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Does the Nonprofit Sector Really Welcome Young People with Open Arms?

young leaders
Graphic of young leaders.

By Miko Pugal, RVC Fellow and AGE UP Capacity Coordinator

Life after high school is hard.

There’s a rhetoric out there, especially within immigrant families, that pursuing higher education is the only route to success. This is a narrative is one many of us have internalized, and it’s also one that is a hard pill to swallow.  

Growing up, the messaging I got was that going to college and earning a degree will yield a sense of fulfilment, that feeling that you’re doing something with your life, that you should feel good about yourself, that you’re good enough and deserve better.

When I was younger, I actually felt like I wasn’t good enough for college. I felt that I wasn’t good enough to pull myself up by the bootstraps, that I shouldn’t feel good about myself. What got stuck in me was that messaging — that rhetoric of how college is the only a way for me to feel good about myself, that I had to be a graduate to feel like I was a worthwhile human.

These expectations gave me anxiety.

Notably, what got me through my anxiety was not higher education, but doing work in my community, being involved with an organization that allowed me to go all the way back to the middle school I attended to coach Ultimate Frisbee. I worked with young men in my community, focusing around a sport, yes, but also around mental and emotional health.

The Cost and Pay of Nonprofit Work

When I was much younger, the image of nonprofit work that I had stereotyped in my head was one of big charities hosting giant phone bank campaigns, folks canvassing door-to-door for money, and people getting a nice chunk of change for their work.

This wasn’t the the reality that I discovered. As a young person without a college degree, here are some of the things that I have contended with, while working in the nonprofit sector:

1. We Have to Take a Financial Hit in Order to Do Good

For organizations that don’t have the capacity or the budget to hire full-time or even part-time employees, getting funded through Americorps partnerships is a way that organizations hire folks. However, when I was an Americorp staff, I was making $220 every two weeks, working 20 hours per week. In Seattle, where housing is expensive, the pay did not cut it. The pay made it hard for me to financially juggle day-to-day living expenses. But I knew the work that I was doing was important. I knew that working with young people is important. I felt committed to my community, yet I didn’t feel properly compensated for the emotional and physical labor that I was doing.

2. Many People Cannot “Afford” to Do Good Under the Existing Model

The feeling of having to sacrifice my well being for the the greater good is a frustrating and complicated feeling. For many Brown and Black folks who want to engage in community work, AmeriCorps offers so many job opportunities, but if these folks are low-income or come from low-income communities, being an Americorps employee will keep you in poverty.

3. We are Told that Self-Sacrifice is Expected and Normal

What is the messaging we end up internalizing when we only get paid $440 per paycheck?  We are getting told that community work — the emotional labor and the physical labor it takes to engage with and help people who are living in oppression — is only worth $440 every paycheck for a full-time employee. We are getting told that to be good people, we should be ready to self-sacrifice.

This kind of self-sacrifice is unhealthy and ultimately unsustainable. People invariably become experts the longer they stay in an organization, yet because of the limitations of AmeriCorps, these experts end up leaving organizations because they cannot support themselves or their families.

Many of the opportunities to be involved in nonprofit work comes from AmeriCorps positions. However, for young people who comes from low-income, refugee, first generation, and communities of color, being paid little for work only continues to perpetuate poverty cycles and institutional inequities that these organizations are trying to work against.  

Needing Experience to Gain Experience

The for-profit world is infected with the notion of you need ‘experience’ to be hired, but what they actually mean is that you need the prescribed kind of experience that comes from a very narrow set of criteria.

Young people of color face this all of the time. They apply for a position but are not qualified because their resume isn’t filled with the right past work experience, recommendations from supervisors, or a college degree.

And don’t think that nonprofit practices are far from this. They aren’t.

Why don’t we assume that young nonprofit professionals already have experience in different, non-conventional ways? Why do we need a college degree to work with young people? Why do we need a college degree to further the mission of an organization? A good middle ground: I’ve seen job applications that ask that their applicants have either a college degree or equivalent work experience.  I think this is a great approach. In terms of myself, I don’t have a college degree, but I do have more than five years of direct service experience.

The Hierarchy in Nonprofits

In my experience, young folks have an easier time getting hired to do direct service/programming work, but there’s a barrier of entry to leadership positions.

Executive directors, finance directors, and development directors get paid a significantly higher rate than employees running programs. Now, my problem isn’t that people shouldn’t be paid differently. I am just calling out how organizations value work and how they choose individuals put at the higher-value work tier. Yes, it is important for organizations to have strong development teams in order to increase funding and donations. Yes, it is important to have an executive director who manages and builds relationships with VIP stakeholders.

But the stories that the executive directors share with VIP stakeholders and the stories development teams are sharing as they fundraise are stories of programs and of people who have benefitted from programs.

Young people get stuck in the cycle of needing to have experience in order to gain experience! These higher leadership position in organizations almost always require college degrees, a specific certification, and specialized trainings. All of these are barriers of entry and makes these positions not very accessible to some populations and also young people. A lot of training around board development, fundraising, and operations are filled with jargon and are boring. Until organizations are intentional about who is being served in these trainings, the leadership demographics will always remain the same. (Note: About 82 percent of nonprofit leaders are white. About 94 percent of nonprofit executive directors are over 40 years old.)

We Need to Change

Organizations should foster more young leaders by being more intentional and transparent in how an organization is run. Organizations should be transparent with such things like how the budget is set, the role of the board, strategic fundraising, and how all aspects of operations keep the doors of the organization open. I think an easy way to incorporate intentional growth for young people doing program work at organizations is to imperatively incorporate new tasks and responsibilities into these young people’s jobs, and also making sure these employees are supported as responsibility is added. There should also be stipends for trainings, conferences, and other career growth opportunities for young people.

Other ways of changing the system could include engaging with Rainier Valley Corps by applying to be an RVC Fellow, creating capacity for staff members to work on projects that reflects director-level work as well as creating internships that also mirrors some director-level work.

If we start to do these kinds of things, I believe that the face of this sector will change within a generation. To give people opportunities for growth is an act of honoring their humanity.