Passion doesn’t pay bills

How charities and nonprofits can make an impact without exploiting low-wage workers

by Paul Taylor
Originally published in The Globe and Mail April 13, 2021

Many of the deep-rooted challenges facing our society are the result of widening income inequality. Canada is an extraordinarily wealthy country, and yet over the past few decades, rates of food insecurity, poverty, and homelessness have increased in every province and territory. 

The charitable sector emerged to fill these gaps, and now, a large percentage of our country’s 170,000 charitable and non-profit organizations seek to improve the health and wellbeing of low-income Canadians. Unfortunately, these same organizations can often replicate the same harmful structures that they’re seeking to challenge. 

I see it everywhere: frontline community workers earning minimum wage and being denied overtime pay while undertaking emotionally and physically challenging work. A culture of short-term contracts that provides little stability for workers and forces them to constantly be on the hunt for the next income source. And a lack of transparency from management around who’s being paid what, and why. 

Community work is often feminized and racialized in this country, and our patriarchal systems devalue it. However, while the issues of how patriarchy and racism are embedded in our workplaces are complex, many of the solutions don’t have to be: non-profits have lots of tools at their disposal to disrupt this culture of exploitation.

Here are a few ideas.

Examine your attitudes.

The nonprofit sector is often said to run on passion, and while many workers do feel a deep personal connection to their work, they’re workers just like anyone else. They still need to eat and pay for their shelter!

Non-profit leaders need to examine whether they’re buying into this culture of burnout by constantly encouraging their workers to do more with less. This isn’t resourcefulness—it’s a recipe for ongoing exploitation.  

Put the cost of wages back into your fundraising.

We do our colleagues a deep disservice when we make statements to the public like “A $1 donation buys a meal for a person in need.” Frankly, there is no possible way that that could be true. $1 may cover the cost of ingredients, but who made that meal? Who served it, who supervised the space, and who cleaned up afterwards ? What were their hourly wages? An immense amount of labour has now been erased in service of a sales-inspired donation pitch.

When the public is primed to believe that charities can operate on pennies, they’ll believe that the labour of nonprofit workers should be priced accordingly. As a result, organizations scramble to make up the gaps between what’s been funded (the food) and what hasn’t (the workers). If we want to provide our workers with liveable wages, we need to push back on donors who only wish to fund projects—not the people who make them happen. We need to be transparent about the true cost of labour, and advocate for the importance of decent and liveable work.   

Take a close look at management pay.

The 100 top CEOs in Canada’s corporate sector now earn an average of $10.8 million, more than 200 times that of the average worker. The non-profit sector has nowhere near a gap that large, but I still encourage leaders to examine why they’re paying themselves so much more  than their program staff.

Do you have a policy that ties the wages of your lowest-earning and highest-earning workers to a certain ratio? When a surplus comes your way, is it directed towards improving the conditions of your lowest-paid workers, or to providing bonuses to your fundraising, finance and executive teams? Having these policies in place can dramatically improve the wellbeing of workers across the organizational chart. 

Offer other supplements.

It’s not just about salaries. If your budget restricts you from increasing wages, then explore other ways to create income security. Offer paid holiday time (that people are actually encouraged to take), parental and sick leave, steady work hours, and clear scheduling so that workers are not constantly left on-call. I also encourage leaders to explore the many benefits that have been made available to the sector, such as the Ontario Nonprofit Network’s sector-specific pension plan, and a slew of others. 

Provide pay transparency.

Finally, I understand that it’s not always possible to provide the income and benefits that you’d like to prospective employees. But hiding this information behind a labour-intensive application process isn’t doing anyone any favours. Disclosing salary is an important way to allow candidates to determine whether they can afford to work at your organization, and it avoids putting women and racialized candidates at a deep disadvantage when they’re later asked to offer a figure for their desired salary. 

Paul Taylor is the Executive Director of FoodShare Toronto, and a lifelong anti-poverty activist. Growing up materially poor in Toronto, has inspired Paul to commit his life to doing what he can to dismantle the systems and organizing principles that both cause and uphold poverty, food insecurity and wealth inequality, including racism, white supremacy and neoliberalism. In 2020, Paul was named one of Canada’s Top 40 under 40, one of Toronto Life’s 50 Most Influential Torontonians and voted Best Activist by the readers of NOW Magazine.