What is Our Job, Really? Reflections on Work in Nonprofit Organizations

Published by on April 4, 2024

Folks enter the nonprofit space for many reasons. Sometimes, it’s because the organization’s mission has touched their lives personally. Other times, it’s because they seek greater impact than simply increasing an organization’s bottom line. Frequently, it’s a constellation of reasons. I entered the nonprofit space because I wanted my work to matter, not only to me, but to others as well. 

Why We Do the Work

I started my career almost 20 years ago as a classroom teacher, and throughout my nonprofit journey, I have striven to stay as close to the “front lines” as possible. Even in my current Executive position, I still drive the bus to our students’ college tours so I can see their faces as we expose them to the diversity of college campuses in our region.

As much as the nonprofit space allows us to make a direct impact in people’s lives, we must keep a critical eye to what role we really play in society. And maintaining this critical eye challenges me to view my work and my role with skepticism. 

In my opinion, the fact that the nonprofit space exists at all is an indictment of our society. I often say that the outsized role nonprofit organizations play in meeting people’s needs is an indication that our society has failed. We shouldn’t have to live in a world where people’s food, shelter, clothing, and opportunities for advancement are provided via the whims of well-to-do donors and grantors. 

Make an Impact, Reflections on Work in Nonprofit Organizations

Broadening our Horizons

My understanding of the nonprofit space was deeply rocked by the work The Revolution will not be Funded (2007) which opened my eyes to the seedy underbelly of the “nonprofit industrial complex.” Through the essays INCITE! shares, it becomes increasingly clear how the donor class has co-opted nonprofit organizations in order to stifle and stymie true revolutionary agitation and block any moves that might upset the status quo.

This should not come as a surprise. Why would donors, whose comfort and security has been provided by the status quo, do anything to shake up their current reality? The fact that many nonprofit donors have benefitted from our current systems of economic inequity–and the fact that nonprofit donation allows these donors to reduce their taxable incomes–should give us all pause. 

Isn’t the Goal to Close Our Doors?

We should also be given pause when we review nonprofits’ IRS 990 forms and see how much of their budgets go toward executive compensation. Often, the fact that those returns are available to everyone goes unadvertised. I often tell people that my unstated goal is that my work and advocacy be so effective that my nonprofit no longer remains necessary. I think many people in the nonprofit space share that awareness, that if our work is truly successful, people will not need to rely on our services any further, and we’ll be able to close our doors. 

That, however, is not a common understanding among C-suite nonprofit leaders (especially of large nonprofit organizations). If our organizations achieve their missions, and we are put out of business, then our salaries and benefits would dry up. No one in their right mind–especially not in the heart of our capitalist empire–would give up their salaries, benefits, and fancy titles, certainly not in this economy where inflation is above seven percent! 

This awareness, however, is essential as we move forward with our nonprofit stewardship. If we accept the fact that our organizations must perpetuate their existence and must, therefore, continue to appeal to our donors, we accept–at the same time–that we cannot truly “shake up” the status quo. And if we cannot shake up the status quo–which is exactly the action required to address the economic and resource inequality that our organizations exist to address in the first place–then we in the nonprofit space may never be able to truly move the needle in the direction of a more just and upright world. 

Learning Life Lessons

I learned the hard way that martyrdom is the wrong approach in nonprofit work, and I often counsel young nonprofit professionals, “Do not light yourself on fire to keep other people warm.” It goes without saying that burnout and compassion fatigue are part and parcel of nonprofit work. It also must be said that the “rewards” of doing nonprofit work are hard to appreciate when nonprofit professionals have to apply for SNAP benefits or delay their dreams of further education or home ownership because nonprofit salaries are not keeping up with the rising costs of living. 

If nonprofits are as essential as we are led to believe, why must we accept a lower standard of living because we earn our livelihoods in this space? 

One of the benefits of spaces like the Nonprofit Hive is that it provides space for nonprofit professionals to address these often-unspoken realities. I, for one, am never content to let unspoken questions remain silent, and I believe that these types of conversations–about the role the nonprofit industry plays in the maintenance of the current status quo while simultaneously grinding our workforce to pieces–are essential to our continued efforts in the nonprofit space. 

