I’ve been thinking for awhile about how I want to comment on this Nicholas Kristof blog post, as well as his preceding column, regarding money, salaries, and the international nonprofit world. There are a few different issues at work here: whether nonprofits should be run more like businesses; whether charity and profit can can happily (and morally) co-exist; and whether nonprofit and humanitarian organizations are too far removed from, or not concerned enough about, providing their staff competitive, liveable salaries and professional training and opportunities for career advancement.
As for the issue of “nonprofits being run like businesses,” like Kristoff and Charlie MacCormack, head of Save the Children and profiled in our book, I am ambivalent, probably because I don’t know enough about running a nonprofit to offer a solid opinion. If running a nonprofit like a business means the organization will be run more effectively and have more resources to accomplish its mission and spread the word about its work and pay its hard working employees better, well then, that seems like a good (if unrealistic) thing. If running a nonprofit like a business leads to lavishly paid executives and poor management, as Kristof points out has happened in many a business like Citigroup, well then, that seems like a bad thing. I know that Sherry has very specific opinions about this idea and I look forward to hearing them.
What I have very specific opinions about, as a young professional trying to build not only his career but financial house as well, is the third issue: nonprofit compensation and professional training. Kristof’s post dredged up in me a recurring frustration (that I know is shared by many young people) of how we can balance the desire for a career in international education, exchange, and development nonprofits (or any nonprofits, for that matter) and the desire for a respectable, living wage. This struggle is not new and has been chronicled, codified, and ultimately vented about. MacCormack cuts straight to the issue in his comments featured on Kristof’s blog post:
I am convinced that humanitarian organizations such as Save the Children are too far over in the opposite direction — our uncompetitive salaries make it almost impossible for people to develop real careers; our under-investment in staff development hampers performance.
It really can’t be reasonably argued that nonprofits are not severely lacking in the salaries (and often professional development) they provide their employees. Okay. So how can this be fixed? Kristof (and MacCormack) argue that a shift in the nonprofit mindset, especially when it comes to donors, is necessary. Currently there is too much scrutiny from donors on overhead—any funds not spent directly on the mission, but rather on results-oriented monitoring and evaluation or staff salary and development, is viewed negatively and tantamount to the cardinal sin of nonprofits, “mission-drift.” A realignment of the mindset held by donors (and management), and consequently the use of more resources on things like advertising and assessment and staff compensation, will lead to a more accountable and transparent (and self-aware) organization with a happier, well-taken care of staff, all of which undoubtedly will lead to better performance in pursuit of the mission.
All of this seems to be right on. However, I would argue that at least two other deeply embedded aspects of the nonprofit culture need to shift, in conjunction with what Kristof proposes, for things to really start getting better, especially us young people, the “successor generation.”