The Impoverished Humanitarian

My senior year of college I took a grant writing class. One day one of my classmates said that he believed that everything, even non-profits, should operate like a business or a for-profit venture. Eye-rolls abound in the classroom, his sentiments were shrugged off and even passionately rejected by much of the class (myself included.) Two years later his words still reverberate through my head -but I’m no longer rolling my eyes.

So what has changed for me in those two short years?

-Looking for a non-profit job in the proverbial “real world.”

Like most recent college grads, I was not born into the privilege of money. I have loans, I need money to eat, for shelter, for transportation, etc. UNlike most recent college grads (or at least some of them) I am really passionate about fighting poverty and would like to apply my talents, knowledge, and abilities to the cause. This means getting involved in the non-profit world. The issue that arises from this is that it is hard to get a job in the non-profit world as most non-profits run largely on volunteerism. While volunteerism is not completely a bad thing, for me it is almost completely out of the question because of the aforementioned needs that can only be met with a position that pays.

Furthermore, I have found that there is some level of hypocrisy to be found when an organization that is trying to help people get out of poverty is forced to doom a large portion of their workforce to the same fate.

Dan Pallotta, in a talk he gave for a TED Conference, expounds upon this idea further. He too believes the stigma placed upon non-profits that pay their workers decently is stunting the growth potential for these organizations, and is driving out some of the most talented people to the for-profit world because of the inability to earn a decent living in the former pursuit:

We have two rule books: we have one for the non-profit sector, and one for the rest of the economic world. It’s an apartheid and it discriminates against the non-profit world […] We have a visceral reaction to the idea that anyone would make very much money helping other people. Interesting that we don’t have a visceral reaction to the notion that people would make a lot of money NOT helping other people. You want to make 50 million dollars selling violent video games to kids -go for it, we’ll put you on the cover of Wired magazine, but you want to make half-a-million dollars curing kids of malaria and you’re considered a parasite yourself.

He makes an excellent point. It seems to me that there is something fundamentally wrong with allowing a company to make as much money as it possibly can exploiting people, animals, and the environment, but placing monetary limits on organizations that are set to help protect those same potentially vulnerable things. Essentially, it is like rewarding a child that destroys a room for his own personal enjoyment, yet punishing a child that tries to clean up the mess for the betterment of those who occupy the room.

I understand that the idea of paying non-profit workers larger salaries is an idea that opens up a whole host of potential complications. Many would argue that human nature is to be selfish, and that non-profit employees would exploit their position for their own profit. Honestly, this could happen with some organizations. However, just as non-profits have a strong obligation to their patrons to provided services that help them with their plight, conversely, businesses have an obligation to their customers to provide an excellent product. If a business has a crummy product and/or crummy service, the business fails. What’s wrong with non-profits operating similarly?

 

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Title: Traditional Business, Social Entrepreneurship, and Non-profits
Watercolor on paper by author

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