We overestimate the gap between nonprofit and for-profit jobs

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My ex-husband worked in the nonprofit sector for a while. And you know what? He rarely got health insurance. At one point, we were completely stressed out about not being insured, and he asked his boss what everyone else was doing, and she said, “Can't you get insurance from your spouse? That's what we do.”

That's appalling. Being a non-profit is no excuse for treating people poorly. And it's not just benefits—It's pay, too. Paying way below a living wage is elitist—as if working in a nonprofit is a rich kids' playground that your parents fund.

Luckily, the non-profit world is changing. The difference between not-for-profit and for profit is becoming more and more artificial.

When a business is deciding whether to be for-profit or not-for-profit, they are thinking about what is the most efficient way to meet their goals. For example, the Gates Foundation was established to get the money out of the hands of one family and give it to people who can change the world with the money. They do not want to make a profit, so they put all the money they make back into the Foundation.

Merck, on the other hand, is changing the world by curing diseases, but they need to create a profit in order to keep their stock price up and pass money on to shareholders.

Both companies are solving huge health problems. Both companies have equal capacity to get you, an employee, very close or relatively far from the act of saving a life. The only difference between the organizations is the financial structure.

So, here is a new way to think about careers in the non-profit sector:

1. It's small minded to think you can only do good in a non-profit.
It’s really dangerous to think there are vastly different motivators in the non-profit world. You’ll notice that in the for-profit world, in the new workplace, money is not a key motivator. You should not work where someone does not value you (and pay a living wage) and you should not work where you do not find meaning in your work.

I think we should all be careful of dividing the world into meaningful non-profits and soulless corporations. Caring for each other has more to do about the people who we report to and manage than the goals of the organization. If your boss comes to work every day genuinely looking to help you grow, and you do the same for the people you manage, then that’s a great workplace. If your boss is a jerk, and you are a jerk, then it’s a terrible place to be. It doesn’t really whether your company is making tons of money or saving lives in Tibet. What we do ourselves—individually, with the people next to us each day—is what establishes meaning in our lives.

2. Some non-profits are doing less than some for-profits.
Just because a company is a non-profit doesn't mean it's not a wasteland. Example: United Way. We already know that grassroots organizations are most efficient at channeling aid to people who need it. Yet United Way persists with their umbrella model of taking money from the community, through a monopoly-type system with corporations, and then deciding themselves what smaller organizations will get money.

United Way actually does no good directly. They are middlemen, skimming off the top. And in the age of Internet, we can all decide where to give, and give directly. We don't need United Way.

Salesforce.com, on the other hand, is raking in profits. And they give employees time off to serve the community directly. The employees choose what to do. There is no overhead because Salesforce.com is eating the costs themselves. It is totally efficient. There is no fundraising, there is no sucking the enthusiasm out of locals by telling them they need a middleman to connect with grassroots movements.

3. Choose your job by how direct you want to be.
Choose your job by what your skill set is and what your financial needs are. How direct do you want to be? You can be very direct and have little impact, and you can be very indirect and have massive impact. You can work with people you hate and save the world, or you can work with people you love, and donate money at night, on the Internet.

Being in a job you love allows you to generate income, and good will, and to cultivate a sense of gratitude to the world. Which means you'll give back no matter what.

4. Consider that earning money is a direct path to doing good.
The Robin Hood Foundation is famous for inventing a more direct route to doing good. It's a room full of people who are bidding to build things like a new shelter for the homeless ($470,000, raised in a few hours) . And 100% of their money goes directly to that project. It's the hedge fund industry's way of giving back. And it's just like their day job: brash, fast, high-flying, full of peer pressure, and extremely fun. It's hard to say these guys are not doing good. They are making way more money than most foundations make in ten years. And they are putting it to work to do good immediately.

Or here's another model. Earn money and buy board seats at companies that don't respect the benefits of diversity, and then you can force diversity on them as a shareholder. That's pretty direct. And if you didn't have money on your side for this one, it would take you ten years of lobbying congress or flying on jets with CEOs. (Is there a difference?)

When you talk about your career, talk about doing good, for sure. But recognize that we are each capable of doing good from wherever we are. And each of us is capable of being fulfilled in a wide range of jobs. Grow your career with an open mind: you'll find more opportunities to make a difference in the world.

Hat tip: The Non-Profit Discussion on Brazen Careerist, (where I might have been annoying to everyone, but still, I learned a lot from the conversation.)

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  1. Lance Haun
    Lance Haun says:


    I love this post. Do good wherever you are without excuses. And yes, some for-profit companies are making a big difference in the world (and some non-profits are too). Money isn’t evil though and money doesn’t preclude you from doing good either. It is a ridiculous construct that is out of date.


  2. Heather
    Heather says:

    Two great truths here.
    “You should not work where someone does not value you (and pay a living wage) and you should not work where you do not find meaning in your work”

    You will get what you accept. I’m glad things are changing in both profit and nonprofit organisations. It’s news to me as well. I learn a lot from hanging around in groups that I have nothing in common with as well on Brazen Careerist. It’s one of the things that keeps me coming back.

  3. Leslie Forman
    Leslie Forman says:

    I’ve worked in both non-profits and for-profits, and in organizations bridging that gap, and I agree with what you are saying here. Salesforce.com rocks!

