8 Nonprofit Phrases, From Least to Most Exploitative, Ranked

Ursula, the sea witch, sits at a desk wearing glasses. "How flexible is your schedule?," she asks. Illustration: Ryan Blocker.

Working at a nonprofit can be profoundly rewarding. However, when we are fortunate enough to work for causes that we believe in, we sometimes overlook the ways in which those institutions can exploit us. In my career, I have frequently prioritized advocating for a mission before advocating for myself — a notion that many of us in the nonprofit sector hold up as admirable, as proof of our commitment. The trouble is that I’m also committed to eating regularly and eventually retiring. The nature of nonprofit exploitation is revealed in the language we use uncritically. I’ve ranked eight common nonprofit phrases from least to most exploitative.

8) “Diverse candidate”:

I have heard and read this phrase repeatedly in job descriptions, but I have no idea what it means. For one, I’ve always been a confused as to how a one person can be “diverse.” It doesn’t make grammatical sense. “Diversity” is such a vague term that it doesn’t usually convey any useful meaning. And what are the positions for which we search for these diverse candidates? Human resources? Yes. Chief Diversity Officer? Certainly. But do we see the term in an executive director search? And once these employees are hired, what kind of voice or institutional support are they granted? “Diverse candidate” can sometimes mean they are looking for a token hire or want to appear inclusive.

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7) “Part-time”:

At a nonprofit, sometimes “part-time” refers more to what an institution is willing or able to pay you than how much you actually work. Tip: If your employer schedules meetings without asking when you’re available, you’re not working “part-time.”

6) “Community engagement/residency/outreach”: 

The exploitative language of a nonprofit doesn’t just apply to the people who work for them. It also applies to those they serve. At a workshop presented by the New Orleans, LA-based People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, one of the facilitators said that a nonprofit will sometimes work in poor communities with the belief that good intentions, even in the absence of expertise, are sufficient to make decisions for and on behalf of those communities. I’ve been involved in several projects where we received funding for a “community residency” without knowing where that residency would be. I have been told to use a neighborhood as a “placeholder” in a grant application. When the term “community” isn’t clearly defined, and when we don’t develop deep, long-lasting relationships where we work, we can do a lot of damage.

5) “Salary commensurate with experience”:

I have yet to meet a nonprofit employer who expects a lesser quality of labor from an employee because that person has less experience than a candidate that they passed on. Perhaps they will grant a bit of a learning curve, but only with the expectation that the hire will soon become as proficient as the more experienced person. There are instances in which more experienced candidates will open an organization to new networks or relationships. But frequently, “salary commensurate with experience” really means “we pay a young person less money for the same work.”

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4) “Provide a salary history”:

Basing compensation on a candidate’s salary history makes sure that people who were underpaid continue to be underpaid — a reality that particularly affects women and people of color. It also excludes candidates who are leaving more lucrative positions for work for which they may be quite passionate and capable. Additionally, as a post on NonprofitAF points out,

What people made in the past has no relevance to the position to which they are applying, so to ask them for this information is a serious violation of their privacy.

Nonprofit employers should be clear and up-front about what they are willing to offer for a job and let the candidate decide if that works for them.

3) “We do it because we love it”:

A nonprofit will offer this platitude in lieu of health care, better wages and a reasonable working schedule. Meant to be a reassuring gesture, the phrase discourages people from advocating for better working conditions. It also makes some problematic assumptions that loving what you do is exclusive to only certain kinds of labor. While passion and love for one’s work are desirable, they are not substitutes for fairness.

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2) “Unpaid internship”:

This was a close contender for the number one slot. A nonprofit is so routinely underfunded (funders often don’t support staff overhead), that work simply doesn’t get done without volunteer labor. But this mechanism birthed out of those unfortunate realities is positioned as something more noble or useful to the employee than it really is. It’s called “resume-building” or a “foot in the door” even though some other employers, nonprofit or otherwise, don’t see internships as being real experience. Unpaid internships additionally exclude people of color and folks from varying socioeconomic backgrounds. And despite the lack of compensation, there is still an expectation of high-skill labor and advanced education.

1) “Other duties as assigned”:

In a nonprofit business, we regularly share responsibilities, and there is a bit of an “all hands on deck” mentality. Indeed, it can potentially be troublesome for nonprofit employees to say “that’s not my job” at every newly assigned task. However, these four words also have the potential to undermine the power of a job description because they ensure that none of the responsibilities enumerated in that description are fixed; a nonprofit (or any) employer can determine or re-determine what a job entails at any time. It turns out that what should be a mutual agreement on tasks is a one-way, binding contract. I think even Ursula, the sea witch, was more lenient in her contracts.

That’s my list. What are some of the exploitative phrases that you hear about in nonprofit work? Leave a comment below.

