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Nonprofit Doesn’t Mean No Profit, but My Paycheck Begs to Differ

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Of course it was raining the day everything went to shit.

I was several months into a year of service with AmeriCorps, a stipended volunteer program, and I’d come to realize the work was not what the job description had advertised. It was a multifaceted program, part environmental restoration, part environmental science education.

Our service ended up being heavy on the restoration, which for health reasons, was less than my ideal work experience. In a weird way, it ended up being fortunate when my roommate sat on my lap and dislocated my knee because it then meant I was taken off of restoration for a couple of months to heal.

The day I returned to the field, it was a balmy 40 degrees Fahrenheit (sarcasm. I’m a Florida girl, and while 40 may be a nice January temperature for some, I am not one of those people). My coworkers and I threw on our waders and wandered into the thigh-high waters of a wetland in order to cut back an invasive plant. My fingers hurt from the cold, my knee brace grew tight as the joint swelled, and as I mentioned up top, it was raining.

Water dripped into my eyes and if it dripped out of my eyes as well, no one could tell.

Everyone could tell when we made it back to our office and I had an absolute breakdown with our AmeriCorps supervisor. This was more than a “oh, I had a bad day” cry. It was a full-blown crisis at the thought of remaining with the program for another five months. I was cold, and I was in pain, but I was also embarrassed that I couldn’t physically keep up with my peers, and jealous of the physical abilities I lacked. I didn’t want to admit my own limitations and I pushed myself farther than I should have, farther even than some of my more able-bodied peers because I felt like I had something to prove.

I wouldn’t quit. Not only because I’m ridiculously stubborn, but because it would have been a financial nightmare. My housing was provided through this program. My health insurance was provided through this program, and I desperately needed that insurance to cover the ER trip and physical therapy for my knee. Several of my immediate family members were out of work from the pandemic and I didn’t want to add to the financial strain back home.

While my financial strain would have been worse without the AmeriCorps program, it was not good with it. Because we were considered volunteers paid by stipend, we made less than minimum wage. One of the first things our supervisor walked us through at the beginning of the program was signing up for SNAP.

So I broke down. I cried to the point where I couldn’t even explain to my supervisor why I was crying, my throat was so clogged by tears. I cried because of my limitations, and I cried because I was hundreds of miles from home, and I cried because my mental health isn’t good on a good today, and that day was not a good day.

All things considered, I wasn’t being paid to help the environment or the students we interacted with over Zoom. I was paying to do it.

This is not only a tale of woes brought on by unexpected injury or a global pandemic. It is also a reflection of the status quo for many who enter the workforce in the nonprofit sector.

Nonprofit organizations are businesses that serve the public good. Also referred to as non-business entities, these groups are organized for purposes outside of making a profit and do not distribute profit to anything outside of furthering the organization’s interests.

As such, charities fall into the nonprofit category, but so do public entities like hospitals and universities. This fact may explain the confusion surrounding a seemingly straightforward question: are employees at nonprofit organizations at a wage disadvantage compared to equally qualified peers at for-profit companies?

Some studies suggest that there is no wage gap between nonprofit and for-profit employment, while others have actually shown a wage advantage for nonprofit employees. Because nonprofit organizations do not retain profits to the organization, managers may have an incentive to distribute returns to workers in the form of higher compensation.

However, some studies suggest a wage disadvantage for employees in the nonprofit sector. Nonprofit business models tend not to be designed to maximize profit so having higher returns is unlikely. Also, the altruistic nature of people drawn to this line of work may result in a willingness to accept lower wages so that more funds can go into the mission of the organization.

Because of the service-oriented nature of nonprofits, nonprofit employees often work intimately with disadvantaged populations. This work can be emotionally draining. Coupled with work-related stressors and inadequate time and resources for recovery, it’s no wonder burnout is high in the nonprofit sector. One survey of nonprofit employees showed that 45% of respondents were likely to quit their jobs before 2025, citing low wages, a lack of career advancement opportunities, and poor management as the most common reasons.

Unfortunately, as much as we may wish otherwise, work-related stressors are only one part of the picture when visualizing overall employee health. Employees do not exist in a vacuum; they may also face stressors at home, illness, loss, and financial hardship. Who offers help to those who are helping? How can employees in the nonprofit sector be better supported?

I hate to say it… but… money.

Money would be nice.

While happiness cannot be bought, financial insecurity is associated with poor mental health outcomes. Anxiety surrounding money can lead to disrupted sleep and put pressure on relationships. This anxiety becomes heightened if you are unable to afford the things needed to stay well, including physical and mental health care.

Of international nonprofits, 29% of staff members are volunteers. This can include stipend work, like in the case of the AmeriCorps program I participated in, but many volunteers don’t even receive this much. I’ve personally participated in unpaid internships with nonprofit organizations, and remember the surprise I felt the first time a nonprofit internship offered me hourly pay.

Many nonprofits take advantage of benefit from free or inexpensive labor, and it’s hard to blame them for doing so when they’re pulling from a limited staff fund. Part of the way we as a society can better support nonprofit employees is by improving awareness of the importance of employee salary and overhead costs in donation drives. Oftentimes when donors interact with nonprofits, these areas get overlooked or are funded by grants instead of donations. Donors want to see their money going “directly” to the cause, paying for food for a food bank instead of the electricity for a food bank’s building, for example. Stipulations on where donor funding can be spent help hold nonprofits accountable, but can also result in employees being undercompensated for their work.

Another way to support nonprofit employees is to encourage positive workplace cultures, especially surrounding the separation of work and home. Nonprofit management can help their employees by setting clear expectations around working hours and offering compensation for overtime if these working hours cannot be maintained. Such compensation could be monetary, or it could come in the form of time off later on when the workload decreases. Employees’ time is valuable, and it is important for managers to show that they understand this fact to decrease employee burnout.

And, never to be overstated, access to affordable mental health care is invaluable in supporting employees in the nonprofit sector. For well-funded nonprofits, this may mean investing in an employee assistance program (EAP) offering free short-term counseling and referrals. Smaller nonprofits could support their employees by providing them with information about mental health care offered on a sliding scale in their area.

All companies, nonprofit and for-profit, large and small, can benefit from recognizing the unfortunate fact that many medical offices follow a typical 9 a.m to 5 p.m., Monday-Friday workweek, which can make it difficult for employees to schedule appointments. Providing flexibility surrounding appointments can go a long way in making health more accessible.

As a society, we are paying for the lack of pay we offer to employees in the nonprofit sector. Mental health is not determined by pay, but it is influenced by it, even for those altruistic members of our society drawn toward working for the public good.

Maybe especially for those people.

Getty image by Jacob Lund

Originally published: August 15, 2023
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