All pigs are created equal, but some pigs are more equal, and other pigs work for nonprofits where they aren’t paid the value of their labor.

I mentioned in class tonight that I get very concerned when I hear a nonprofit leader say something like, “I know we don’t pay our staff what they would earn in the for-profit world, but then again, they get to work in a job doing something they really love.”

And so it happened today that some such statement was made in a room full of conscientious, well-intentioned graduate students studying the world of public administration and nonprofit management, and my response, that it concerned me, sparked an enormous debate.

Well, debate might be exaggerating it. They were all on one side of the fence, and I the other. My position:

The entire nonprofit sector believes its own PR now, that making a lower salary than for-profit counterparts is not just how it is, it’s how it should be. But that’s not how it should be, because our employees are impassioned, loyal, talented, intelligent, committed to causes that others don’t even take time to notice. They better our schools, revamp our neighborhoods, fight for adequate health care, build houses, fund the arts, and on and on. These are critical duties.

And yet, any number of those talented people have turned their backs on higher pay to do something they love. They frequently work longer hours, put in more effort, take on additional duties, work outside their job description, mentor their peers—all because they want to.

And it is the nonprofit that benefits. The nonprofit not only earns back the salary shortage (in a sense), they also capitalize on the labor savings of employees who overextend themselves.

The man sitting next to me asked, “Do you believe, then, that we should take money away from programs to fund staff salaries?”

I said, “Absolutely.” He blanched. In the NPO world, there is supposed to be a delicate ratio of administrative costs/program fees/fundraising costs deemed “attractive” to donors. Pulling money from programs to fund staff upsets the “healthy ratio” and makes an organization appear top heavy.

But, I argue, if a staff member who is fully funded is also the most talented, most committed, most well-educated and experienced employee, aren’t they worth fully funding? And, furthermore, doesn’t the quality of their labor, the fact that the work they do to serve the mission also itself fulfill the mission?

And so, otherwise, why is it appropriate to serve one disadvantaged community all while putting another community at a disadvantage?

These are things I do not understand about my sector. But I’m going to work against this counterproductive philosophy whenever I can.

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