Nonprofit Work Worth Less?

When I presented the findings of our groundbreaking public trust and charitable giving study at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits annual conference in early October, the audience of nonprofit workers was naturally very interested in Minnesotans’ perceptions of charities. One question, in particular, hit them where they live—literally.

We asked Minnesotans which of these statements they most agreed with about how charity employees should be paid:

  • Their pay should be comparable to for-profit employees’ pay.
  • Their pay should be less than that of their for-profit counterparts, but enough to make a living.
  • Charity employees should be drawn to their work out of commitment and paid no more than a stipend.
  • While 42 percent of Minnesotans agreed with the first option, 48 percent think charity employees should get paid less than their for-profit counterparts.
  • And fourteen percent of Minnesotans agreed with the last option. In other words, one in seven think charity employees should make a living by working more than one job and piecing together stipends.

Let’s think that through. Arguments I’ve heard for lower pay for charity employees include that “charity work” is less sophisticated or doesn’t contribute to the nation’s economic engine in the same way that for-profit commerce does. But I would counter that nonprofit organizations—just like for-profit companies—have worked hard to be competitive, incorporating modern management theory and professionalizing their work. And the recent Minnesota Nonprofit Economy Report shows that the nonprofit sector employs 10 percent of the state’s workforce.

These are not simply do-gooders with extra time on their hands, but well-educated, talented professionals who devote their lives to tackling our communities’ most pressing issues. Do we really expect them to pour their best efforts into their vital work while not paying them comparably to their for-profit counterparts? Do we expect them to give us prime rib while we pay them for hamburger?

The Economy report stated that nonprofit employees earn, on average, six percent less than their for-profit counterparts, and three percent less than government workers. What does it say about what is important to our society when the people who work to improve the lives of others are paid the least?

Or isn’t it that simple? I’d be interested in your thoughts about this issue.

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