    I’d like to add one idea from a mentor of mine, who led big organizations in both sectors. I asked her what she sees as the main difference between working for a non-profit and working for a company. She said that the decision-making process in a non-profit involves many more stakeholders, and more consensus-building. As the CEO of a start-up she could, for example, make a quick decision to change the sales strategy; however as an executive for an environmental non-profit she always spent lots of time drafting climate change policy and reviewing it with a diverse array of stakeholders.

    I like this blog a lot. Thanks!

  4. Ideas With A Kick
    Ideas With A Kick says:

    Interesting article. It really challenges some of the false premises we have about profit and non-profit.

    They way I see it, what you do, even if it’s about helping others, also needs to address you own needs and well being. Otherwise it’s not sustainable. It’s about making it win-win, with small variations on who wins how much exactly.


  5. zed
    zed says:

    “It’s really dangerous to think there are vastly different motivators in the non-profit world. You’ll notice that in the for-profit world, in the new workplace, money is not a key motivator. ”
    I think this is very true at the level of the individual.

    In terms of the organisation, I see a fundamental difference between existing to give your shareholders profit and existing to bring benefits to areas of ‘public interest’, be it the environment, public health, livelihood etc. And its much starker than the difference between generating funds/making a change. I don’t see that many ‘new workplaces’ but I hope there are many in the pipeline. ‘Saving lives’ (as is the case in your example with the pharmaceutical company above etc) is the means to making a profit and not the ends of their work. It can potentially lead to huge conflicts of interest. There are times when a company could potentially save many more lives by for instance releasing its intellectual property into the public domain, but for profit reasons would rather not do so, and so they might lobby for particular legislation to protect that property and thus make ‘saving lives’ only possible within the realm of those who can afford to pay for it. This is also elitist.

    Obviously each case is highly complex, because making the profit enables a company to invest in more potentially life-saving/profit-making research. This is also true in terms of messages that generate fundraising/messages that make a change.

    They’re not mutually exclusive and any company that makes a serious effort to get the balance right, for me, is an organisation that will last a long time. However, I have seen, that too often in the management and in the boardroom, the balance swings too far in favour of the choices that bring in short term profit, rather than longer term public good.

    Thanks for your thoughts on this, will check the Brazen careerist discussion out.

  6. Isao
    Isao says:

    I wonder if the Socially Responsible Corporations (or Not-Just-For-Profit) can fill the happy middle ground between NPO and corporations in general.
    I have some friends who works in a architecture consulting company which reviews if newly constructed buildings meet the “green” standard. It is for profit, my friends are motivated due to both pay and cause.
    Maybe it is not just a middle ground, it might be a better model than traditional NPO or business entities.

  7. Kathleen
    Kathleen says:

    FYI: “Autism Speaks” is the United Way of autism support except not nearly as nice since they say autism is worse than cancer or death and have no autistic people on their board. They’ve effectively drained community fund raising initiatives for years and having a controversial agenda -ABA therapy aka thinly disguised torture, vaccine fear mongering- fund projects that serve their political goals, leaving families bereft of resources they once had. If you care about autistic people, don’t get sucked into Autism Speaks. A lot of businesses support them and end up the target of boycotts. In short, if the purported beneficiaries of a not-for-profit are opposed to the umbrella organization, look local-er.

  8. Nicole
    Nicole says:

    I wish I had read this email a few years ago before I took a job at a non-profit. I left the consulting world of hotel-living, long hours and good pay to get into the non-profit world of office-living, long hours and very, very low pay. There was so little opportunity for true growth or development but I kept telling myself that I should be happier being at a non-profit and not “working for the man.” But, I had to realize, after 13 months, that I was unhappy and I quit. Our bank account barely noticed.

    This is definitely something I will keep in mind when (if?) I rejoin the workforce – I’m a SAHM to twins for now. I will certainly make sure that my time and skills are valued, both in my pay and in my career development. And I will make finding the right job for me a top priority instead of just settling for something that sounds good on paper.

    And I just have to say YES! – Non profits need to treat their employees with a lot more respect and not just expect them to work so hard for so little. Like you illustrate, doing good and being well-paid DO NOT have to be mutually exclusive. And that low pay absolutely contributes to the kind of talent they attract – only those who can afford to be paid so little. It’s quite sad for the industry and for the people they are supposed to be helping.

  9. Ask a Manager
    Ask a Manager says:

    As the manager of a nonprofit and the author of a book that argues that nonprofits need to be run more like businesses, I find this topic fascinating. Nonprofits often suffer from a fuzzy understanding of what they’re there to do and how to best do it.

    It makes sense for nonprofits to pay competitive salaries, benefits, etc. — because they want to be able to attract high quality employees who whose work will get them results.

    There ARE some nonprofits that are run this way (mine is!), but it’s past time for a move in this direction in the general nonprofit community. Far too many still resist the idea that they should be run like businesses. But in fact, because the work nonprofits do is so important, they probably need to be even MORE more hard-nosed about having strong management practices than for-profits … since what's at stake is so much more important than a business's bottom line.

  10. Kriti
    Kriti says:

    “If your boss is a jerk, and you are a jerk, then it’s a terrible place to be. It doesn’t really whether your company is making tons of money or saving lives in Tibet. What we do ourselves – individually, with the people next to us each day – is what establishes meaning in our lives.”

