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Thursday, March 08, 2012

So You Want to Work for a Nonprofit?

I was listening to a commentary on PJTV the other day and something Andrew Klavan said, set me back a bit. I do like Klavan and his pithy conservative commentary, don't get me wrong. He was talking about the entitlement mentality of this generation and I was with him, going along smoothly right up until he urged young people considering a career in nonprofits to do something useful, make or do something people want and sell it and all the things we need nonprofits for will take care of themselves.

While I agree with him, that we have too many would-be do-gooders out there clambering for our charity dollars, I have to disagree on two points.

1.Capitalism will not, in and of itself, make poverty and suffering go away.

2.A career in the nonprofit sector isn't necessarily a bad choice for a young person.

I have a couple of caveats here I want to point out.

Jesus told us that “The poor you shall have with you always.” What he meant by that was that misfortune, illness or tragedy can strike anyone, anywhere. Someone is always going to need help and it is our duty to help them. Christ made that abundantly clear. He gave us one rule to guide us by - “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” It leaves us no wiggle room to be uncharitable. Andrew Klavan was also correct in that only people who make a living for themselves can provide help, jobs, goods and services people need. The more money they make, the more help they can give. Even then, you still need people willing to deliver help to those in trouble and most of those guys work for some sort of nonprofit or are paid to perform charitable work by nonprofits. So there IS a place in the world for people who do the work that charities and nonprofits do. Charitable work cannot be entirely done by unpaid volunteers. And you do have to pay your regulars because they do have to eat.

Jesus, undoubtedly the most successful man in history so far as changing the world goes, was in and of himself a nonprofit organization. He chose his career knowing full well what it would cost him. That's where I get crossways with todays trust fund do-gooders. Jesus worked up until the day he headed off into the wilderness to begin his ministry. He did what he had to do and suffered the consequences of his actions. He did not get government grants for his work. He never threw a big gala or charity golf tournament to fund his work. He lived hand to mouth for the 3½ years of his second career (his first career was as a carpenter in the for-profit sector).

Now I'm not saying fund-raisers are a bad thing. I have been a fund-raiser most of my working life and know what good gets done with charitable donations. I'm not saying a career path into the nonprofit sector is a poor choice. What I am saying is that they don't call them “nonprofits” for nothing.

Sadly, what I think Andrew Klavan has picked up on is the apalling numbers of upper class, trust fund babies who lately have decided to spend their parents education dollars on degrees in public policy, sociology, psychology or communications with an eye to working for a big charity and saving the world. Communications was my own degree choice and for five years I taught school before going to work for a charity. But these entitled brats, Klavan is complaining about, leave college after a four year debauch and enter the nonprofit world demanding fat salaries for their supposed expertise. They have a mental picture of themselves jetting off to remote areas of the world where they will wear khaki shorts and one of those canvas explorer vests with all the pockets with the chain zippers and a squashy jungle hat. They see themselves standing over one of those big iron kettles dishing out white mush into wooden bowls held by children with tiny brown hands – at least long enough to get their picture taken for the fund-raising literature.

Charity work is tough. Most folk who work in the real nonprofit world work long hours for pitiful pay if they get any at all. They deserve every bit of support we can give them because they go places and do messy things most of the rest of us don't want to do. The naieve "I'm going to work for a nonprofit" college crowd only see the romance in the thing and very much under-appreciate how tough the actual work is. In their mind's eye, all they see are grateful starving children hugging them in gratitude.

What they don't see is themselves at age 58 with no retirement fund, no savings, no home and no job because the last project ended and nobody else wants an old geezer with a collection of snappy pith helmets to jet off to Africa to spoon gruel into the bowls of tiny black children with big heads.  She'll be a drag on the company health insurance and she's no longer cute enough to have her picture taken for the fund-raising literature.

I helped start five nonprofit organizations over my career and helped reorganize several others. I worked months at a time without pay, taking odd jobs to support myself and family while I wrote interminable startup grants, organized boards and local support and ran fund-raisers. Some of these organizations are even still in operation. Some have long forgotten that I ever had anything to do with their founding. I don't care.

When I entered the nonprofit sector, I did it because I believed it was the right thing for me to do and not because I though I could make a lot of money at it. The organizations I was privileged to work with did, and are doing, a lot of good. They owe me nothing. I did not go into charitable work in order to get wealthy. I learned very quickly that only the unethical make the really good money in the nonprofit sector. The nonprofit journals complain frequently about the low pay for nonprofit executives and caution that you cannot get “good” managers if you don't pay them. They can make more in the private sector.

Well, duh!

Of course they can make more in the private sector. That's as it should be. It's my contention that if you need to make money, that's where you should go. It's where I am ending my career because I need to make a living now that I'm done with full time nonprofit work. Nonprofits have the same problem as the government. Too many who work for them have lost the citizen public servant ideal where private citizens step up and take their turn to do things that the community needs doing and then step down and return to private life. Charities and Governments should never offer those who work for them too comfortable a living. The laborer deserves his hire, but only that. Here's where I agree with Klavan.

Let those who wish to serve, sacrifice in order to do so. Without the expectation that you will have to sacrifice in order to serve, public service becomes too easily corrupted. I don't care how many millions a nonprofit manages, I don't think he or she should earn 10% of the take. Take a modest salary. Be frugal in how you spend donor money. Do some good and then go make your pile somewhere else - or vice-versa for that matter.

Just one man's opinion,

(c) 2012 by Tom King


Coryan said...

Well said. There is a lot I'd like to add, but you've said much of it. I will only add that I am a much better person for having worked beside you in one of those nonprofits...I learned a lot from you.

Tom King said...

You bring up a good point, Coryan. A little time in the nonprofit sector will definitely make a better person out of you - if you go into it for the right reason. It was an honor to serve with you.