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Non-profit Workers Need More Job Security
By Virginia Sánchez
There are tons of different jobs out there. It almost cruel how many jobs exist, especially when you compare that number to how many you're actually considered "qualified" to do (probably a much smaller number.) We hear a lot how to apply for job. Libraries and bookstores have entire job search sections. "How to get hired" is in the title of dozens of books. Don't even get me started on Google or LinkedIn and the plethora of job search articles and essays online. My point is that we hear much less about the different pay structures and contracts that exist. This lack of information can be confusing, scary, and even dangerous. After all, we live in a society where almost every adult must work at some point in their lifetime. Why is it so hard to de-code job postings, get a read on what managers mean in job interviews, and parse through the language in office letters?
For-profit companies typically use sly words because they want to trick you into helping them make the highest profit possible. (Or, to be more generous, they have a ton of lawyers and HR folks turning everything into gobbly-gook to cover their asses.) Yet non-profit organizations aren't in it for the money. So when they use jargon or other unclear language in the hiring process, it's for other reasons. One big reason is that they often do not have adequate funding for all the full-time, salaried positions with benefits they need in order to carry out their mission. Honestly, that's kind of embarrassing for them. Most people cannot afford to be full-time volunteers. But the non-profit staff still wants to get the work done, so they try to hire people under what may be less-than-ideal circumstances. Maybe they only have the funding to hire someone for 15 hours a week for six months, so that's what they do. Next time you're wondering, these types of short-term jobs often have the word "grant-funded" attached to them.
A grant-funded position at a non-profit organization is basically a job that exists because a grant-giving organization is bankrolling it. Non-profits usually have to write grant proposals begging for money called grants. Philanthropic organizations, often founded by super-rich people who want to give back to society and/or get tax breaks, give out grants. So do government agencies, universities, and other organizations with the public good in mind. Non-profits depend heavily on grants, some more than others (they may have donors, fundraising events, and other sources of funding, too.) Even if a non-profit is rocking it with the galas, though, grants are a meal ticket. Many non-profits would not exist without them. A grant-funded position exists only because of a grant, possibly grants plural. So when the grant money runs out, the job usually ends. The nature of the grant—the amount of money, the deadline by which the money must be used—will usually determine the length of the job. The non-profit has to look at what they're awarded, figure out their needs, and budget accordingly. Because of this, a grant-funded job generally doesn't last more than a year or two. It's common for a grant-funded job to last much shorter, say 3 or 4 months. The non-profit will hire you to complete a project, kickstart a new initiative, or complete seasonal work. Then you're done. Time for a new job. If you don't have one lined up, you better have savings or get ready to file for unemployment.
For some people, a job that only requires 25 hours a week for 8 months might be perfect. Maybe they're applying for grad school or getting ready to move abroad or to have a kid. Whatever. They have some kind of transition on the horizon or serious family help. For a lot of people, though, that kind of set-up wouldn't fly. They need long-term work for at least 30 or 40 hours a week. They also need benefits. Timing isn't the only thing that stinks about grand-funded positions. The lack of benefits is another downer. Grant-funded positions rarely come with benefits. If they do, they tend to be the bare minimum offered by the organization.
None of this sounds fair or right. It's tempting to blame non-profit organizations, but I've never had a non-profit lie to me and say work wasn't grant-funded when it was. I think the bigger culprit is our society. The federal government doesn't provide for us in the way many other countries provide for their citizens. Just take a look at the parental leave policies in Finland and Denmark; your jaw will drop. Non-profits try to fill in the gaps, especially for the people with the least privilege in our society. Non-profits also support arts and culture, which our federal and state governments do not fund to any significant degree (luckily Trump hasn't succeeded in eliminating the NEA yet.) Poke around the Canada Council for the Arts website and weep.
Non-profits do good work. They're stuck in a weird place because of Capitalism. We need to support non-profits in whatever way we can, but we also need to push for legislation that lets non-profits thrive. If CEOs of mega-corporations are profiting from the pain of so many poor and middle-class people, they least they can do is make substantial charitable contributions. Heck, the government should make them do it. They shouldn't only be opening up their pocketbooks for tax breaks. Another thought: let's have more government social programs that make some of the work these non-profits are doing redundant. Then some non-profits won't have to exist anymore. The ones that do can better focus their resources.
Until any of that happens, though, non-profit workers need more job security. Too many of us are artists, writers, women, minorities, members of the LGBTQ community, and people with disabilities. We do this work because we believe in it, because we want people like us and humanity in general to suffer less. Every non-profit that hires workers in grant-funded positions needs to treat those workers humanely. We are not martyrs and we only have so much to give.
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