Is it CRAZY to Expect to Get Reasonable Pay at a Nonprofit?

imageI’m excited about this post; I’ve been thinking about coming home and writing this all day. In a lot of ways, this post will be a follow-up to yesterday’s post about some of the major hurdles for international fundraising, but it approaches the topic from the opposite direction.

In Nonprofitlandia, one of the things that is fascinating to me is the expectation for “every dollar” or “97 cents on the dollar” to go to “the program”. A donor wants to know that the donation they make is doing the most good, and they want to hear “Yes Mr Donor, we work very hard to keep our overhead costs low so that 95 cents on the dollar of your donation goes to support such-and-such.” I’m about to ask what will probably be a controversial question, so hear me out before you start casting stones. Does keeping overhead costs low translate into “doing the most good?”

The short answer? Sometimes. The long answer? Well, let’s use our imagination for a moment…

Let’s say that we stumbled across the diary of one of those typical activisty types. You know the ones I’m talking about, where one day they’re posting on Facebook about cute kittens and then they watch a video about human rights abuses in North Korea or Burma or Congo and all of a sudden you’re tagged in all of these posts about Conflict Minerals and your cell phone is the antichrist and you’re just wondering what the heck is going on. Anyway, let’s pretend we’ve stumbled across their diary and it goes something like this:

Month One:
Found out about conflict diamonds today! OMG, I can’t believe that these exist! They’re like, totally, bad. I can’t wait to tell all of my friends about this and use social media to light a fire. We can change the world!

Month Three:
I’ve been spending a lot of my time researching this issue; I still can’t believe that something as simple as cell phones or computers can be the cause of so much violence in some of these countries. I still talk to my friends about it, although most of them aren’t as interested as I wish they were. A few of my best friends are though! We threw a fundraiser last week and raised nearly a thousand dollars! I’ve never really felt alive like I do when I’m volunteering my time for this cause. I’m considering changing my major to something like political science so that I can maybe even make a career out of this.

Month 6:
Well, I submitted an application to be a summer intern at the Such-And-Such Organization last month, thinking that maybe I could get some experience working in the nonprofit sector. I really didn’t even think they would look at my resume, but they picked me!! So, I’m getting packed tonight and am getting on a plane for LA tomorrow. It’s an unpaid internship and I’ll be doing mostly administrative work, but I’ll be rubbing shoulders with the movers & shakers on this cause and I think it’ll be an awesome experience. See everyone in late August!!

Month 8:
The organization I’m working for asked me to stay on through the fall. It was a tough decision because I’ve already gone through most of my savings and I’d hate to have to ask my parents for help. But, I really really love the organization and I’m getting such good experience! The position that they offered me is going to be so exciting! It’s working directly with supporters to help manage an awareness campaign for Conflict Minerals! I’m going to get so much great experience and, who knows, after this fall if I really impress them, they may just go ahead and offer me a paid position. I’ll be sending out letters for support to my friends and family, and hopefully will be able to turn around my financial situation pretty soon. That’s what it’s all about though, right? Sacrificing so you can help those in need! In fact, if everyone lived like this the world would probably be a much better place!

Month 11:
Wow! We had a wildly successful awareness campaign and we’re going to be following up with a fundraising campaign to help provide education and shelter for children in the Congo affected by Conflict Minerals. They obviously asked me to hang around for this campaign too and I agreed. I did, however, ask for some compensation. Just enough to buy food, you know? I mean, I’m valuable enough to at least not LOSE MONEY working full time, right? They agreed, and for the next 6 months, I’ll be getting a $200 per month stipend! I know, pretty great, huh? I’ll still need to send out some support letters but with the stipend I’m not really worried.

Month 13:
Halfway through the fundraising campaign and I am sick as a dog! I had to miss work a couple of days because I’m running a ridiculously high fever and everybody told me that I needed to go to the hospital, but I don’t currently have insurance so I toughed it out. I’m feeling better now though, so that’s good. The fundraising campaign is going okay, but I’m hoping that it will pick up as it gets closer to the end.

Month 15:
The fundraising campaign ended yesterday. We ended up just short of our goal, but, let’s be honest, we were being really ambitious. I’ve got some hard decisions in front of me; I’ve been here for just over a year and I think that I could possibly have a spot on staff one of these days, but several of my friends and fellow interns have been around here for years! One guy has been an intern for 7 years!! I don’t think I have that kind of dedication. I think I’ll just be straight and ask them what my chances moving into a staff position would be.

Month 16:
I have good news and I have bad news. The bad news is that they told me that my chances of joining staff were slim. With the fundraising effort less effective than it needed to be, they were actually looking at cutting expenses and, if anything, would be downsizing in the staff department. However, they told me, honestly (which I appreciated) that I’d learned about all that I could there and they told me that they would make some phone calls to see about finding me a place to work. Which leads us to the good news!!! I’m going to be moving to Washington DC to work on the advocacy front. There’s a bill that will be introduced this session of Congress and we’ll need to mobilize our supporters to support this legislation. I don’t know very much about this, but I’m willing to learn and I’m familiar with most of the supporters around the country so I’m a great fit for helping this new organization plan rallies and meetings and such. They’re even going to pay me $500/month, but I’ll have to find my own housing so it’ll still be tight but if I can keep my living expenses low I should do alright.

Month 25:
Back home. It’s been a whirlwind, and it was a shame to leave but I had to return to real life. I finally ran out of money and my parents weren’t able to support me this time so at the end of my internship we parted ways. I’m not sure who’s hiring or what I’m going to do, but hopefully I can find some kind of local organization or something to work for here. I’ll keep you updated as I find out what’s out there. I might even go back to college, who knows?

P.S. At the airport, I passed a girl coming out of the door with a t-shirt on of my organization. I imagined briefly that she’s starting where I was 2 years ago, eager and optimistic about her new internship. Maybe I’m a little jaded. So what? I guess we all get replaced eventually, right?


Month 49:

I’ve progressed pretty rapidly in my job. Turns out that the skills that I learned while working for those nonprofits really do translate into real world experience. Employers were looking for someone like me, and they’re willing to pay me well, which honestly, is something I’m not really used to. Some days, I feel like I’m making a difference and other days I don’t. Part of me wonders if I would have stayed at the nonprofit what position I would be in, where the organization would be, and where the cause would be. I guess we’ll never know.

I hear you asking yourself, “Why the heck is RS telling me this? What does it have to do with ANYTHING?” I see your good question, and I raise you one (well, three…): “What if nonprofits cut out the cycle of training a new person, running them ragged, and letting them go? What if nonprofits took the time, took the energy, took the resources, to train somebody right and to pay them well so that they didn’t have the burden of financial stress on them and so, ultimately, they wouldn’t have to move back into their parent’s basements about the time that they became useful? What if nonprofits realized that sometimes your money DOES THE MOST GOOD when it is invested in people-attracting them, keeping them, and motivating them to perform at their best.

What are your thoughts? Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments!


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