As we celebrated Labor Day this month, several Op-Eds in The New York Times Opinion Page highlighted issues of engagement in the American workplace.
- First, Barry Schwartz contributed a brilliant piece on how meaningful work can increase employee productivity and profit (August 25).
- Then Arthur Brooks discussed motivation and stress while rising up the ranks (September 5).
- Lastly, Adam Grant focused on how friendships in the workplace can offer meaning in life (September 6).
It’s great to see these important issues covered in the Times. But it is disappointing that the contributors focus only on for-profit work. Not-for-profit work is mentioned in a somewhat patronizing and off-hand manner as something disillusioned corporate lawyers turn to in seeking soul-saving relief.
In their inattentiveness to the social sector, these sophisticated thinkers miss an opportunity to explore lessons from careers that are meaningful to the individuals engaged in them and to the quality of life in our country.
Nonprofit professionals deserve and need both recognition and investment.
Millions of Americans work in nonprofits their entire careers, having a social impact while making a living. In 2014 the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Johns Hopkins University reported that in 2012 employment in nonprofit organizations was 11,426,870, which was over ten percent of U.S. private employment. Here in the Empire State, 17.3% of private employment was in nonprofits. During the Great Recession, the share of those employed in nonprofit organizations actually increased in most states while employment fell dramatically in for-profits. Nonprofit work is so embedded in our culture that it is can be invisible. In fact, while their essays in The New York Times all focus exclusively on for-profit work, the authors themselves all actually work in nonprofits — Schwartz and Grant at institutions of higher education and Brooks at a think tank.
Nonprofit work it is too important to be overlooked.
Nonprofit employment enables us to engage in a vast range of purpose-driven work: everything from education to healthcare; arts to environment; human services to advocacy for human rights. According to a 13-state study by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, for every $1 funders invest in nonprofit civic engagement and advocacy work yielded $115 worth of community benefits. For many nonprofit professionals, personal values are lived out through their employment; trust is an essential tool in their productivity; and friendships are forged at work that endure across a lifetime. In a sense, while many Americans are bowling alone, nonprofits remain a hub of social capital and cohesion.
Because of the personal and meaningful nature of this work, nonprofit leaders often make significant sacrifices of their earning potential, their personal time, and their safety. Some take on complex and perilous efforts that others refuse to do, like refugee relief or saving Ebola patients. Despite the persistent myth that nonprofits are run by volunteers or that the staff have taken vows of poverty, nonprofit employees need and deserve meaningful compensation, benefits, engagement opportunities and professional development just like those in for-profit settings. Indeed, the sacrifices and strain of the work means such support is even more critical.
Yet there is a deep and enduring deficit of investment in nonprofit people from the very foundations, donors and governments that support their organizations. In a study of Foundation Center data on philanthropic grants given during 1992-2011, my organization, Talent Philanthropy Project, found that only 1% or less supported nonprofit staff development. As a result of this insufficient support, in 2014 the National Human Services Assembly published a toolkit to help nonprofit agencies secure welfare benefits for their own low-income, frontline workers. And when California lawmakers recently increase the state minimum wage, some nonprofits were unable to comply because government contracts defined wages for nonprofit employees as below the new base salary.
The dearth of concern for not-for-profit workers undermines the performance, impact and sustainability of civic professionals, institutions and causes. By extension, it dampens the effectiveness of the funders themselves and yields less value in return for generous tax deductions and exemptions provided by the public. We must renew our commitment to those who do the meaningful, challenging work of mission-driven careers.
As our society increasingly relies on private, often non-unionized nonprofits to deliver the social safety net and enhance the quality of life, we must redouble our investments in a diverse, engaged and durable nonprofit workforce.