A Message to Non-Profit Social Change Organizations in 140 Characters

citation in frame

My 140: creative & exploitation are not synonymous; when they r used interchangeably there is no revolutionary change going on

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I tweeted this in response to the idea that part-time and volunteer workers at non-profits are being asked to foot more and more of the bill for social service provision at a time when people need more services than ever. My problem is both with the idea that nonprofits cannot afford to hire full time grant writers because they are too expensive and that somehow the burden should be placed on the backs of the lowest paid workers instead.

While grant writer salaries are incredibly high, most grant writers can and do write grants to continually fund their positions while at the same time working on large and targeted funding for agencies as a whole. Though the money can and does dry up, they generally help ensure a much steadier flow of capital into the agency which in turn ensures better pay for and retention of workers. When you recruit workers with existing skills needed by service seekers and then are able to retain them over an extended period of time, your services improve, your clients are better served, and workers have more than their ideals to keep them going.

Underpaid workers have always been a cornerstone of social service. What galls me however is that many social service agencies have taken to humiliating or undermining workers who cannot and should not have to take on additional burdens to offset agency costs. For instance, at a late afternoon meeting today I overheard a young woman tear into her volunteers for not printing out needed materials on their home computers. She implied that their failure to make their own printouts and copies was tantamount to sending homeless women back out into the street with neither clothes nor food and water. When one of the volunteers pointed out that her printer was old and could not print multiple copies for the agency as well as print the papers for her classes, her supervisor insinuated that it was a matter of care and credibility. Either she cared about their clients and was committed to the work they were doing or she was selfish. There was never a thought that maybe asking volunteers to pay for an agency’s printing and copying was where the selfishness lay.

The situation reminded me of a conversation I had at the end of my own volunteer service for a women’s crisis drop in center as an undergraduate. I had a broken down two seater car inherited from my grandfather. It barely drove and broke down regularly. Yet I spent so many hours at the drop in center that most women seeking services and other agencies thought I was staff. My name was consistently at the top of the “rock star” list, a list that praised people for contributing more than the minimum hours. And many nights I had even gone in on 10 minutes notice to sub for other PAID workers and even trained a few.

Yet one particularly bad car week, I had had to cancel my shift 3 times because the car would not start and I was unable to get home in the wee hours of the night when my shift would end. Suddenly my 30-60 hour volunteer week had no meaning to the Coordinator who had to scramble to take my place or transfer crisis calls to my home. I was instantly transformed from a rock star to a loser who did not care about women in crisis.

In fact, the Coordinator said to me “Well maybe you should buy a new car already because this is pathetic.” 20 year old me was stunned. She was a lawyer, I was a student on financial aid driving her grandfather’s car. How could I possibly afford a new car? If she’d just been being inconsiderate out of frustration that would still have been rude and inconsiderate, but as the conversation went on it became clear she was serious. In fact she went so far as to say maybe “people like me” should not volunteer if we could not “meet the minimum standards of volunteerism.” Apparently those standards include being middle to upper class but not working more hours than most paid staff.

The idea that I might need to cut back hours at night in exchange for doing more hours in the day or early evening when alternative transportation was available was beyond the elitist framework in which the discussion was couched. When I suggested that maybe I should simply cut back my hours from 60 to the required 10 to make a point about how class expectations were clouding the issue, she suggested I consider quitting if “I wasn’t going to take volunteering seriously.”

Everyone at the agency was in agreement that the Coordinator, not I, was in the wrong here. Apologies were made and plans to switch shifts were floated. The immediacy with which they tried to make amends was heartening but also tinged with discussions of how they would make up for all those late evening hours “no one else wanted to do” and comments like “maybe they would have to just pay someone.” Despite their mostly positive efforts to fix the situation, in light of the original conversation and the side chatter, the damage was done. I no longer looked at the agency the same way nor felt my labor had value to them beyond their immediate gain. While this was likely only slightly true, I was now wary of the next time an emergency would take me away from scheduled hours, hours that it is the Coordinator’s job to schedule a backup volunteer for by the way, because I never wanted to be in a conversation again where my working class background was seen as tantamount to not caring about homeless women’s lives.

I quit that day. But as I watched the young woman tear up in front of her supervisor at my luncheon, I did not think she would. Worse the demands did not end there. Before we had finished eating, this same woman tore into another volunteer because she had shut off her cellphone. From what I could gather, the agency was running several of its intake services through the volunteers phone and was now in a supposed bind because the girl could no longer afford to pay her cellphone bill. The girl explained that she had lost her job several months earlier and let the agency know sooner or later she would likely have to switch phones but the supervisor did not care. She kept demanding the girl figure out a way to pay for extended coverage because the fate of all immigrant women everywhere hung in the balance. Never mind that the agency itself had to have phones and voicemail they could have and should have been using.

While I wanted to believe that this was another case of an overly self-involved middle class “doo gooder” clocking time for her resume and not an agency wide situation, I knew better. In these economic times the number of agencies serving the same population’s needs is diminishing while the need is growing. The number of paid jobs are also shrinking so that for some, the only way to get into the work that they love is to be volunteer staff. Its a dilemma that holds funders, volunteers, and especially service seekers hostage to a system that is no longer serving people’s needs to the best of our abilities.

Often agencies in economic binds are told to “get creative” about their funding issues. That creativity seems to translate not to looking for new funding sources or finding new, cheaper, ways of doing the same thing, but instead to exploiting workers. Every day I see job descriptions that are actually 4 or 5 jobs for the salary of less than one advertised in the service industry. Every day, I get emails and phone calls from students worried they cannot feed their kids, themselves, or pay their basic bills because they dared to go into helping fields. And as I watched this 20-something, upper class, recent grad berate the multicultural cast of working class and student volunteers and part timers, I could not help but wonder what kind of social justice can come out of exploitation masked as economic “creativity.” If one’s own workers and volunteers have no human value than what value do service seekers have in this model? And how exactly are we striving toward a world where everyone has value, equality, and justice when we are not even providing it for the people on whose labor we depend?

It seems to me that a critically unexplored part of the non-profit-industrial-complex is the exploitation of labor and the subsequent exploitation or diminishing of useful services to clients. After all, nothing can change at cash-strapped agencies who have come to take their workers for granted without a critical paradigm shift in the thinking of social justice agencies. As long as money is tight and the answer is to shut down services and rely on underpaid or volunteer workers for everything from phones, to printing, to salary related donations, neither funders nor workers can escape the cycle by which we all poor money into dysfunction to ensure at least one place remains open for service seekers. Agencies know this and so do the supervisors who lament attrition rates in both clients and volunteers without ever asking themselves why.

So I put it to you again, in another way: what kind of social justice can you possibly be working for when you are providing no justice to your least paid workers?

One thought on “A Message to Non-Profit Social Change Organizations in 140 Characters

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention A Message to Non-Profit Social Change Organizations in 140 Characters « Like a Whisper -- Topsy.com

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