    I think that’s the essence of this post, and the essence of a good job. Question – how do you know if your boss/company is a jerk before signing on?

    • Jake
      Jake says:

      Many jerks will have polished answers to your questions, but true their nature will slip out.

      When interviewing, observe how they interact with support staff, direct reports, peers, & customers. If they are jerks to these people, they will be jerks to you.

      Also listen for comments that slip into answers to your question. Corporate culture will sneak into responses.

      For example: A potential employer had me meeting with several interviewers. One of interviewers was describing the job completely different than I was expecting. I asked the next interviewer what was going on. He casually told me that the other interviewer wanted the position and was sabotaging the interviews. I was shocked – especially by his indifference to the situation.

    • Liz
      Liz says:

      Try to work the following into the conversation:

      1) How he/she would handle an email sent without the enclosure. If he/she takes this as an opportunity to rant about what a pet peeve that is, he/she is not someone who has a high tolerance for other people’s missteps. (Doesn’t mean “jerk” necessarily, but it’s telling as to future work interactions).

      2) Listen carefully to the future boss’s tone in dealing with subordinates. Very few people are harsh with anyone in public, but if he/she demonstrates impatience of any kind that’s a huge flag.

      Also, and this is hard to describe, but an unmistakable tell: Listen carefully for an attitude that says, “Look how nice I’m being, talking to the hired help…” It isn’t bestowing a favor when one makes oneself treat other human beings with respect. But many people expect some sort of congratulations for being polite to people they see as low-status. These people are, invariably, the jerks.

    • Lynn @ human, being
      Lynn @ human, being says:

      Re: knowing someone is a jerk before joining the team: in Dec. 2007 I began interviewing for a job that would pay me the most money I ever earned. I got a clue that, despite the good quality of our conversations, my potential boss was a jerk by the sheer fact that she REFUSED to schedule group interviews for me, instead making me wade through 13 hours of 1:1 interviews (and 13 hours of lying to my current boss about why I was leaving work early, coming in late, taking a long lunch) that could easily have taken place in 2 hours of group meetings. I was offered the job, and during the negotiations the boss let slip that the interviewing style was a test of my stamina, because the job took a lot of it. Ding! Jerk alert. The woman would have had zero respect for the rest of my life.

      Another lesson I learned is never take a job that’s supervised by a person–no matter how “respected”– who won’t look you in the eye.

  11. Aaron Erickson
    Aaron Erickson says:

    One thing perhaps to look into here that is interesting are organizations like “The Grameen Foundation” (http://www.grameen-info.org/), which run with a profit making expectation, but with a mission that is beyond enrichment of shareholders.

    I think such businesses are inherently superior to most traditional capitalist businesses, as a better mission (but it has to be better!) – will attract more engaged employees, who will *voluntarily* give more of themselves for a better mission.

  12. Allison @ Entry Level Living
    Allison @ Entry Level Living says:

    You beat me to it, Penelope! Excellent post and a topic that I have been struggling with for a while as a nonprofit employee (and thanks for sharing in the forum!). While the sectors themselves may be different because of how they are funded and managed at the end of the day employees in each sector want fair treatment.

    Dan Polleta wrote a great article recently on how we exaggerate the psychic benefits of nonprofit work. Not only are many of us behind desks isolated from the populations we originally wanted to serve, but we put in ridiculous hours with poor compensation. This is not to say that the for profit world is a stable haven of fun and glory (we are seeing that it isnt) but it forces us to be really honest about the work we do and why we do it.

    One thing I am also learning to do is figure out what issue I care deeply about and choosing the best way to work with that issue and make the change I wish to see. That may mean working at a np, working in corporate philanthropy, donating, volunteering, whatever. There is no one set way to make change.

  13. JennG
    JennG says:

    I’ve worked in both non-profit and for-profit and I agree that the differences are narrower than people often perceive and that organizational culture makes a huge difference. I like the points you’ve raised here. I worked in a really good non-profit where employees were paid decently, had good working conditions, and were supported in developing their careers. Ditto the for-profit. I’ve also worked in worse examples of both.

    I kind of disagree with you about the United Way – it might depend on the area but when I was working with the United Way they were one of the few agencies that did real research on what was actually producing results within communities in a serious way. They also funded pilot programmes and then evaluated them. I felt both those roles were really important. It obviously depends on your programme, but it’s one thing to say you’re doing youth empowerment and another thing to know if it’s actually keeping kids in school or lowering youth crime rates.

  14. A Renewal Enterprise
    A Renewal Enterprise says:

    As the co-founder of a company that does organizational design, leadership training, and executive coaching mainly for nonprofit and faith based companies, I often have to deal with potential clients who are put off by our for-profit status because they mistakenly think all a for-profit company cares about is making money. Your post is helpful in addressing this issue and I’ll be sharing it with people who are confused.

    The truth is both kinds of companies need to make money, otherwise they wouldn’t exist! We chose to organize as a for-profit company because we wanted to be flexible and nimble enough to respond to the needs of our clients and of the market we serve, rather than stuck in the strait-jacket of some grant we spent way too much time and money chasing. In other words, we’re working our agenda, rather than the agenda of some grant-maker somewhere.

    Thanks for raising this issue. It is, indeed, possible to make a positive difference in the world…no matter what kind of organization you’re working for. In fact, we believe that’s the whole point of life on this planet.

