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Inequitable Salaries at Nonprofits Are a Kind of Bullying

No one likes a bully, whether it’s the schoolyard variety shaking down little kids for lunch money or the diva boss screaming curses over the handling of her morning latte. But when the harassment is less obvious, more corporate than individual–or when it benefits us in some way–our righteous indignation tends to fade.

“Economic bullying” is a good example: paying some people inequitable salaries and relying on free labor. Why are we willing to let those practices go unchallenged?

In a recent scholarly paper, John Tropman and Emily Nicklett, both professors of social work at the University of Michigan, attempt to reckon with our collective reluctance to confront economic bullying. The authors pull no punches in addressing social exploitation: the structures that force some people to contribute low- or no-cost labor so that others can get richer.

Social exploitation isn’t new. It has been practiced in its most vile form as slavery, but the principles of exploitation are still with us and disturbingly widespread. As the abolitionist Frederick Douglass put it, “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them.”

When I caught up with Professor Tropman at his office, I asked how social exploitation plays out today and what effect it has on nonprofits.

He pointed to two ways in which the nonprofit world is both victim and victimizer:  Women and human-service workers are systematically underpaid, and organizations are increasingly turning to volunteers as unpaid but essential labor. He doesn’t knock volunteerism, but he argues that, because nonprofits haven’t clearly articulated their value to society or, in many cases, what it costs them to provide that value, they have developed the bad practice of paying people as little as possible. Philanthropy, for its part, tends to reward those organizations with the lowest investment in human resources while simultaneously creating programs aimed at lifting underpaid laborers such as immigrants, single parents, and veterans out of poverty.

The government plays a role, too. As the major purchaser of social services, it often seeks to force costs down to bargain-basement levels as a way to balance the budget. This was thrown into relief during the 2008 recession when unemployment was high, especially among low-wage workers. Demand for nonprofit services like food assistance was up, but some government buyers were not paying on their nonprofit contracts or were canceling them altogether.

While statistics point to an economic recovery, many families can’t recover because they started out under water.

Professor Tropman believes that the government’s best response to this problem is to defend and expand entitlements and reduce inequalities in taxation policy, though he is clear in his position that “capitalism works, but it has a cost.” When I asked him why civil society accepts economic bullying, he said that the prevailing attitude seems to be “to whom much has been given more will be given.”  He cites as an example the increasing disparity between executive and rank-and-file salaries.  In short, the social contract through which we assume shared responsibility for the community is broken. And the prospect of rebuilding this sense of community is challenged by the ease with which people increasingly live, work, and play in isolation. As we retire to our respective corners of the internet, our empathy for one another dissipates accordingly.

Unfortunately, these days when we see the proverbial bully holding the kid upside down, we raise our hands but not to help the victim or to strike back but to catch the falling coins for ourselves. It may not occur to us that we will be the next target in the bully’s sights.

How do you think the nonprofit world can draw attention to social exploitation? How can it reverse the conditions that lead to and perpetuate it? Add your comments below.

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