My walks to work are usually quiet. Parents take their kids to the school around the corner. The light rail bustles past on its way downtown. As I approach the plain gray building, my ID on a purple lanyard hanging from my neck, the sidewalk gets busy, usually with a few older men carrying weathered signs. There might be a church group or two on Saturdays. Some days, one person will approach me, imploring me to quit.
“You don’t have to work here,” they’ll say. “There’s help!”
I ignore them and walk into the abortion clinic they’re picketing, where I’ve worked as a patient advocate for four years. Inside, my coworkers and I laugh: “Hey, what kind of help? Write me a check and I’ll resign now!” The joke always has a touch of bitterness. Like a lot of nonprofit workers, we’re well-acquainted with tutoring, personal training and other common side hustles we take on to make ends meet. If not, we’re relying on partners with bigger salaries and better insurance, or living with roommates when we’d rather not. It’s not uncommon for people to sell plasma to cover their bills.
Our frustrations came to a head after a recent post by ReproJobs, an online source for job listings in the reproductive health field.
The post struck a chord. Why was this nonprofit claiming to advocate for women and families while offering a salary that would be unsustainable for many women and their families? For a working mother with one child, a living wage in the Washington, D.C., area is more like $62,000 per year, according to the MIT living wage calculator.
To say I love my job is an understatement. The work is humbling, joyful and fulfilling, and I do it alongside coworkers who are more like family. I’m proud to say that I work for an abortion clinic and that the care I provide to my patients makes a difference. We remind ourselves, “No one does this for the money.”
The work is humbling, joyful and fulfilling, and I do it alongside coworkers who are more like family.
In other words, we come to the job at the direction of a moral compass rather than the promise of a hefty paycheck. Why endure the unpredictability, the picketers, the legislative attacks and the possibility of anti-abortion violence unless you possess the fortifying confidence that you’re doing the right thing?
You’ll hear similar sentiments from other people employed in what we might call purposeful professions — nonprofit workers like me, but also teachers, artists and members of the clergy. There is indeed a sense of purpose that drives us, regardless of how much money we make. Our work is often described as a calling — an energizing motivation, since laboring in service of others can be physically and emotionally draining.
But the concept that we do the work regardless of our ability to earn a living can also be poisonous. Viral posts criticizing nonprofits that don’t give 100% of fundraising to the population they serve abound, suggesting any funds spent on overhead or personnel are unjustified. I’ve heard teachers insulted for driving new cars, as if good teaching requires taking a vow of poverty. Even within justice-focused nonprofit organizations, there is an expectation that staffers will get paid less than they’re worth and that such practices are, in fact, inevitable due to the high cost of providing services and advocacy.
When I volunteered with AmeriCorps after college, my roommate and I scraped together rent for a cheap apartment, bought our groceries with food stamps and paid utilities with the help of the federal and state assistance programs. We had made a commitment to service and citizenship, of course, and we didn’t expect luxuries.
But our commitment to our work didn’t stop us from wondering why we were relying on poverty-alleviating benefits while the organization that relied on us to provide services paid its upper-level employees six figures (the median salary for a nonprofit chief executive is $104,000, according to Payscale). Since starting my current job, I’ve driven for Uber and Lyft, hawked Christmas cookies, and taken on a variety of part-time jobs and temporary gigs. Unplanned expenses inevitably mean debt. Grad school sounds like a pipe dream. I live paycheck to paycheck.
Since starting my current job, I’ve driven for Uber and Lyft, hawked Christmas cookies, and taken on a variety of part-time jobs and temporary gigs.
I’m in a better position than most. I don’t have kids, ailing parents, significant student loan debt or major medical expenses. My employer pays more than many nonprofits and offers generous paid time off. According to the living wage calculator, I currently earn more than the living wage for Cleveland, which is an inexpensive city.
But a number of my coworkers do have families to support. A living wage is just the start, meaning it’s just enough for a person or family to afford their basic needs. Nonprofit employees deserve to have the funds not just to pay the bills, but also to save, invest, and educate and treat themselves, just as we would if we worked in the private sector.
Of course, workers like me aren’t forced to make this sacrifice, and many ultimately choose not to. Turnover rates are higher for nonprofits than other sectors, according to a University of Nevada at Las Vegas study, and those who leave the field typically cite low pay and lack of support. Direct service staff are the hardest to retain.
Turnover itself, though, can cost an organization thousands of dollars per employee, not to mention the unquantifiable cost of losing experience and institutional wisdom. Such a loss inevitably diminishes the quality of service or advocacy an organization can provide.
It’s implied that if your motivation is compassion, it’s selfish to care about money.
The idea that such work is a “labor of love” is usually used to justify the low pay. It’s implied that if your motivation is compassion, it’s selfish to care about money. This expectation of personal sacrifice in service of others is especially damaging to people of color and to women, who make up the majority of nonprofit workers. Women of color in particular perform the caregiving work that receives the littlest compensation, such as home health care and early childhood education. The people we ask to expend the most energy serving the common good are already the same people society cares for the least.
Casting human service work as a labor of love justifies the continued financial and social disempowerment of those who have always performed unpaid labor.
If organizations focused on social justice want to live up to their missions, they must break down the model that relies on substandard pay for workers. You cannot be dedicated to alleviating poverty, decreasing infant and maternal mortality, challenging racism or homophobia, or any other noble goal if your employment practices disadvantage your own employees. If you offer less than a comfortable living wage, your staff will be comprised of people who are either privileged with family wealth or spousal support, or people who will rapidly burn out and move on.
All workers deserve a culture that embraces sustainability rather than sacrifice. Fostering such a culture requires a shift in attitude and expectations from the directors and boards of nonprofits, as well as from donors and foundations. Grant makers must ask not only how an organization fulfills its mission within the community, but also how that mission is reflected in its hiring and retention practices. Advocates must pressure the government to raise reimbursement rates for human services agencies to help enable higher pay.
Progressive organizations can begin setting an example by paying employees a living wage, providing quality health insurance and offering paid family leave. They must prioritize hiring, supporting, promoting and generously compensating staff who come from systematically excluded communities. The payoff may not be immediate, but it will come in the form of committed, diverse and passionate employees who have the resources to care not only for their communities, but also for themselves.
Colleen Damerell is a patient advocate at an abortion clinic in Cleveland. She cares about racial and reproductive justice, queer and trans issues, faith-based progressive organizing and trees.