Tag Archives: San Francisco

Why are so many non-profit salaries so low?

Homeless person, with shopping cart

a nonprofit mobile office?

Dan Pallotta’s book Uncharitable continues to move me; it is changing my views of where the nonprofit sector needs to go. In the first portion of the book, Pallotta delves into the origins of strongly held American beliefs about the nonprofit pay. He writes:

“In Puritan times, people gave directly to the needy, without using brokers. This is no longer possible on any meaningful scale. Charity is no longer an exchange between the non-needy and the needy. It is an exchange between the non-needy (donors) and the non-needy (the charity workforce) to provide services to the needy. Is an exchange between equals to help the needy. It is no different than the exchange between those who buy cars and those who make them. A law that was meant to provide an economic discount to the needy in face-to-face transactions is now improperly exploited to expect nonprofit sector workers to provide wage discounts to wealthy donors who are in essence buying a service from them, which they use their labor to provide. The donating public expects the nonprofit workforce to extend to it the law of mercy. But it was never intended that such a law be applied in this way.”

This is a big aha for me—over time two distinct dynamics have become confused as one. The first dynamic is the wealthy giving charity to the needy. The second dynamic is nonprofit employees (the non-needy but non-wealthy) working at below market rates, thus also giving charity to the needy. But in doing so, the nonprofit employees are in a way also giving charity to the *wealthy* as well, in the form of their under-priced labor. And this practice of low nonprofit wages is not just common, it’s widely considered to be the only acceptable situation.

I’ll never forget attending a mixer of the San Francisco chapter of YNPN and overhearing several discussions of nonprofit employees who have no health insurance. They were talking about where to go in the city to find free health clinics! These are smart, young, energetic people who could easily find work in the for-profit arena. They are living lives of poverty in order to work for nonprofits. It just doesn’t seem right to me, it doesn’t seem sustainable, and I absolutely can’t see this being good for the field. It doesn’t take much imagination to see many of these young people going and finding “real jobs” and only doing social benefit work on weekends. What a loss for the field.

So what’s going on here? My guess is that there are two factors in play.

One factor is that there are a few markets for the kinds of social benefit that nonprofits generate. These are organizations that are creating real value to society, but which society isn’t currently willing to pay for, at least not proactively. It’s a lot easier to get money to build prisons than it is to build programs that prevent the need for more prisons. I hope that over time as the underlying math and science of how societies work is better understood, the value of the right types of social investments will become obvious and uncontroversial.

The second factor is that there are huge discrepancies in the nonprofit world when it comes to pay—people at some organizations get paid extremely well, even if the impact isn’t clear. My guess is that this links to the relative lack of market mechanisms in the nonprofit world, where pay and impact can be worlds apart.

I wonder: if we can better understand and measure impact, and if we can create markets for that impact, can we find ways to fairly compensate talented individuals for the positive social impacts that they drive?

Wondering how to find your place in the non-profit world?

Colored flags flying high outside the Moscone ...

Image via Wikipedia

One of my favorite non-profit industry events of the year is just around the corner: San Francisco Board Match on Tuesday January 11, 2011 from 4pm to 7pm. Over 100 organizations set up tables in Moscone West to recruit board members.

I know you might be thinking, “Do I really want to join a board?” Don’t fret–this is an ideal event to survey what’s happening locally in the non-profit scene, talk to the leaders of many great organizations, and get a great sense for which organizations excite you.

I look at the board recruiting theme as just the raison d’être for the event. In the bigger picture you’re getting much of the local non-profit scene, all in one room, for free. And besides, you might be surprised at the orgs that catch your fancy, and where that might lead.

Last year I “fell in love” with an arts org (who, me?!) called Leap…Imagination in Learning and ended up not on their board, but as a volunteer classroom assistant to a number of artists doing programs at an elementary school near my place. It’s been a very joyful experience.

I also came upon a group called At the Crossroads that gives homeless folks support and encouragement; even though I haven’t volunteered with them, I’m still reading their emails a year later and will almost certainly contribute in some way soon. Even more importantly, following them helped me realize my deep passion for helping unlock potential in disadvantaged people. So much more  than I thought I’d get from Board Match!

And finally, I came across a startup nonprofit that organizes high school students towards green projects, started by a former eBay guy. I recall they had lots of energy, great ideas, drive, but at the time I wasn’t focused on that space. However, just the other day I got an idea for a way to make a meaningful reduction in the amount of junk mail that is sent to apartments and post-office boxes. And although I don’t have the bandwidth personally to drive this, now I know a great org which may just want to take my idea and run with it.

Here’s the point: amazing things can happen when a broad group of non-profit orgs are all placed in one big exhibition hall for several hours. You may be interested in board service, you may be looking for orgs to donate to, or you may just be generally called to explore the non-profit space. Whatever it is, just attend.

  • Board Match SF is free but advance registration is appreciated. You can also just drop-in on the day of.
  • Get there early. There are so many great orgs to talk to tha at you’ll need all the time you can get. I’ll be there when the doors open at 4PM.

Have a great Board Match 2011!