Labor Abuses in the Nonprofit Sector

(This is part two in a three part series on nonprofits, millennials, and labor unions)

As we discussed in last week’s column, millennials are facing a dire financial situation. Meanwhile, the popularity of labor organizing is higher than any other point in the past 15 years, with many millennials supporting unions regardless of their political affiliation.

The ever-risk adverse nonprofit sector often trails behind when it comes to adjusting to new trends. Considering the rocky track record that many nonprofits have with labor unions, it is worth taking a look at the organizational practices that could repel philanthropy’s rising, pro-labor millennial workforce.

Preparing for this will require reevaluating certain preconceptions. Nonprofits often hold unfeasible expectations during economic adversity. Even in an unfavorable market with diminished resources, the management and funders of mission-driven organizations will try and stay the course, slashing overhead while striving to render the same services and meet the same levels of productivity.

What is one of the primary means for cutting overhead? Unpaid work. Nonprofit management often pushes workers to put in overtime without adequate pay.

Take, for example, an ostensibly progressive nonprofit with an office in Philadelphia. I talked to a former employee who detailed a number of labor abuses that are simply astounding. The former employee explained that the staff was often expected to work over the weekends, but if anyone called in sick or had an emergency during the week, that person was docked pay.

In one situation, a colleague who had just worked through the weekend had to take his sick daughter to the ER on a Monday. Despite putting in more than enough hours to constitute a complete work day during the weekend, he had one-fifth of his weekly pay slashed as a result.

Additionally, the former employee explained that the Philadelphia office’s management lied to employees about having sick leave, something low-level employees learned at a training retreat when they talked to workers from a New England office who held the same job.

Nonprofits work to improve the world and promote the well-being and cultural enjoyment of their constituents. While the mission for each nonprofit is integral, it should not interfere with pro-social organizational practices that also demonstrate concern for employees’ welfare.

Mary Beth Hastings, an experienced nonprofit professional who has worked with health organizations around the world, discussed what made these sort of practices palatable for nonprofit leaders who — at least rhetorically — profess a dedication to the social good:

Too often, I have seen the passion for social change turned into a weapon against the very people who do much—if not most—of the hard work, and put in most of the hours. Because they are highly motivated by passion, the reasoning goes, they don’t need to be motivated by decent salaries or sustainable work hours or overtime pay…And how do you suppose that feels to young professionals with a college or graduate degree, living in a group house and barely affording student loan payments?

Nonprofits cannot simply will more resources into existence to get the job done. They can, however, enact sensible and fair organizational practices that enable younger workers to enjoy a modicum of security and a decent work-life balance. What may seem like a steep overhead cost upfront will be paid back through a dedicated workforce that trusts its leadership and makes enough to pursue its passions.

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