All pigs are created equal, but some pigs are more equal, and other pigs work for nonprofits where they aren't paid the value of their labor.

I mentioned in class tonight that I get very concerned when I hear a nonprofit leader say something like, "I know we don't pay our staff what they would earn in the for-profit world, but then again, they get to work in a job doing something they really love."

And so it happened today that some such statement was made in a room full of conscientious, well-intentioned graduate students studying the world of public administration and nonprofit management, and my response, that it concerned me, sparked an enormous debate.

Well, debate might be exaggerating it. They were all on one side of the fence, and I the other. My position:

The entire nonprofit sector believes its own PR now, that making a lower salary than for-profit counterparts is not just how it is, it's how it should be. But that's not how it should be, because our employees are impassioned, loyal, talented, intelligent, committed to causes that others don't even take time to notice. They better our schools, revamp our neighborhoods, fight for adequate health care, build houses, fund the arts, and on and on. These are critical duties.

And yet, any number of those talented people have turned their backs on higher pay to do something they love. They frequently work longer hours, put in more effort, take on additional duties, work outside their job description, mentor their peers—all because they want to.

And it is the nonprofit that benefits. The nonprofit not only earns back the salary shortage (in a sense), they also capitalize on the labor savings of employees who overextend themselves.

The man sitting next to me asked, "Do you believe, then, that we should take money away from programs to fund staff salaries?"

I said, "Absolutely." He blanched. In the NPO world, there is supposed to be a delicate ratio of administrative costs/program fees/fundraising costs deemed "attractive" to donors. Pulling money from programs to fund staff upsets the "healthy ratio" and makes an organization appear top heavy.

But, I argue, if a staff member who is fully funded is also the most talented, most committed, most well-educated and experienced employee, aren't they worth fully funding? And, furthermore, doesn't the quality of their labor, the fact that the work they do to serve the mission also itself fulfill the mission?

And so, otherwise, why is it appropriate to serve one disadvantaged community all while putting another community at a disadvantage?

These are things I do not understand about my sector. But I'm going to work against this counterproductive philosophy whenever I can.


  1. You are entirely right in this.

  2. Posts like this encapsulate the reasons I just adore you, my dear.

    This argument has been used for many female-dominated fields for some time now (social work, k-12 education), that even though it's paid less, the inherent importance of said job should psychologically compensate for the lack of compensation.

    In all honesty, I don't mind making less than my corporate peers if I'm making a truly livable wage--but so many non-profit folks I know make in the 20s/low 30s after years of dedication to an organization performing jobs that demand highly skilled professionals.

    That's not getting paid less than your corporate peers, that's exploitation.


  3. I agree with you here Charlie.

    The same argument could be made for community clinic healthcare, where we get paid less, to work harder, all for the sake of our mission. For docs its definitely still a living wage. But for support staff, it can be dicey.

    Still, the "non-profit" community clinic world is where I'd rather work.

  4. I think you are right, up to a point.

    I think it would be irresponsible for the head of a non-profit to make Fortune-500-CEO-level wages when they could take less than that and let the rest go into the work of the non-prof. I don't think I, as a middle-class-ish person who likes to donate to good causes when I can, would be comfortable giving to that organization if I thought most of my donation was going to fund somebody's multiple Lexuseseses.

    But I think it is entirely appropriate, and should be considered necessary, for non-prof folks to make more than just "enough to get by." It's absurd, for example, that someone working in arts management often doesn't make enough to buy books, go to concerts, add original art to their home -- and is often expected to put on an expensive (-looking) suit and hobnob with rich donors in the evenings, nibbling on cute little appetizery things and trying to make the rich donors forget about the class disparity (if they were aware of it to start with).

    The library world has a similar problem. I think the comment above about female-dominated fields is right on target, sadly.

  5. This is a great post!

    Additionally.. the other issue that you didn't mention is how Executive Directors often make 6 figure salaries, when the bottom paid salary person makes barely enough to live.
    I take it they don't love the cause as much as the bottom person since they need the top heavy salary ranges to continue working.

