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.