  15. econobiker
    econobiker says:

    And then some non-profit ~charities~ are ways for the ultra wealthy to transfer money to their children by employing the children for life with great pay and management roles along with getting the tax benefits of having a non-profit entity accept their donated wealth.

  16. Dominika
    Dominika says:

    Your logic makes me smile. You can justify any course of action by saying that whatever you do, you do good, because you are a good person inside. And you are the only person to measure that goodness. You make money because you are nice to others and anyway, it is all about conversation. When you scale it down to individual, good CEOs giving back to the 3rd world, hedge funds giving back to the ghettoes in a fun and fast way, you are saying that companies are not accountable to anyone, it is just individuals who are nice and good and make money, so what do those poor jerk people want? And how did this gruesome world crisis come about for god’s sake? After all, cashing in is the only goal in the life of us nice people.

    Maybe it is different in the US, but in my country non-profit organizations offer low wages not because they are elitist, but because they struggle with survival themselves. And people who work for them are rarely rich kids, but people who actually care for saving lives in Tibet, or helping the victims of human trafficking, or providing sexual education to teenagers.

    I notice with admiration how you learn from life. When you get a snub, the lesson you get is not to stand up for yourself, but to conform, always CONFORM. This is the way to make money. Do not report being sexually harassed. If someone tells you to wear a skimpy bikini, wear it, you’ll cash in later. Wear your hair shoulder-length. Socialize with people who earn similar amounts of money. Do not travel, if you don’t earn money while doing it. Etc etc. And whatever you do, you are a good person. You just know it. Who are the bad people, Penelope?

    • Ken Wolman
      Ken Wolman says:

      Dominika, you get nothing from being one of my personal heros, but you made it, and there you are. You can make a savage point without losing focus or control: I wish I could do that. You have countered the favorite argument that there are no bad bosses, just employees who need an attitude adjustment. You have turned on its side the idea you must Just Put Up With It. You nailed the whole story. I should have known in 1976 what the rest of my working life would be like: it was epitomized in a job I held from April ’76 to December 1977. Unfortunately I can’t use names in public because I’m not brave enough to risk a second thread of a lawsuit–but it was all there: the conformity pressures, sexual harassment, career prostitution, and pursuit of something far more insidious than money: power and influence. It was a job in higher education. It turned out to be even worse than the for-profit jobs I had. Details on request.

  17. izzat aziz
    izzat aziz says:

    to make it simple i would say.. i can help all of you.. but i need you to help me to make more money so that i can help you, its win-win situation.

    the organization is not-for-profit, but they need funding to make sure they stay alive, i can give people food, and they eat happily.. but i can’t do that all the time, i need to eat too.

    Just don’t be naive.

  18. Jeremy O'Krafka
    Jeremy O'Krafka says:

    Having worked for 3 years at a not-for-profit that came close to insolvency, I appreciate the value that an umbrella organization like the United Way brings to the funding model of community social service organizations. One of the main reasons that working in the NFP sector can be so draining is that many organizations are living hand-to-mouth. Like a start-up pursuing capital, a large percentage of the managements focus is on fundraising as opposed to delivering service. Saying that "We don't need United Way" for supporting community services, is like saying we don't need Angels or VC's to support the growth and development of companies like Brazen Careerist.

    Corporate social responsibility involves a lot of due diligence – and that is one of the primary functions that the UW serves. Companies, who want to invest in community agencies with a relatively small management function, benefit from the scale a shared selection and audit process (not unlike FI's investing in higher risk/return ventures through VC firms). The management expense ratios for organizations that have to do all of their own fundraising far exceed that of the UW. Securing funding for 2-3 years, means UW partner agencies can focus on delivering programs that serve their communities.

  19. Nancy
    Nancy says:

    Thanks for this post.

    I get frustrated by non-profit, foundation, and fund rules that insist that grants go only to nonprofits. This presumes that a for-profit project is self-interested, while a not-for-profit project isn’t.

    This disregards the fact that money is only one form of self-interest. So is prestige, career advancement, power, etc. Meanwhile, a small but steady profit isn’t necessarily self-interest — it’s also just survival and good planning.

    The idea that only non-profits are worthy of donated money is silly. Autism organizations collect buckets of money that they heap onto university research teams — who use the funds to further their career goals and their status in their research community and to attract grad students to the university. Yes, they do autism research too, but so far, none of that research has yielded anything useful.

    What if intead those millions in grant money had been given to occupational therapy clinics, private specialized clinics, one-on-one service providers, small autism-focused businesses, etc., or just to the parents themselves to allow them to buy more services and training?

    How much greater good would that have accomplished?

  20. Jake
    Jake says:

    Being a non-profit is no excuse for treating people poorly.

    That’s true, but nonprofits treat their employees poorly all the time, because many of those employees (or their managers) are what we call True Believers, meaning that they assume the nature of their work should cause everyone else to share their enthusiasm and/or willingness to sacrifice for what they perceive to be the greater good.

    This is also the reason many nonprofits have trouble finding a highly skilled grant writer: they don’t realize that their competition isn’t other nonprofits, but private sector occupations like being a lawyer or consultant.

    (Apologies for the self-aggrandizing links in this post, but the subjects you discuss are ones that we deal with constantly and thus have written about in depth.)

