I am 23 years old and a recent college graduate. If you ask my parents what I do, they’ll probably turn some shade of vine-ripe tomato or perhaps a light plum. After this beautiful display, you’ll watch the wheels start turning, and my mom will babble about how I work in Boston. My dad will tell you I do some thing or another that focuses on nonprofits, and you’ll stand there telling yourself to smile and nod.
The funny thing is, although my parents are notoriously uninformed about what I’ve been up to professionally for the last three years of my life, if I talk to my dad about my future career as a contributing member of the nonprofit sector, he laughs and tells me good luck trying to make it financially in the real world.
Aside from revealing that my parents have a sarcastic sense of humor to match their rosy Irish pallor, the deeper problem is that the nonprofit sector remains a misunderstood and undervalued career path.
It’s surprising that my parents are clueless as to how to describe what I do, considering nonprofits account for 10.3% of all private sector employment, according to a 2014 report. Here’s a fun fact: that report states there are 11.4 million nonprofit jobs in the U.S.A. while a similar report shows there are 603,310 lawyers. Who’s in the field of opportunity now, Dad?
With more than 1.5 million tax-exempt organizations operating across the United States, there are plenty of opportunities for employment, growth and experience in the field.
If we kick it back to 1983, a report published on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website says that “Nonprofit jobs provide more challenge, variety, satisfaction, and intrinsic rewards than those in private enterprise or government, according to a national sample of workers in schools, hospitals, philanthropic and other tax-exempt organizations.” Doesn’t that sound like the type of career you’d like your child to dedicate his/her life to?
It should be noted, however, that as a sector, we are not completely blameless. We devalue ourselves by not compensating our employees and providing them with benefits equal to those in for-profit (see our previous post here).
We cannot expect to have the same caliber of employees, nor employee retention if we cannot provide opportunities for growth. My father thinks I’ll never be able to make enough to pay off my student loans if I stay in the sector, and in worst-case scenarios, he may be right.
This issue is twofold: we are also devalued by individuals who don’t understand how nonprofits operate, and often those may be our own donors. Donors don’t want to see money go to overhead (administrative costs including employee salaries) but they also don’t realize that the operations of a nonprofit mirror those of a for-profit organization.
How can we, current nonprofit employees, encourage the next generation of the workforce to join our causes?
First and foremost, those of us working in the sector need to be more explicit and inform donors that, in order for us to help the communities we serve, we need to be successful as an organization. It’s not about greed; it’s about following good business practices.
We need to be cognizant of the need to create more opportunities for growth and to emphasize nonprofit as a career path rather than a means to an end. Right now we propagate a brain-drain scenario: we offer low-paying entry-level positions, don’t provide advancement opportunities for emerging leaders, and then are surprised when employees move into higher level positions in the for-profit field.
We also need to establish legacy plans. As a graduating senior on the job hunt, I want to know the organization I choose to work for will still exist in five years. We need to make sure that we train the next generation of executive directors and higher-ups, because we young folk want to work for someone who knows what they’re doing and who we trust to advance our professional development.
For those of you young bucks considering not-for-profit career paths, here is my advice from someone who has been there;
Don’t let the haters get you down. Working in nonprofit is just as viable a career choice as a lawyer, a doctor, a pharmacist. I actually find it a more rewarding career than many, like my boys from 1983 noted above (although to each her own). I know the end goals that I’m working towards are causes that I truly believe in and support.
What’s important is to know what is lacking in the sector and to find organizations that compensate fairly and encourage growth — both for their organization and for you as a professional. You, a member of the next generation of nonprofit leaders, should use the criticisms of nonprofit to better prepare yourself to improve the sector.
Together, we can make the nonprofit sector great again – even in the eyes of our parents.