  • JCortese

    There isn’t one particular phrase that I can think of, but … there is one habit that I have seen, including in one nonprofit that I continue to love like a sibling. Worse yet, I can almost see why they do it.

    It’s the massive gap in middle management, and the expectation that you can only rise so high before your on-job experience and ability stops being enough to allow you to rise higher. There is NO upward mobility past a certain point in nonprofits.

    Say you get hired in in a middle-to-lower management position. You will die there unless you get out, because the only way to get into senior management is to have extremely good connections, a rich man’s rolodex, or to have retired from another extremely well-connected position elsewhere. Basically, if you are a manager, you will NEVER be a CXO or a senior VP. Ever. They do not fill in their highest level mgt from the inside.

    Again, I see why this is the case. When nonprofits are so chronically underfunded, hiring wealthy people with golf buddies into the upper echelons can open funding paths. But it does mean that your average nonprofit looks like:

    1. Drones who do the actual work: working-to-middle class
    2. Upper management: upper class, except for the
    3. Chief Diversity Officer: token black or Asian woman

    And if you are in category 1, you are never moving up or getting mentored up. Ever. In fact, they may unconsciously attempt to hold a competent person down so you’ll stay where you are. I mean, someone has to do the actual work.

    In general though, it’s #3 that has annoyed me the most in the largest number of situations. You find that same attitude in many places: that only the most crass and cynical among us care about mere money. In reality, I’ve only ever heard rich people say that money doesn’t matter.

    • River Mud

      I have lived it. Indeed, my mentors who supported me through a rise from basic fieldwork into program management (19 year journey) suddenly disappeared when I said, “Why not a VP or an ED?” The two ED positions I’ve interviewed for have gone to 1) friend and “former advisor” of the mayor, who had never worked in NPOs, the private sector generally, or even supervised staff; and 2) a 70 year old CEO, friend of the current CEO, looking for a “retirement job.” Good luck to those orgs.

  • Trevor O’Donnell

    “Must be passionate about ____________.”

    You’ll find this phrase in employment ads for arts marketers. Often it is the primary criterion. But it’s just about the worst basis for judging a marketer’s suitability for the job.

    Marketers need to be passionate about earning revenue. When executive arts leaders hire for passion for the art form, they’re looking for people who will fit the culture, not for people who can reverse decades of audience attrition. They’re looking for people who won’t question amateurish “that’s the way we’ve always done it” business practices, people who will allow their energies to be misdirected toward counterproductive “mission oriented” endeavors like community engagement, and people who will work cheap.

    The arts are in desperate need of professional marketers who can identify with unpersuaded audiences outside the bubble. Hiring passionate insiders just reinforces the bubble walls.

    • River Mud

      Yes! “Marketers need to be passionate about earning revenue.” Right person in the right seat. Makes the difference every time.

  • Hopalot

    Especially in social justice NPs, a picture of MLK, or Cesar Chavez, or … hangs on the wall as a constant reminder of sacrifice for the cause. “If only you could sacrifice for the cause like they did, you wouldn’t complain about 12 hour workdays, shit compensation or shit benefits, nor would you complain for compromising the mission of the org so as to make nice with the funders…”

    • River Mud

      Exactly. I’ve been on the NP side for almost 12 years and I’ve also been poor (before and after that date). I joke sometimes, you know what I’m passionate about? Keeping the power on at my house. Paying my student loan so the government doesn’t sack my social security account. Being able to purchase food. Being able to afford medical insurance. I also believe in sacrifice and passion towards the org’s mission. But also, keeping the lights on at home.

  • KeithBender

    Thank you for Deciphering the Gordian Knot. Now, who will cut that Knot.

  • AR McGinn

    Thank you for all of this! I’m considering changing careers from a corporate consulting position to working in the nonprofit/advocacy space. I’m interested in why asking about salary history “excludes candidates who are leaving more lucrative positions for work for which they may be quite passionate and capable.” Can you please explain that?

    • Fedrod

      It means that, often, hiring managers will think that you’ll expect the same type of salary or that you may not stick around for long if you have to earn less, or that you’re desperate to take any job, regardless of pay and then will leave as soon as you find one that pays better. They may not want to risk it. There are several wrong assumptions they can make, unless they’re willing to talk to the candidate and find out more. There seems to be a “suspicion” about people who are willing to work for a lower salary. In large NGOs and international organizations, careers and their corresponding salaries are meant to be “progressive”, it’s presumably unusual for people to take a step down and earn less, even though people are happy to do so for the sake of doing what they like.

  • woodstockdc

    Oh the irony of how progressive non-profits exploit their staff.

    • JCortese

      And the upshot is that they filter out anyone who isn’t old-money. Then, they sit around asking themselves, “How do we reach out to the rest of the community?” when their every move has ensured that no one from “the rest” is in the room.