    • Elizabeth
      Elizabeth says:

      Jake- Is your contention that “nonprofits treat their employees poorly all the time” opinion or observation? Either way, I have to disagree. Having worked for six nonprofits of varying missions and sizes, as well as for-profit companies, I can say that most of my nonprofit employers treated their staff extremely well. Low pay was sometimes compensated for with flexible scheduling or additional benefits, and the organizational culture was almost always both inspiring and professional. If you’ve had bad personal experiences working for nonprofits yourself, I hope you’ll give others a chance instead of writing off the entire sector with a sweeping generalization.

    • Genevieve
      Genevieve says:

      I’ve gotten a sense for the True Believer situation in the environmental field. I’m currently looking for a job in environmental education and many of the entry level jobs I’ve seen and applied for do not even pay a livable wage or provide health insurance. $10 an hour in Washington, D.C. and no benefits? I don’t think so. Health insurance is crucial for me because I have a pre-existing medical condition. I’ve been determined to be medically ineligible for health insurance by two different major insurance companies! One can only sacrifice so much. Doing what you love can turn into doing what you hate very easily.

  21. Doug
    Doug says:

    I know a few people who work at nonprofits, and for the most part they like their old for profit jobs better. The chief reason seems to be the zero sum game office politics and bureaucracy. In for profit, there’s more likely to be revenue growth, unexpected new areas of opportunity, and at smaller companies, a far more entrepreneurial environment. Even small not for profits usually have posted org. charts, salary increases based on pre-determined guidelines, and written procedures on how to do your job. One friend told me her 30 person not for profit felt like IBM.

    A friend of mine is thinking of starting a for profit company that serves not for profits. He’s committed to his cause, but wants to remove the shackles of working in such an overly structured environment.

  22. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    I’ve worked in both sectors, and ironically I found that non-profit organizations are often far more “money obsessed” than larger, successful businesses and corporations.

    Because they don’t know where the next grant is coming from, penny pinching is the norm on everything from salaries to reasonable on-the-job expenses. Staff and volunteers are forced, cajoled, pushed hard to put in a lot of unreasonable hours.

    A successful business, by contrast, often has multiple, reliable steady income streams, so reasonable investments in equipment (computers etc.), Blackberries for staff, etc. can be budgeted for and paid for as can reasonable expenses and salaries for staff. In a busy season, extra staff can be hired so others can work more normal hours.

    Great post.

  23. delia
    delia says:

    i likie that youre shining a light on the idea that it isn’t black and white, and that being for-profit doesn’t make the company money-hungry and evil.

    Unfortunately, in #3 you’ve traded one black and white for another. instead of assuming for-profit=hearltess and non-profit=saintly, you’ve settled on for-profit=efficient and run by sweethearts whereas non-profit=inefficient and run by assholes.

    neither set of view is helpful or correct.

  24. Shannon
    Shannon says:

    Very interesting article! I think it should be acceptable for non-profit employees to make competitive wages. Unfortunately, contributers are turned off by the thought that their hard-earned dollars are supporting someone’s competitive salary (or any kind of salary). It would be nice to think that that mindset is changing.

    I must echo JennG, though, and disagree with you about United Way. Our community boasts a fantastic United Way that works with our other local not-for-profits to fill gaps in available services. They also raise over $6 Million annually (honoring donor designation requests) and VOLUNTEERS decide where the dollars go, not United Way. And while I agree with you that people are more than capable of deciding themselves where to put their money – I doubt that even a tenth of our community’s 30k + donors would make the effort to give somewhere if they weren’t giving (easily and without any effort on their part) through their paycheck. Not all UWs are the same and I wish that you would do a little more research and not generalize.

    My two cents…

    • Rose Jeudi
      Rose Jeudi says:

      That’s a great point, Shannon. I live in Dallas and the local United Way does a great job. I worked for a company that is a huge supporter of UW and pretty much every body gives during the UW campaign. So, even if the more initiated folks research ALL their local options and make a donation, the majority of people would not donate if it weren’t for the convenience of UW.

  25. Jenna
    Jenna says:

    Want another way to fundraise for non-profits? Check out http://www.cafegive.com, where a portion of every purchase goes to supporting great causes. How sweet is that? Get what you need and make a difference in the world. Check us out and let me know what you think. We would love a shout out on your blog. Thanks!

  26. Alan
    Alan says:

    Great post. I gave up on the United Way years ago, after William Aramony embezzled money from it. They are SO twentieth century!

  27. Rose Jeudi
    Rose Jeudi says:

    Great article! However, I would disagree with your point on United Way. They provide a great service to local non-profits. Yes, in the age of the internet we can directly donate to the CARE and CRS of the world. However, in my experience working with local/grass root NPOs, organizations like the United Way and the Junior League is a major source of funding, without which they would not survive.

    To your point about NPO salaries being an insult, I completely agree! In grad school most of my peers thought I was crazy when I changed my concentration from grassroots international development to international finance b/c I found I-dev salaries to be insulting ($30K-$40K w/no insurance and savings plan).

  28. Lisa Earle McLeod
    Lisa Earle McLeod says:

    Well said,

    we create a false dichotomy in our minds when we believe that we have to choose between making a difference and making money,

    And then because we believe in the false choice that we ourselves have created, we set up systems that support that belief.

    I must say I think we women suffer from this more than men. It’s almost like we can’t count it as doing good if we get paid for it.

