Are Nonprofits Hypocritical?
In every way they can, nonprofits make the "ask." The message is: We help people. We mend the holes in the social safety net. We educate. We feed. We shelter. We care.
But do they? Or do they, by the nature of their funding, contribute a bit to the tearing of that net?
Nonprofits are notorious for paying low salaries. I’ve even heard it said that low salaries are somehow required, a kind of “sacrifice” that those who want to do good must make to show their sincerity about helping others. I guess the theory is that they get a “feel good” bonus. That emphasis on the minimum is carried over to benefits—health care, vacations—and working conditions.
If your employees aren’t making a living wage, don’t have health care and work in substandard conditions with outdated equipment, are you really doing good?
For me, the answer is a clear: “No, you aren’t!”
No matter how many homeless people you shelter each night, if your staff is living paycheck to paycheck at risk for becoming homeless themselves, you are just shifting the burden of misery.
In fairness, nonprofits aren’t the ones at fault. The donors, the foundations, the government agencies and the funders should be ashamed of themselves for expecting those who work at nonprofits to make such enormous sacrifices. They didn’t take vows of poverty. They have families, too. They need the proper equipment and decent workspaces to do their jobs. Why do we show so little respect? Why are we so stingy?
Would you work in an office below street level, with no window and desks so close together in the gloom that you must turn sideways to pass… and very carefully, too, because the desks are piled high with file folders that have no file cabinets to call home. If a client can’t make the stairs—likely because you are, after all, a social worker who helps people with disabilities—you meet outside on the sidewalk.
That’s not an imaginary scenario. That’s reality for a New York agency that prevents evictions, reunites families, gets health care and jobs for working class people and feeds hundreds. The social workers crammed into that dungeon work in four languages to change lives. They are dedicated, smart and hard-working and go above and beyond.
Yet, they are stuck in that unacceptable environment because donors, funders and government agencies do not want to pay for “overhead.” They’ll pay for the social worker’s salary—if it is minimal—but not for her desk, phone, computer, health care, training or rent for a decent workspace.
It’s not an U.S. problem; it’s a nonprofit problem. In India, the teachers at a program in the slums in Mumbai were becoming resentful. The director realized that the opportunities his organization were giving the children in the slum were completely out of reach financially for the children of the teachers… including the quality of the education. He couldn’t raise salaries, so he invited the teachers’ children to come to his school.
What exactly is overhead? Is the computer overhead if it’s used to write a grant application, but labeled “program cost” if used to enter a caseworker’s notes? What about the electric bill, the water bill, transportation reimbursement, new file cabinets? Are these overhead or program services? Is the development director overhead or a “legitimate” expense because without fundraising, the programs can’t continue?
Nonprofits are cringing when they hear about the $15-per-hour minimum wage. As well they should. They are already operating on an unrealistic budget. But they shouldn’t have to. Funders, foundations and donors should increase their support in order to make that possible.
Howard Adam Levy is the president of Red Rooster Group, a brand strategy firm that promotes nonprofits, governments, and foundations. For the past 20 years, Howard has assisted countless organizations to launch new brands, clarify their messages, gain visibility and raise hundreds of millions of dollars.