Misogyny & How It Affects Nonprofit Salaries

A cut-out of Grumpy Cat that was attached to my computer while on vacation once. RIP, Grumpy Cat.

A cut-out of Grumpy Cat that was attached to my computer while on vacation once. RIP, Grumpy Cat.

I’ve been reading Winners Take All, the thought-provoking, occasionally maddening book by Anand Giridharadas about how the solutions to income inequality/racism/sexism/all the other -isms, have become dictated by wealthy people who earned their inordinate amount of money by building businesses that are deeply entrenched in all the systems that subvert the people that the wealthy people have now decided to help. I have a lot of thoughts about this book but for now I’m going to focus on one throwaway line about how, instead of fighting to change systems that reduce systemic oppression of people, people argue that people in the nonprofit world should be paid better to retain/attract well educated and/or experienced leaders.

“On the question of extreme wealth inequality, a critic might call for economic redistribution or even racial reparation. A thought leader, by contrast, could opine on how foundation bosses should be paid higher salaries so that the poor can benefit from the most capable leadership.”

Giridharadas is specifically talking about foundation staff, which are a particular (affluent) section of the nonprofit landscape. But the same discussion often happens around the CEO of a giant nonprofit being able to make as much money as their corporate counterpart and the brain-drain that happens as people realize they could leave and make significantly more money. Every once in a while, some “exposé” will come out about  the CEO of Red Cross (or other behemoth nonprofit) making $500,000 when he (because it’s usually a he) could be making a respectable $100,000 and all the rest of that money could be going to starving children in Ethiopia. HOW DARE HE BE SO SELFISH.

On its face, I get this argument. It’s another white man (because, again, these exposés are generally about white men. Maybe a white woman.) becoming rich by running a company supposedly built to help the poor. But what it ignores is the layers of misogyny and racism that such an idea promotes. I’ve been promising a rant on this for a minute so, in the words of Jerri Blank, let’s go there now.

To pretend that increasing wages in the nonprofit world is not in part offsetting systemic oppressive systems that have shaped our capitalist economy is ridiculous. Much of what the nonprofit sector does is what is generally considered “women’s work.” Feeding children, housing immigrants, counseling strangers. Direct service work is emotional labor - something we, as a society, love to not pay for. Empathy, vulnerability, and compassion are all the backbone tenets of our work and also the traits we expect from women and dismiss in men. To ignore this piece is to ignore one of the fundamental, if unintentional, reasons that funders et al have allowed the creation of a system that underpays its workers. People don’t want to pay for it because they used to getting this kind of labor for free. Misogyny is what propels the myth that the mission justifies the pay. Well - a combination of misogyny and a white savior complex. But if part of Giridharadas’ argument is that the people being oppressed should be the ones in the room, he needs to also understand that means they should also be compensated accordingly. And not just compensated, but compensated well. When you deride the CEO of a large nonprofit for their salary, it causes ripple effects that, once again, end up hurting those most in need. It means that funders put a cap on “overhead costs” so that they don’t see their names in headlines - which in turn means that the tiny nonprofit trying to get off the ground can’t get funding because they want to get paid for their labor. (If your annual budget is $200,000 and there’s a 10% cap on overhead, that doesn’t exactly cover a lot.) And, if you missed the point, those organizations are often led by women and people of color, building organizations that are helping the same.

We like to pretend - as Giridharadas again often points out - that these are discrete conversations. That the salary of one highly-paid executive does not affect anyone outside of his team. But public perception around the efficacy and value of nonprofit staff has real monetary impact. If people think that nonprofits are inherently corrupt - that they cannot be trusted to spend money well, that they just want to line their pockets, that they are exploiting the people they try to serve - people will give less. Communities will suffer. And as of yet, our government is not interceding on their behalf.

And for the record - brain-drain in the nonprofit world is also real. There is only so long that you can go burning yourself out and breaking even before you hit a wall (hi! hello!). There are important ways to talk about wealth disparity in the world and the huge structures that need to be moved, but also you can also change the way you give today. Specifically by giving large amounts of unrestricted funds to the smallest, POC-led organizations you can find.