    Lisa Earle McLeod

  29. Larry
    Larry says:

    Having worked in both the for-profit and nonprofit worlds, Penelope, I can confirm your thoughts are spot on.

    I’m currently working for a nonprofit, and am frequently contacted by colleagues for advice on how to move into that world. They believe there is something intrinsically more motivating in working for an organization whose purpose is to make a difference in the world. For many people, there is.

    But the reality is that you still have to get yourself out of bed every morning to do the work and deal with the people in the organization. If you don’t enjoy what you are doing or are stuck in a poor work environment or labor for an organization that never gets anything done, it doesn’t matter whether the organization has lofty goals or not. Bottom line is the best situation is to find work that is fulfilling for you, and that means a good fit with your skills, personality, goals and values. Some people find that in the for-profit world. Some find it at nonprofits.

    Thanks for broaching this topic.

  30. salesforce employee
    salesforce employee says:

    salesforce employees continually deliver back to the community and work incredibly hard for the community.

    I am appalled at the lack of spirit in the not-for-profit community. The not-for-profit is very scared of embracing technologies and acting like a “business” –continually improving their employees and continually trying to make efficiencies.

    I challenge the not-for profit world to be a little more efficient, invest in their employees and turn the current sentiment around.

  31. Beth V.
    Beth V. says:

    Let me propose, "Non-Profits Getting Rich Off Feminism."

    This is an issue I’ve been thinking a lot of lately, and wanted to generate some open and honest discussion about the nature of feminist work and its very problematic areas. Non-profits included. Are feminists getting “rich” off feminism: is it fair, or simply just an example of the “privileged” and those with “power” being valued more than those without?

    What is the proper monetary compensation for “feminist” work? Are feminist activists getting properly compensated for the work they put forth to create what they believe is better world? Further, what are the “ethical and power” implications of “making money and getting rich” off feminism? More explicitly, what are the connections between how much feminists are paid for their work, and what does it say about how “feminism is viewed?”

    Time and time again, everyone has heard many young feminists, having graduated from college, express the desire to devote their lives to feminist work, but are also hit with the realization that within such work, little money is made, and that often times, the salaries paid within feminist communities simply do not compare to those with other careers. We have all heard it, knowing those, previously having worked for a non-profit that paid them $1,900 a month to work six days a week, 12 hours a day, and having to drive about an hour each way to work. No benefits.

    This is, for me, a result of “feminist work” not being lucrative – that is, unless workers are actively “making” money, rather than “changing” lives, they are not seen as being valuable. Further, because the majority of feminist organizations are non-profit, money is scarce, and as a result, are unable to pay their workers the proper compensation or benefits for their work – while this is something that cannot change, it is a symptom of the way some, even the feminists, view non-profits – that somehow, within the non-profit community, sheer values and convictions are enough. Until they change this mindset, and start to actively donate to these organizations, not just so they can help others, but so that they can pay themselves, they cannot expect change. The world runs on “money” and not “nobility” – so no matter how “noble” a person thinks “feminist work” is, and no matter how many cards and thank-you letters they send, you will continue to see young “feminists leaving feminist work” for other types of work as this continues.

    On the other hand, if they have an "ethical question" of how “much is too much” when making “money off feminism.” If feminism is about “truly” about enhancing women’s lives, is it “appropriate to get rich” beyond comfortable within the feminist community?

    Whether it’s Gloria Steinem receiving a $10,000 paycheck for a speech, or sexual assault prevention organizations charging hundreds of dollars a person for training conferences, or the National Organization for Women or Planned Parenthood president making “six-figures” a year, "ethical questions" have to be taken into account. To what extent is it a “mere compensation” for very important work, and to which does it appear to be “exploiting the presence of sexism” for “monetary” gain? What does this say about the hierarchy within feminism? What does it say about “power,” and further, why do they put “more value” over "theory" as opposed to "actual" work?

    The point is certain areas of feminism (except the actual work) are “still unexplored gold mines,” and as they continue to move forth in doing feminism, there will no doubt be a time when "questions of conduct and ethics arise."

    I don’t have all answers to these questions, except that the “criticism of feminists” getting rich off feminism being "unethical" – and is a reflection of the biases we each hold about feminist work not being “real” work.

    So, what are your experiences with "compensation and feminist" work? What are the things they are doing right and wrong? What do they need to "change," and most importantly, what can they do to ensure young feminist activists do not burn out over the lack of proper compensation? Lastly, feminists getting "rich" off feminism: is it fair, or simply just an example of the "privileged" and "those with power" being valued more than those without?

    Let me ask, how much should a CEO and Executives of a feminist organization be paid for a salary and benefits?

    Beth V.

  32. Kathleen
    Kathleen says:

    Penelope, I think your post is a great call to action – we all owe it to the community around us to give back. I disagree with your slap down on United Way, though. I’m a volunteer with my local United, and I signed up because I think they take such a holistic perspective on the needs of the entire community. As a result, they’re able to channel funds to many small agencies that serve critical needs, but don’t have the budget to toot their own horn or lower visibility. And, since they encourage donor designation, they offer a great chance for people to designate where they want their money to go. I make lots of donations to organizations that I know well because I believe in their cause and I have some insight to how they’re run, but I also contribute to United Way to make sure that organizations I don’t know about are also getting financial support for meeting important needs in my community.

