Why we should all mind that nonprofit professionals get paid

Photo by Karen Lau on Unsplash

Yesterday, David Gelles published a story in the New York Times about the nonprofit charity: water’s new program, The Pool, that allows Silicon Valley’s elite to donate stock to the WASH darling, so that its employees can benefit from a fraction of a benevolent techy’s equity. It’s an innovative experiment that will likely have some hurdles in implementation but ultimately could prove a valuable learning for the social sector.

But there’s a much bigger story in Gelles’ article.

It is, in Gelles’ own words, the cavalier presumption: “Never mind that the point of philanthropy is to give to others, not make for yourself.”

The point of Uber is to get people in cars from point A to point B. But I think it’s safe to assume that most people in their HQ also take home a pretty good paycheck for themselves.

The “nonprofit sector” (if we’re sticking to dated tropes) employs about 10% of the US private workforce — people who have to pay rent, have families, buy groceries, and, like most, would like to have enough cushion to cover an emergency or take a modest vacation. These “do-gooders” are the fibers of an increasingly important social safety net that keeps this country and communities around the world from hitting the ground when other structures (governments, economies) bend or break.

They are accountants, researchers, community organizers, public health experts, IT support, environmentalists, coders, therapists, investment officers, animal welfare technicians, lawyers — I could go on. The point is, the nonprofit sector is as broad and varied as the corporate sector. The difference is the work they and their employers do ultimately and deliberately serve the public good. For the most part, they have the same experiences and education as their for-profit counterparts, and when required, highly-specialized training. Volunteers are absolutely critical to the health of any community. But Spring break volunteers aren’t designing conflict mitigation programs in Southeast Asia.

Should these individuals who have decided to use their skills for good not be paid for their work? Or be paid significantly less? Should we as a society continue to build incentives into industries with net-neutral or even net-negative social and environmental impacts, while expecting highly-skilled social sector professionals that are doing critical work, to volunteer or live paycheck-to-paycheck?

I’d think we’d want the best and brightest working on the most pressing global issues — for all of our benefits and for the benefit of generations to come. And that’s the problem with assuming that to work in the social sector, you can’t “make for yourself.”

Those who want to work in social impact, aren’t immune to the realities of a mortgage and student loans. To create a way for them to opt-in to spending 40 hours a week on social good, there needs to be a recalibration in how we think about social impact work — because this work is not a-nice-to-have, it’s a need-to-have. We should want a high-quality pipeline of skilled problem solvers pumping into the social sector if we want to reach the Sustainable Development Goals, curb climate change, end slavery, and tackle the growing wealth inequality. While an increasing number of corporations are using their weight to tackle these behemoths and forming impact-focused partnerships, it’s the social sector that has and will continue to lead the charge.

The work that needs to be done to make progress in domestic and global crises is too important to presume that if you want to do good, you have to be ready to sacrifice. For most people, that’s not an option. Especially those coming from underserved communities; people whose leadership we ought to be recruiting for and relying on in many contexts. To ask people to enter the social sector and expect them to sacrifice their needs and the needs of their families preclude valuable voices and minds from where we need them most. And that hurts everyone.

This isn’t about a clean water organization, sincerely generous Silicon Valley donors, or even Gelles’ article. The point I’m trying to make is that we need to fervently confront the notion that if you spend your time on good, you can’t “make for yourself.” It’s time to dissolve the imagined wall between professionals that work in the corporate sector and those that work in the social sector. Unless we conceptually reposition the social sector, we will continue to shred the safety net we so desperately need by de-incentivizing and undervaluing work that has positive social and environmental outputs.

That we should mind.