Stop Asking the Impossible

Posted by Joan Ulmer on February 7th, 2020 in Thoughts & Commentary

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I recently addressed a crowd of people affiliated with all-volunteer or small-staffed organizations.  I asked a few opening questions to get a handle on the good sized crowd.  First, I requested a show of hands of those in the room representing all-volunteer organizations.  About 75% of the folks raised their hands.  Next, I checked out how many in the room were at organizations with one or two staff – there was a sizeable handful.  In what I thought was my last question, I then asked how many had three or more staff.  Confusingly, about half raised their hands.  Totally perplexed, I asked what was going on.  One woman raised her hand and said, laughingly, “We pay our staff so little, they are practically volunteers.”

I did not laugh.  As nicely as I could, I responded that the poor compensation common among nonprofits was not a laughing matter, and that it was high-time we stopped this egregious behavior—the behavior that allows for it to happen and the behavior that perpetuates it by using attempts at humor that belie an exceeding serious situation.  Given my limited time that day, I simply expressed the dismay I feel  each time I hear of a nonprofit employee who must use the services of other nonprofits to make ends meet, including food cupboards, health clinics or subsidized day care.  Or worse, must work two jobs in order to cover the costs of life.

Right on the heels of this exchange came the release of a study conducted by the Human Care Alliance of Santa Cruz County (HCA).  Using 2016 data, HCA looked to see how social services workers fare given their low wages.  What they found should take everyone aback.  The most appalling of their findings is this:  62% of nonprofits workers must work two jobs in order to make ends meet.  Sadly, while it is not shocking that there are employees of nonprofits working a second job, it is the percentage that absolutely startled.  That’s about two out of every three employees working at Santa Cruz nonprofits.  Granted, Santa Cruz County may not be your typical county:  according to data from 2017, the median household income was $61,533; the median home cost $909,500 and a studio apartment rented for $1765. With stats like this, it would not be at all surprising to learn that many working in the nonprofit sector are not only being underpaid but have long commutes and high transportation costs adding to their struggles to get by. 

Another key finding from the study puts the plight of nonprofit employees in context:  more than twice as many (55%) of the nonprofit employees surveyed reported going without “one or more basic needs” in the last 12 months than was reported by adults in Santa Cruz County’s general population (22%).  And nonprofit employees were found to be two times more likely than adults in the general population to need the help of social services to survive.  Thus, while we know the term “working poor” was not coined just for nonprofit employees, they certainly contribute greatly to the ranks of this deplorable condition. 

The extremes of Santa Cruz County put in relief, rather than lessen, the calamity of nonprofit systems of compensation.  Had we comparable research from every county in the country, I sincerely doubt that a different picture would be painted anywhere.  The problem found in Santa Cruz is simply not unique.  Executive directors and board members know of this problem and have known for quite some time, and, yet, too few have moved to do anything to rectify the situation. 

One of the chief human resource responsibilities of an executive director, regardless of how large the HR staff, is to advocate for her/his employees.  Executive director after executive director fail at this job.  If they weren’t failing, wages would be higher. 

Time and time again I hear executive directors put shame to the repeatedly mouthed maxim, “Our people are our most important resource,” as they continue to underpay while repeatedly demanding more in worsening work conditions.  If I hear one more person admonish, in what they think is inspiring and encouraging, “We must do more, for more with less,” I may just go postal. 

Stop and think about what this statement is asking.  It is simply impossible to do more with less.  (And we aren’t even talking quality).  You cannot serve three people if you only have one bed; you cannot address hunger and provide proper nutrition by serving watered down soup.  You cannot address the needs of learners in a class of 60 students.  Rather than admonish employees, executive directors should be brow beating, if that is what it takes, boards into stepping up and finding the money to pay employees livable wages (and then define what is maximum capacity for the organization’s current configuration or, again, find the money to increase staff).

Boards also must change.  They must stop their two behaviors that keep nonprofit employees on the bread line.  Shaking heads and wringing hands over low wages should no longer be allowed to pass as “addressing the situation.”  And once and for all, may we banish from the minds of every board member the idiotic notion that nonprofit employees work only for the love of mission.  (And, if that can’t happen, then simply banish those board members).  Once both have been stopped, let the brow beating begin, along with a healthy dose of education on how board members can find the money to pay their employees a solid and real living wage. 

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.