I am 48 years old, have an MBA and have owned my own consulting company that works with nonprofit organizations for more than 15 years. If you ask my parents what I do, they’ll turn to each other with conspiring looks and say, “he works for himself.” After this beautiful display, you’ll watch the wheels start turning, and my mom will babble about how I have a great office in Brookline and aren’t I so professional? My dad will tell you I do something 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 better part of three decades of my life, up until recently if I talk to my dad about my career, it was the same ol’ song and dance. How about a profession Ted, you could go to podiatry school, here’s a brochure. Or, why don’t you be a pharmacist, we need someone to take over the family business? In my position 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 the Herbie elf-who-wants-to-become-a-dentist scenario that became a reality as I embarked on a non-pharmaceutical adulthood, the deeper problem is that nonprofit has remained a misunderstood and undervalued a career path, even though I have worked in the sector for more than 25 years.
My parents are no different than Kate’s parents (or a large portion of society, for that matter), who miss the value that nonprofit institutions contribute to the larger society. But it is also true that, as our parents correctly noted, the devaluation runneth over into the realm of salaries as well.
With the average student graduating in 2015 with nearly $35,000 in student debt, it’s no wonder that money influences most graduate’s career paths. And with 17% of graduates’ parents taking out loans on their behalf, it’s important to change the status quo so that parents can encourage and support nonprofit careers.
Third Sector New England reported in August 2015 that “Low wages are a real risk to the nonprofit sector,” which is evidenced by the general parental guidance to avoid the sector like the plague. In a 2014 survey, 43% of Massachusetts nonprofit employees represented are earning less than $28,000 per year; not only is that an annual salary lower than the total of average student debt, but if you’re planning on having a family it costs an average of $90,000 to raise one in Boston.
The value of the sector to larger society cannot be overemphasized. According to the Stanford Social Innovation review, “when someone gets and keeps a living-wage job, when an ex-felon stays out of jail, when an addict stays clean for a number of years, when a fragile senior is able to live independently rather than in a nursing home—all of these events have financial benefits now and in a foreseeable future.”
In order for these changes to keep coming, there needs to be a sustainable workforce behind them. If nonprofits want good results, they need to make good investments, the first of which is investing in people. Your employees are the voice and face of your organization; the stewards of your donors, the writers of your grants, the tellers of your stories. “A thriving workforce means better outcomes for constituents, better retention of talented and committed staff and more capacity to focus on and achieve our missions,” and it is our job as veterans in the sector to support employees so that they can support the communities in which we work.
With fifty-eight percent of nonprofits in the New York and Washington metropolitan areas planning to add additional staff this year, it is critical to make the field appealing to the next generation entering the field.
Nonprofit success transfers to societal improvement, and that is all dependent upon having qualified, trained employees in place; and the payroll should reflect that.