Is Your Progressive Nonprofit Committing the Sins of the Capitalism You Swore to Destroy?

After reading the Atlantic’s recent piece on overworked nonprofit employees, all of my disenchantment and cynicism reared forth. Nonprofits fulfill needs not met by private industry or representative democracy, but they also mirror bad habits from both sectors. Nonprofits also draw some of the most passionate, empathic, visionary people I’ve ever met. They aren’t afraid to take on systemic failures and oppression to dream of a Nordic-style socialist paradise. Which is why it’s so depressing to hear of, witness, and experience some of the worst tenets of unregulated capitalism creep into their daily operations.

What do I mean by this? I mean that some ostensibly progressive and service-oriented organizations perpetuate gender, racial, and income inequality among their employees; they manipulate legal loopholes to underpay their staff; and they lean on their mission and results to avoid conversations about their own internal failure to live up to their professed values. If you know people in nonprofits, you know this shit goes on. And you know it’s communicated in similar ways across organizations. How often have you heard…

“This internship is unpaid.”

Unpaid internships privilege well-to-do young people who have the means to sustain themselves without wages. I don’t think a kid should make a habit of working for free no matter how rich their parents are, but that’s just me. Failing to pay interns devalues your entry-level employees and virtually guarantees any low-income kids who make it in your door will be running themselves ragged to live all summer. Worse still are the unpaid internships completed for college credit, where a student pays their college for the privilege of working for your organization. Pay your interns.

“We need you to volunteer for this event.”
“Oh we just can’t make that person stop working, hahaha.”
“How late were you here last night? Hmm.”

Encouraging, allowing, or simply ignoring staff ‘volunteering’ off the clock is some McDonald’s-level bullshit. Surely you’ve read Fast Food Nation by now, right? Employees cannot ‘volunteer’ to do their job for their employer, no matter how desperately you need it, how noble your cause, or how willing the employee is. Failing to pay your employees for the work they do is wage theft. Shut it down.

“We pay him more than his female counterpart because he negotiated!”

As a hiring manager, you want to get the best value possible on your new hire, so you need to negotiate. But as a progressive leader, you know the wage gap persists and worse, that women are less likely to negotiate and more likely to be penalized for negotiating. What about this approach? A female friend recently received a job offer and the manager said, “Here is our offer. I assume there will be some negotiation.” Ta-daa, you have done the bare minimum for your new hire.

“No raises again this year.”

If your employees are not receiving a cost-of-living adjustment roughly in line with inflation from year to year, the value of their salaries decreases the longer they work for you. In places with high costs of living, stagnant salaries can chase your staff well beyond your city’s borders. Fundraising is beholden to plenty of external market forces, to be sure, but if you’re going on year after year without any adjustments, be prepared to pay for this stagnation in a new form — the cost of onboarding new staff.

“We won’t be able to stay in business if we have to pay our staff overtime!”

Call me cruel but… yes. If your budget is based on underpaying skilled professionals or misrepresenting the work of your junior staff so that you don’t have to compensate them fairly and within the bounds of the law for all of the hours they work, your model has always been fatally flawed.

“Ugh, they volunteer with their church?” “Women that age just get pregnant and leave anyway.” “We already have a [person of a racial or ethnic background].”

Hiring discrimination makes puppies cry. Don’t do it.

“You should feel lucky just to work here.”
Bonus version: “You should feel lucky just to work here. We are cutting a benefit that reduces the overall value of your compensation package.”

I hope you are an upstanding organization with a noble mission and a track record for success, but if the next sentence after “You’re lucky to work here” isn’t “and we are lucky to have you because you make our work possible,” you need to reconsider. Under no circumstances should your conversation with your employees sound like emotional abuse or PUA negging. This one is maybe less capitalistic and more bad human behavior.

What do we do?

Do, uh, do you guys think this is a good script for my job interviews?

Wait, let me start again.

The word “revolution” comes to mind….

Ok, ok. There’s this TED talk you should watch….

Look. Americans gave over $370 billion to charity in 2015 (a number which may or may not include the NFL, private universities, and other ‘nonprofits’ outside of our purview today). We are nowhere near a social safety net that eliminates the need for nonprofits, and even if we were, I would still make the same case for caring for your employees to ensure their health and the health of your organization. And also to not be a hypocrite, which I think is important.

I joke a lot that my dream job title right now is “Deputy Director of Thinking Things Through.” Nonprofits have so many leaders with vision and heart. They have subject-matter experts til the cows come home. But the best ones I know round out their triumvirates with a practical mind to ask questions like “Why do we do this?” “Are we effective?” and “How can we do our work better, forever?” (Anecdotally, this is probably one of a few reasons so many women at the MBA events I attend are from the nonprofit sector.)

Finally, I would suggest that we borrow one behavior from the big corporations of the world, and that is a white man’s sense of entitlement. Individual giving is growing. Social entrepreneurship and CSR are hot. You and your employees deserve to have enough resources to do the best work you possibly can. What’s your most audacious idea? What do you need to be a truly great organization?


2 thoughts on “Is Your Progressive Nonprofit Committing the Sins of the Capitalism You Swore to Destroy?

  1. It can be difficult for grant-based organizations to be nimble if they are hemmed into deliverables or processes that aren’t outcome or evidence based. Being flexible and adaptable to employee needs and skills are great indicators of successful non-profits (coming from someone who has only worked at non-profits).


  2. 100%. There is so much to be said about evidence and outcomes and who should decide if a nonprofit is succeeding and how do they decide what evidence counts. Perhaps I will mull that over on vacation and write about it later!


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