Urban legends and the non-profit world

Awhile back I saw an urban legend disguised as “PSA” of sorts making the Facebook rounds. It displayed the salaries of the executive directors of several major nonprofit agencies, such as The Red Cross and United Way. It was essentially shaming these directors for earning a certain amount of money and encouraging people to donate to agencies that give 100% of their donations to the people they serve. I later realized this little gem has been circulating on the internet for quite some time and there are plenty of sites to debunk it.

It is truly sad to me that people spend their time engaging in smear campaigns against nonprofits, like what kind of wrong did The Good Will ever do to you?! That and myths aside, a lot of the directors make decent money and what upset me more is the fact that this bothers people so much to begin with. These are DIRECTORS of MAJOR nonprofits. I don’t think they should be making peanuts. There are A LOT of people who work under them and presumably make less. So if the director of a major agency is making $75,000 or even $100,000 then what does that mean for the salaries of those who provide direct services or do other non-director jobs? Not to mention that it’s common human decency to give people raises (I mean the cost of living does go up) and so people are going to be earning more as they work for longer periods of time in the same position. A lot of these agencies’ headquarters are in places like DC or NYC where the cost of living is absurdly high. So again this all goes into consideration when thinking about these salaries.

The comment sections were also disheartening. People were saying to be careful of certain agencies because full-time employees receive financial compensation. There was no indication that people were saying this sarcastically. And the people who responded to them did not seem outraged that someone would imply that people in the nonprofit world should work for free. Maybe I was totally missing the joke and sarcasm. But to me, it seemed people were implying that all money given to nonprofits should go to concrete goods for the people they serve – never mind the fact that the people who work there are also people who have needs like health care and I don’t know – food?!

Which brings me to my next point. What does it mean to give to an agency that gives 100% to the people they serve? Isn’t it actually super important to compensate the employees of those agencies so oh, I don’t know, the employees keep working there and the agency continues to exist? Believe me as someone who has never held a full-time job outside of the nonprofit/not-for-profit world, taking care of employees is highly correlated with the quality of services provided and quality of programs run. Staff who aren’t worried about paying their own bills are going to be far more attentive to their work. Staff who have a moderately comfortable life and feel that their work takes care of them are going to be more driven, motivated and dedicated. Turnover will go down and keeping the same (happy) staff does wonders for an agency’s work.

I wish I was exaggerating about the paying bills part. But when I worked at a little nonprofit when I was first out of grad school, my salary was quite small. Once my student loan bills started arriving, things got very tight, very fast. And so to me if a director doesn’t make a pretty good salary, all I can think is what does that mean for the therapists, counselor and case managers who work there? Because lord knows that those direct services which directly benefit clients will suffer if the staff are stressing about their own basic needs.

And let’s be real. In the for-profit world, what types of companies compare to agencies like United Way and the Red Cross? Wouldn’t that be like Apple or Nike? And can the highest salary on that fake nonprofit salary list (1.2 million) really compare to what the Nike CEO makes? No… so even the exaggerated incomes of non-profit directors pale in comparison to their for-profit counterparts.

To me it all goes back to the undervaluing of social services in general. As I mentioned in this post, social workers, many of whom are employed by agencies like United Way, are one of the most underpaid professional fields. There seems to be the notion that just because you set out to do this work for reasons other than money that you’re then okay with being broke. I mean, no of course I didn’t become a social worker for the money, I would’ve gotten an MBA not an MSW if I wouldn’t to be loaded. But. There’s a big difference between being rich and being poor and I certainly didn’t set out to be poor. When i decided to become a social worker, I knew my lifestyle would have to change. I figured I’d one day get my own apartment and furnish it nicely, maybe get a cat. But the reality was that with the salary of my first post-grad school job, I couldn’t have afforded to rent my own apartment, never mind furniture or a pet. I was 26 and hadn’t met yet my future husband and the economy was bad so other job prospects were bleak (not that there are that many decent paying social work jobs). I was living with three roommates and there was no end in sight. I kept picturing myself being in the same position at 36, and beyond. And it was depressing.

Then I got a new job that offered me a 33% pay increase. It was awesome! Finally I could see a future in which I could have my own apartment, maybe even buy a house one day. Don’t get me wrong. I was still making under 50k (not by much but still). I wasn’t rich or living a luxurious life. But I did become modestly comfortable, which increased the quality of my life exponentially and that in turn increased the work I did in the domestic violence field.

My point is there’s nothing wrong with social workers and teachers living in modest comfort. It’s demeaning that society thinks it’s okay for us to live on the verge of a low-income life. It’s also telling that these lower paid professions are dominated by women, who are undervalued and social services, in particular, largely serve poor, under-resourced communities which tend to be crapped on by society. So at the surface it’s obnoxious and degrading enough that people assume you should be paid less, but it’s worse when you consider the potential misogyny and disdain for poor people that might be at the root of these beliefs as well as why these salaries are so small to begin with.

At my first job, I noticed that on my salary, I almost qualified for certain public assistance. I just don’t see how it does anyone any good for a full-time employee (with a masters degree, mind you) to be thinking about things like Section 8.

Case in point, maybe you still think some of those EDs make too much money, based on their actual salaries, I mean. The real issue to me here is that people care this much to begin with or feel that because people work in non-profit that they’re then able to criticize their salary. I mean, if they were making tens of millions, okay maybe. But they’re not. So think about what you think is reasonable and is it actually reasonable? We live in a money-hungry and dependent society and whether we like or not, decent compensation is immensely important. And so directors of large agencies need decent, director incomes. They still won’t compare to for-profits but at least the compensation can motivate them to do the many hours of work they’ll need to and will ensure that all those working under them aren’t destitute.

And I really, really hope people were being sarcastic when they expressed outrage over full-time employees earning incomes. Like really hope that.

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An important part of self-care: pastries. A decent income helps buy them!

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