Aug 23, 2008

Proletariat Nonprofit Blues

As I prepare to enter the nonprofit world full-time again in the next couple of weeks, I'm reminded that nonprofit organizations have a tendency to undervalue and underpay their staff. At a former employer in the Asian American community, I had a starting salary of $20K out of college. It was my first gig, and I was thankful to have a job, but that's pennies in NYC, even back then. And I was told that there was nothing else they could squeeze out. Honestly, I find that hard to believe - adding even $500 as a "bonus" makes a big difference, at least in the valuation of your work.

Nonprofit staff work like crazy, get paid shit, and don't get the additional perks that firms and other places dish out. I remember what it was like. I tried, when I was in a position of management, to give those little perks to my staff (and the staff of other community nonprofits) when I could. Getting free tickets through board members and other friends of the organizations, trying to give certain unexpected times off or mid-day mixing it up (we had the whole staff go out to see a movie premiere in the middle of the day once).

Regardless, I've been in the field for a long time, and re-entering it now, I'm finding that salaries have not changed much since then. It's kind of sobering. This issue is much more pronounced for public interest lawyers (though I think organizers have it even worse). A new staff attorney at a non-profit in NYC may make something between $35K and $40K. The starting first year associate in an NYC firm will start, off the bat, with a cool $165K. The disparity is incredibly grim. And the American Bar Association isn't doing much to address it.

At least for social workers, the National Association of Social Workers has lobbied to create a base starting salary that groups have to meet to gain accreditation (I think). Something like that from the private bar would really help public interest lawyers out. But it's just not what is done. So as the cost of living continues to rise, we're forced to smile and say nothing (well, I guess we can say something, but there isn't much hope for change).

More broadly, I'm concerned that low salaries directly affect retention and internal development of leadership with the new generation of community workers. If you aren't making a lot, how long can you stay in the work, particularly with the pressures pushing against affordable housing and cost of living in city centers where most of these jobs remain?

Add to this what I've heard about the new generation (take it as you will, since it's from other older fogies like me): younger folks tend to be more impatient, and possess a sense of entitlement that gets in the way of taking their lumps or playing the game until the right opportunity arises... and I don't know what the leadership for Asian American nonprofits will look like in the future.

I certainly don't think it will come from people who were committed full-time to the "movement." Maybe that's not a bad thing - moving us away from that tendency towards the professionalization of movement work ("I need the MPP from Harvard to do community policy work"). Then again, it could mean that people who don't have the field experience or feel, could move in from the professional schools to take over (though these low wages may prohibit that from happening). What do you think?


Desi Italiana said...

Yaar, I made a little over $13K. Out of grad school with a Masters!

I completely understand this post. Right now, I am job-hunting, and to be honest, I have been tempted to 'sell out' several times. Why? Because I have a $60 K student loan debt, and I'm simply tired of working shitty jobs, long, long hours (including weekends), and deferring my student loans. There are times that I feel like I just can't do the non-profit jig anymore.

Which is a shame. It's ironic that the very people who could benefit from non-profit work can't work full-time in that field-- where they could bring much knowledge, passion, drive, and understanding. The only people who could afford to dance the non-profit dance are those who come from relatively privileged backgrounds. And I don't want to get into what I've seen and heard in these non-profit circles where people are supposedly 'progressive' and whatnot. Not all are like this, obviously.

I think it is already professionalized. I also think it is ridiculous that some of these non-profit folks want people with 5-10 years of professional experience with advanced degrees, and then pay them shit wages. The answer is that they don't have any money to pay higher wages. Funny-- money always appear out of nowhere when there are huge catering lunches for a board meeting.

And another thing about public interest law--- I was seriously contemplating it, but the thought of taking out three years of more student loans dampened that dream. Maybe I just take student loans too seriously, but judging from my tendencies whereby I choose jobs based more on principle than on money-making, I'll never be able to pay them off. It's a travesty that this country gets away with an educational system where it costs loads of money to get knowledge, and that universities and private lenders get away with milking people who want to get degrees. Cost of education too high + working in a field where you want to work for the larger good but you hardly get paid= Forget it.

Sorry for the rant :)

Rage said...

Desi Italiana,

Thanks for the rant (I think we need to shake things up more to let the powers that be know that this is b.s.).

I think the system is stacked against people who are trying to do this work for the right reasons. If you're into career advancement as a "non-profit professional" that means that you're also not going to stir up questions about funding and priorities. You'll play your part (or dance the jig, as you rightly put it) and you'll get stuck in this game.

I think foundations and other grantmakers are largely to blame - the way they frown on "overhead" and focus on quantitative results in "service" over the development of power or the long-term ability of communities to fight back makes it harder for traditional non-profits to pay people what they're worth.

Used to be a time when people could live in or near the communities that they wanted to work with - in the major metropolitan areas, this is becoming more and more difficult. We're still fortunate enough to be able to work the system, but I know I'm not plugged into the community networks that still make local living, although in less and less palatable conditions, still possible for working immigrant families (subdivisions of apartments, basement conversions).

KC, who runs the excellent Cheddar Box blog and visits here often, has posted a good reference on this subject: The Revolution will Not Be Funded" about the non-profit-industrial complex. He also maintains another blog, the Cheddar Path, which looks at alternative ways to push movement work forward - entrepreneurship, micro-finance, and a range of other options that break from the traditional work-for-shit-and-inch-along mold. I definitely feel like I'd be okay making what I'll be making if I didn't have to deal with all the b.s. that comes along with it (politics, centrism, don't-rock-the-boatisms) in many non-profit settings.

There's gotta be another way!

Don't lose hope, and keep dropping by!

Rage said...

One more thing, though, on the subject of public interest law - there are schools around the country, and I think more are popping up, that offer full scholarships to people who commit to public interest jobs in the years after graduation. Gates set up a nice one at the University of Washington law school, the University of DC and American University have one, and I think that NYU, CUNY Law, and a few others also sport these programs. They have their own issues, but it definitely helps with the whole "I have $120K in loans and you want to pay me how much?" issue.

The management issues remain, however.