We Need to Talk About Non-Profits

Specifically, we need to talk about non-profits and complicity. Ask anyone who works in a non-profit what it’s like and you’ll hear this: under-resourced, underpaid, overworked.


Now, much of this is about funding and the low priority our society puts on helping marginalized people. That is an undeniable fact. But another undeniable fact is that the non-profit sector relies on–and exploits I would go so far as to say–people’s passion for issues that, largely, they themselves have been touched by. Put another way, the non-profit sector relies on people’s trauma motivating them to help others in ways that can be severely damaging, whether we’re talking burnout, the health-consequences of overwork, or the realities of trying to get by when making less than a living wage.

The non-profit sector also relies on–and reinforces–a devaluing of emotional labour. A type of labour that is traditionally viewed as women’s and femme’s work.

I recognize that many boards and executive directors may feel themselves in an impossible position–funding cuts, the offloading of mental healthcare to adjacent-but-ill-equipped non-profits, ever-increasing need–but this system only works so long as those with power are complicit. Whether that is spreading 7 Full-Time-Equivalents across 13 people–none of whom made a living wage, as I’ve seen done, or making employment increasingly precarious–part time, contract positions, at laughably low wages (seriously, check any non-profit job board. That’s 90% of what’s out there)–these decisions are based on a tacit agreement that emotional labour–and the people who perform it–is of low-value, and issues of burnout, vicarious trauma, and the stress of near-poverty on top of it all are acceptable trade-offs. It is based on the tacit agreement that the people who devote their lives to helping others are replaceable, as they inevitably burnout or leave for a living wage in another field. It is based on the tacit agreement that marginalized people helping marginalized people count less.

I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m not saying that hard decisions won’t have to be made. But I am saying that social justice starts at home.


6 thoughts on “We Need to Talk About Non-Profits

  1. Social justice starts at home. I wrote a paper once on economics, though, and I’ve been thinking about turning it into a book, the professor was so behind the theory.

    And that theory is this – why do women feel that their work is less-valuable?

    Every time women enter a work environment, the wages decrease when it was a position previously held solely by men.

    When you combine that statistical fact from the last 100+ years of labor records, with the fact that much of the issues considered “emotional” are first occupied as volunteer positions by passionate people – usually woman volunteering their time to “keep busy” until the primary wage earner makes it home at the end of the day – you can see that this vicious cycle is aided and abetted by a history of self-sacrifice.

    No answers for you here, but I think it’s important to understand the self-sabotage that is going on, too.

    1. “And that theory is this – why do women feel that their work is less-valuable?”

      I think this is missing the forest for the trees–women are taught from day one that feminized work is less valuable. It’s underpaid, it’s part-time, it’s precarious, we do a lot of it in our home and intimate relationships *after* working an eight or ten hour day.

      The problem is not women not asking for their worth (well, women being taught not to negotiate is a small part of it), it’s a society that devalues women’s work. Male nurses are better paid and quickly rise to management with far less experience and skills than their female counterparts. Same with teachers. Computer science and coding used to be denigrated as women’s work, until it became “men’s” work and is now prestigious and over-compensated. This is a problem of systemic devaluing of women and overvaluing of men. This is not an individual issue of women feeling like their work is less valuable.

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