To my dismay, charitable nonprofits are popularly referred to as the “third” or “voluntary” sector, behind the business and public sectors. “Behind” is the operative word, as having our roots and fabric in volunteerism has strangely stigmatized our workforce among donors, funding sources and the general public as somehow not deserving or being worthy of reasonable and competitive compensation.
A workforce crisis has plagued community-based charities for decades and it is largely due to the fact that we are unrealistically expected to perform amazing feats with an under-compensated workforce. We are increasingly expected to not only do more with less, but to do better with less and to do so with ever-increasing accountability, professional skills and qualifications. It is a system that at times seems to be set up for failure.
The system is fueled by a general attitude of many funding stakeholders that our work can be and should be done quite frankly, “on the cheap”. Nonprofits are expected to perform services with less money than it costs for us to provide, and ironically, with a workforce that often earns well below the salaries and benefits that those stakeholders offer to their employees.
Having a minimum wage is a good thing, and as the Governor is proposing, it should be raised to a level that allows a worker to meet his or her basic needs in life. If it does not do that, then why even have a minimum in the first place.
However, simply raising the minimum wage, without also addressing the cultural and policy context that systematically undervalues the monetary importance of our work, will continue to erode the charitable infrastructure that is essential to the social and economic fabric of our communities.
We need to broaden our advocacy to make sure that raising the minimum wage also helps solve the sustainability and workforce problems of nonprofits and does not in the end, exacerbate them. This means having a meaningful conversation beyond what the State of New York can do now to build wage increases into human service contracts. The business or revenue reality of most nonprofits is highly diverse and includes federal and local governments, foundations, United Ways, donors, etc.
The wage debate provides our nonprofit community with the unique opportunity to make our case to the public for our own workforce investment initiative and to change our stigma as a less worthy sector.
Doug Sauer, CEO
New York Council of Nonprofits, Inc. (NYCON)
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