Changing the Narrative

I also strongly believe that work-life balance is a misnomer. We are not striving to “balance” our work and our lives outside of work, we are striving to integrate our work into our lives in a way that leaves ample room for living and sets aside appropriate space for working. The corporatization of nonprofit work with its “emergency deadlines” and “stakeholder meetings” will, by its nature, seek to consume all of our time, that’s Parkinson’s law. It is only through the setting and keeping of firm work/life boundaries that we can combat this corporate tendency and save ourselves. 

The types of people who are drawn to nonprofit work tend to struggle with people-pleasing and setting boundaries in the first place. (Guilty!) It’s no wonder our sector experiences burnout and employee churn the way we do. (Even that corporates-peak term “churn” is such a violent word to use to describe employees leaving the workplace.)

Time to be the Change

If we are to survive—we intrepid nonprofit professionals—we need to “be the change” to quote Gandhi. It is essential that we not only speak up and out about our experiences (using tools like the Nonprofit Hive), but also that we agitate for some revolutionary things to happen in our space. 

For example, many nonprofit professionals come into the field “over-educated,” and it’s not revolutionary that someone with a Master’s degree and several years experience should be earning $200,000 a year, especially in big cities. If big law, big tech, and big consulting (think Deloitte, McKinsey, Bain) can pay six figures for an MBA right out of the Ivy League, then the nonprofit space needs to up its starting salaries. Our work is no less valuable than someone who will borrow your watch to tell you the time, and we shouldn’t need to be applying for government support. 

PositionNonprofit CompensationFor-Profit Compensation
Executive Director$50,000 – $100,000$70,000 – $150,000
Marketing Manager$40,000 – $75,000$50,000 – $90,000
Social Media Professional$35,000 – $50,000$40,000 – $60,000
Fundraising Manager$45,000 – $67,000Comparable roles may differ
Program Manager$42,000 – $65,000$55,000 – $95,000
Human Resources Manager$50,000 – $75,000$60,000 – $100,000
Finance Manager$60,000 – $90,000$70,000 – $120,000
IT Manager$52,000 – $78,000$65,000 – $115,000
Administrative Assistant$30,000 – $45,000$35,000 – $55,000
Customer Service Representative$28,000 – $42,000$30,000 – $50,000
Information gathered from Payscale

Where do Nonprofit Organizations go Next?

Solutions will require critical understanding, pointed questions, and a collective voice to build the world we wish to see, a world that is just and equitable and fair. As valuable as our sector is economically—we provide more than 10% of private employment jobs and contribute over a trillion dollars to the GDP (look it up!)—we need to set the tone for other change-makers to follow. We start with prioritization. Work requires life, but life does not require work. 

As much as our existence seems driven by economic factors, we work in order to provide financially for our lives; shouldn’t our lives, then, be in the spotlight? Shouldn’t living be what we pursue, instead of starting every conversation with “What do you do?” 

It isn’t revolutionary to seek that our own needs be met. Even the airlines advise you to secure your own mask before assisting others. This awareness—coupled with the drive and empathy we bring to our work in the first place—is what will move the needle. It isn’t only our constituents who deserve lives of dignity. It’s okay not only to ask for help but also to demand our fair share. If we, as a sector, advocated for ourselves as vociferously as we advocate for our missions and our causes, we could start a tectonic workforce shift. Viva la revolution!

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Matthew Ratz, Passions for Learning

With a diverse background spanning Higher Education, nonprofit management, peer support, and advocacy, Matthew Ratz currently holds the position of Executive Director at Passion for Learning, Inc. This nonprofit organization is dedicated to bridging opportunity gaps for low-income students in STEM and College readiness. Beyond his leadership in education and nonprofit management, Matthew is a prolific author with several nonfiction and children’s books to his name. His poetry has been featured in various anthologies, and he has delivered a TEDx talk available for viewing on YouTube and TED.com. He is also an ordained Rabbi. As a highly sought-after writer, speaker, and performer, Matthew channels his extensive experience and unwavering commitment to inclusivity and equity to make a positive impact on the world.

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