paid time off. I will tell you that at the root of it all I love the work that I do, I love knowing our agency makes a difference, we are there for kids who have very little in terms of safe options after school and in the summer. Families trust us. Yet lately I struggle with the needs of my own family, since technically my gig is only part-time but like my predecessors I work closer to a 40 hrs a week schedule because simply put the job needs to be done.

In many ways the work I am doing goes against all I learned in grad school as well as in my job experiences in Chicago yet in rural and small town agencies it’s the only way to get the work done. Generally speaking I believe organizations have a responsibility to treat its employees well, pay them an acceptable wage and so on. On the other hand as the creator of my organization’s budget I know first hand what we can and cannot afford so realistically I can not get a salary increase when the money simply does not exist. Right now I would love to bring in a consultant to work with my board and jumpstart us towards creative and energizing ideas but that too is not within the grasp of our budget and none of my connections in the consulting world can take on a free job at the moment.

Previously I worked as a non-profit consultant with a focus on strategic planning and fundraising, most of my work was with small agencies and often we would have great sessions, renew the energy yet in smaller agencies without enough hands to do the work, such plans often go flat. So I am aware that even an excellent consultant can’t change the course of our ship without one hundred percent buy in from all participants.

So if you have ever worked or currently work in a small agency how do you stay sane? Share your tips and ideas.