  33. Mike
    Mike says:

    Nobility don’t put food on the table.

    And the starving kids in Africa don’t care where their money comes from. They have no luxury to ponder such philosophical questions about the nature of charity – they just want the damn food.

    Sometimes an efficient business can give much more to the community than a clumsy, inefficient non-profit.

  34. RickSmithAuthor
    RickSmithAuthor says:

    Here here! So many executives I deal with will say, “when i retire from this big corporate job, I will give back.” I tell them, you will likely never be in a more influential position to do good than now.

    In my current book, The Leap, one of the most powerful stories is that of Silvia Lagnado, the mild mannered brand manager for Dove, who launched the Campaign for Real Beauty. Sure, they were never about NOT selling product, but she did amazing things in the process, getting a powerful message out about doing the right thing.

    Rick Smith

  35. Tara
    Tara says:

    This post is about so much more than profits and non-profits. Telling people that we have the opportunity to “do good” and improve the world no matter where we are or what we do is one of your biggest messages ever. Thank you for saying it, as you always do, so clearly.

  36. Dan M.
    Dan M. says:


    Thank you for this post. I like your question “How direct do you want to be?” Could you develop it into a full post?

    I disagree with your depiction of United Way. I have served as a local United Way board member for the past two years. We have no staff and fund 17 agencies with our $130,000 raised. Our donors support us because we have integrity (we review funded agencies annually) and our donors prefer convenience (one gift instead of 17 individual gifts).

    • Heather
      Heather says:

      1. I challenge the belief that nonprofits are extremely inefficient healthcare providers. I work with community clinics and they are mandated to provide a certain level of service to all individuals, regardless of their ability to pay. Plus they have to participated in a stakeholder-based decision-making process as a nonrpofit, so there are inherent differences.

      2. Also, I think the idea that somebody is only responsible for their own selves and family is terribly wrong. We are all in this boat together and need to care for our neighbors.

      3. Regarding Walton and providing goods/services at prices all can afford: it’s only because prices do not capture all costs associated with the product, since Walmart actively encourages its employees to enroll in government health programs, has been proven to discriminate in employment practices, operates as a monopoly in small towns, etc.

  37. Dan
    Dan says:


    I work in for profit healthcare and can assure you, that in this industry, non profits are extremely inefficient. I prefer the Walton’s family view of charity, more in line with my own, the family has done more for society by their free enterprise model of both employing people as well as providing goods and services people need at prices we all can afford. Amen to that.

    As for your husband not having insurance. Who cares and what did you expect? It’s a non profit, NOT the government which steals money. If he didn’t like his job, he should have quit and gone to a place with benefits, but you and Obama need to quit asking me to pay for your health care, it’s NOT MY RESPONSIBILITY. I have a wife and kid to support, and that’s my only responsibility. You and Obama can go smoke some dope and protest the war, but I will take care of my family and keep your hands out of my pockets.

  38. Lynn @ human, being
    Lynn @ human, being says:

    My first job out of college was for a for-profit managed care company, and I felt like I was wearing the black hat, a liar writing marketing and “wellness” copy about how that company would be “there for you,” while watching it deny legitimate claims to a coworker with breast cancer. I quit after 2 years,swearing never to work for a for-profit again. My next 3 jobs, including the my current job, were with large nonprofits where I could feel like I was actually doing good in the world. For the past 10 years, a good portion of my job has been dedicated to writing pieces that aim to bring in donations. I see where the money goes because I write about where the money goes. That’s the feel-good.

    But even in this abysmal job market, I’m making about 70% of what my peers who work at for-profits make. I have good insurance, but theirs is better, and cheaper. I have a flexible schedule, but then, so do they. And that extra 30% more they’re making? Some of my friends are donating a lot of it every year.

    I’ve always thought that I AM MY JOB AND EMPLOYER, and therefore if I am working for a for-profit, then I am [insert all negative things about for-profit companies here]. I’m at the beginning of an epiphany that I could actually do work that matters to my company even if my company sells widgets (although never tobacco). And I can choose companies to work for not only based upon their stability, but also their own social policies, contributions to the community, dedication to giving staff paid time off for volunteering or to matching donations.

    I’ve been a slave to the cause, putting up with a lack of staffing, doing the jobs of two or three people because, as one commenter said, no donor wants to pay for overhead, being limited to one professional development opportunity a year paid for by my employer, being my own IT person and just dealing with lack of funding for equipment (or envelopes, buying them myself). I just turned 40, and I think I’m over it.

    I’ll probably never work for a managed care company again, but there may be valiance in working for something other than a charity. I’m ready to find out.

  39. Christi
    Christi says:

    I spent a decade in the non-profit sector as a fundraiser before changing gears & careers. Fundraisers are typically paid on the upper end of the non-profit pay scale, so my move to Corporate America was essentially lateral in salary with stock options that aren’t in great shape right now. I don’t know that I’ll stay on the corporate side, but since I’m responsible for my company’s charitable giving program, if I move back to charitable sector, I’ll have a different way to to view fundraising.
    What I’ve learned about myself in this change is that I’m interested in building programs that change an organization and that can be on the for-profit, non-profit or public sector. We all have a role to play in changing the world.