  6. One of my dearest friends is a nonprofit long-timer, and I think you put this very well. Too many nonprofit organizations take their employees for granted and end up with second-rate employees for it. The good ones shouldn't be made to seem second rate. Well written.

  7. Well said, Charlie.

    My argument would be that this problem stems most directly from systemic shortcomings inherent in a large, post-industrial capitalist economy, and is exacerbated by the fact that, in America, no one can talk about democratic socialism in polite conversation.

    To put it more plainly: non-profit organizations (and community clinics, underpaid teachers, etc.) wouldn't be such a felt need if everything else weren't so ravenously for-profit.

    Anyway. Very nice post, my friend.

  8. Well, I don't think this phenomenon is limited to the nonprofit sector.

    Especially, maybe, the disparity between executive salaries and those at the bottom levels of production is more a universal.

    Perhaps this is just magnified in nonprofits, where altruism or magnanimity aren't professional liabilities. Rather, they're employment prerequisites with the downside of personal earnings sacrifices (as the same personality trait opens a channel of exploitation).

    But yeah, clearly paying employees what they're worth shouldn't be an obstacle for nonprofits—it should draw talent as in the conventional sense. One would think this'd be beneficial, but I'm not so sure most modern corporate models are structured to draw top talent at all levels.

    Sadly, I think this is the post-industrial model—hiring compromises and outsourcing at lower levels and golden parachutes up top. Probably not the most efficient system (or most profitable on an organizational level: see backsourcing and turnover), but for the bureaucratic professionals at the top, it may be the most immediately profitable.

    And they, the exploitative individuals, generally have the authority and moxie to call the and enjoy the shots.

  9. Thanks for writing this. I have worked as a development professional for 11 years in various non profits and this argument incites me!

    I think you are correct to some degree, but I also think you can't look at all non profits as equal.

    There are so many different kinds of non profits: direct service, grass roots, entrepreneurial, old school socialite like the Symphony - some are excruciatingly overpaid for what they do like the symphony and employees of community foundations, for example - and some are paid nothing for what they do. These would be the direct service and grassroots orgs.

    I think in the case of grassroots and direct service orgs, frankly, there is not enough capacity and infrastructure to pay employees a livable wage - that doesn't make it right. But I don't think you can blame the little orgs. You can blame government contracts which expect a tremendous amount of work compared with the funding that comes a long with it and you can blame big foundations, who, in my opinion have all mired themselves in such a dismal application process that it half the time isn't even worth the effort to apply.

    This is the shame of the philanthropic world and in many ways conversations like this which target the little non profits for not paying a livable wage should really be criticizing how poorly these big foundations and government grantmaking bodies function, and how little their money actually does in communities.

    I think what needs to be done is larger grantmaking bodies (like community foundations and government agencies who are notoriously wasteful of their myriad assets and resources) have to teach leaders of these smaller non profits how to build a better org (by giving them money and training them, both in how to collaborate to alleviate some of the program needs and how to build individual donor pools so they do not have to rely so much on grants), so that they can be in a position to raise money, so they can be in a position to pay employees.

    I disagree with your idea that donors want to see a perfect (read, unequal) "balance" between expenses and salaries - donors want to see that your programs are successful, and that you aren't going to tank next year and waste their investment - that is, individual donors.

  10. Bravo, Charlie. I have a friend who is one of the most dynamic, organized, passionate members of the arts community here. Her programs are funded by the state and local government. Last year, she had a budget proposal of $12,000 for a full-time assistant. She turned in a budget giving herself a $12,000 raise instead. (Keep in mind that this is a woman who has single-handedly created a museum and an arts center for the community, who staffs visiting artists in the schools on a no-cost basis, who provides free community arts classes for children and adults, and who alternates shows of local students' work with known area artists, who has a degree in art history and many years of working in art galleries).

    You should have heard the furor! Her calm response: "I've apparently been doing the work of two people for 10 years. I think it's time I earned the living wage of one."

    Yep. She received her raise, which amounts to every adult in our town giving up one cup of coffee at McDonalds for a year.