    • Dan
      Dan says:


      You really need to give more details? Insurer’s I have known pay all legitimate claims. it’s possible this lady’s insurance policy did not cover her breast cancer. if that was the case and she didn’t pay higher premiums to cover it, why would they pay for it? it’s the equivalent of going into a store, buying broccoli and paying a lower price for it, and then demanding Angus Steak because you realize you needed it later, and demanding the price you paid for broccoli should cover the cost.

      I don’t think so, there are two sides to every story.

  40. Blake
    Blake says:

    You hit the nail on the head; especially with #2 “Some non-profits are doing less than some for-profits” I must say after working for a non-profit in the past, that’s something i wont do again.

    My tenure was merely two months before i couldn’t stand it anymore. Inefficiency is high, ego issues are even higher. Moreover, when some non-profits have a laundry list of long standing donors, what incentive do they have to be efficient? There are some good non-profits out there but my single experience has me somewhat jaded.

  41. Robert
    Robert says:

    I have a choice to do my job in the corporate world, the government space, or in the non-profit world. My team is responsible for disaster recovery at a Fortune 100 company whose products and services impact the lives of millions of people. In the government space (FEMA) we would fight bureaucracy and politics. In the non-profit world (Red Cross) we would deploy a feeble response and start immediately begging people for contributions. Instead, in the corporate world we deploy hundreds or thousands of people quickly to a disaster, restore services, and provide assistance to entire populations of displaced and impacted people. Yes, the corporate world is motivated by profits, but corporations play a huge role in local communities and often are more capable at solving problems than government or non-profits.

  42. Sandy
    Sandy says:

    Penelope this is another post that clearly you are misleading your readers, The Robin Hood Foundation which you claim gives all of it’s money to poverty groups it targets is a fantasy. David Saltzman who runs the organization is for the monies they collect one of the most overpaid CEO;s per funds collected in the industry. Receing a salary of over $500,000 per year. Their expenses growth is larger than their revenue growth.
    If you are going to blog get the facts correct and stop misleading people.

  43. Cecil
    Cecil says:

    Wow, the depth of your statistical research is overwhelming. Because your ex-husband didn't get paid well at a non-profit, then it must be concluded that non-profits don't pay well and don't provide benefits. A little research online definitely shows that this is not the case. Many non-profits pay very well. And just because an entity is a non-profit doesn't mean that that entity is beneficial to society. Two or three signatures and a few dollars in filing fees will set anyone up as a non-profit.
    A number of non-profits are nothing more than attempts by lazy people to garner public funds and donations while working very little and attempting to pay no taxes. . Just like their for-profit counterparts, there are non-profits that are effectively and efficiently run and provide a great service. There are others that don't provide any true service to the community and do nothing more than pad the pockets of some very lazy and corrupt Americans. It is beyond my comprehension why Inc Magazine would consider this a top blog, unless a small business was trying to capture the young, liberal, divorced female market and wanted to know about their clouded understanding of the world.

  44. transfer smart
    transfer smart says:

    It is a matter of comfort, people are love to work in non profit org because they love it they are dedicated on this, even though they don’t have a satisfactory salary but it comfort there soul and complete their happiness. I really like your post, very interesting and learns a lot.

  45. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    Penelope, if the true purpose of this post is to persuade people that they can do good no matter where they are, then why put so much effort into tearing down the nonprofit sector at the expense of building up for-profits? For every United Way, there’s an innocent organization scared to raise its salaries because nonprofits and their employees are supposed to be completely self-sacrificing.

    I agree that the business world is changing, and nonprofits need to let go of some of their insularity and adapt. But there is as much to be gained by working from within the sector to build effective partnerships, to institute best practices, and to articulate to board members and the public the justification for competitive salaries and benefits (see the V3 Campaign at http://www.v3campaign.org/ for one example) as there is in reinventing all the wheels – including the ones that aren’t broken beyond repair.

  46. Happy Guy
    Happy Guy says:

    …but they need to create a profit in order to keep their stock price up and pass money on to shareholder

    That’s true of any for-profit entity, regardless of their product. In Merck’s case, excess profits also allows them to invest in R&D.

    Nonprofits are generally very bad at R&D except for specialized cooperatives like Bellcore. Even government-spurred investments — the integrated circuit, the Internet — usually have much more success channeling money to the private sector in the form of contracts than through direct R&D.

    I’ve worked in both for-profits and nonprofits and, sadly, found that nonprofits don’t attract the same level of talent. The exceptions are nonpartisan government organizations like the OCC’s bank examiners and the NTSB.

  47. JL
    JL says:

    Great post, Penelope!

    I agree, especially in light of Beth V.’s comment on the feminist activist nonprofit ghetto.

    I’m tired of being an Admin. Asst. with a Masters degree yet few advancement opportunities. My nonprofit community seems to be dominated by social workers, a very low-paying and exhausting route I will not go. I’m at a dead end until I gain some skills or education in another field!

  48. Chaely Chartier
    Chaely Chartier says:

    I feel the same way. I work for a non-profit in my chosen career path & although I know I’m doing a lot of good I can’t help but feel like it would be easier to call it quits and take up a job at the local grocery store so I can have insurance. I am also the only uninsured person in my office because I’m the only one without a spouse and my salary puts me below the poverty line.

    It is not fair to think that I have to make a decision between doing what I love & being able to support myself. It’s not fair that doing good for your community isn’t good enough to earn a decent living wage.

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