How financially stable people have been making life difficult for their lower-income colleagues in nonprofit – Nonprofit AF

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[Image description: Closeup on a person pulling out a one-dollar bill from a brown leather wallet. Image by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash]

Hi everyone. Before we get started, here are a couple of awesome videos. This one by Memphis Music Initiative that includes a hilarious (and wince-inducing) skit of how Harriet Tubman would be treated by a foundation if she were to ask for support today. And this poignant musical sketch by Human Services Council vividly illustrating the lack of funding in the sector and how it has been affecting the hardworking professionals dedicated to making the world better.

OK, onto this week’s topic. Will Smith just won the best actor Oscar, which reminds me of another movie where he was nominated. In “The Pursuit of Happyness,” Smith plays Chris Gardner, who, along with his young son, has been experiencing poverty and homelessness, living in subway stations and public restrooms. There is scene where Chris is asked by his boss at his unpaid internship to loan him $5 in cash for cab fare. He can’t afford to loan his boss $5, but he is in competition for a paid position, so he reluctantly hands over the money. To his boss, this was a simple transaction; the lack of $5 didn’t mean much more than a very mild inconvenience. To Chris, it was devastating, as he may not be able to afford bus fares to get back to his son.

I bring this up because it reminds me of a pervasive phenomenon in nonprofit. I’m calling it “Higher-Income Solipsism Syndrome (HISS).” This is when people who are more financial secure, through a lack of awareness brought on by their privilege, create and endorse philosophies and actions that negatively affect people who are less financially secure. Here are examples of various ways this may manifest:

  • An independently wealthy person takes a paid position at a nonprofit. But because they don’t have to worry about money, they don’t advocate for increased compensation for themselves. This depresses compensation overall, as well as possibly make other staff look greedy for demanding raises.
  • Someone is on the healthcare plan of their high-income-earning spouse. They don’t prioritize high-quality healthcare for the rest of team because they personally don’t need to worry about it.
  • A financially secure board member who doesn’t have children or whose children are all-grown-up blocking measures to bring paid family leave for the staff.
  • Someone insists that unpaid internships are okay, without realizing they have their parents financially supporting them while other interns may not
  • Higher-paid staff ask lower-paid staff to donate a portion of their wages back to the organization in an annual employee-giving campaign, insisting that it’s “only $5” or whatever
  • Staff, board, or volunteers go out for lunch or dinner and splitting the bill evenly because they can afford it, not considering how it affects people who ordered less expensive items to stay within their budgets.  

A colleague emailed me this message:

I work for a mid-sized nonprofit in one of the wealthiest counties in my state, so the cost of living is very high here. We also have an abundance of wealthy do-gooders that work here (as a result of said community wealth). I can’t afford the cost of putting my child on our health insurance, but when I speak up, I am told that I am the only parent there with an issue. This is because the other parents all have their kids on their spouses’ insurance.”

It is a serious equity issue that greatly affects low-income people, single parents, and those experiencing homelessness. There are racial, gender, and disability elements at play, as people of color, women, and disabled people on average earn less than white people, men, and non-disabled people. In the movie “Happyness,” it is a homeless Black single father who has to loan a white man his last few dollars, the latter being so completely oblivious of the hardship it’s causing because his multiple privileges have shielded him from being aware of how his actions are affecting people who don’t have the same level of economic stability as he does.  

Financial security tends to run parallel with the increase in power and authority in our world, which means higher-income people are more likely to be decision-makers. In our sector, we often have higher-income senior leaders making decisions that are often reinforced by board members who, due to the way our boards are structured to attract people with wealth, are frequently higher-income themselves.

HISS is pervasive in our sector, and it’s not just the wealthy who perpetuate it. All of us are susceptible. We often don’t realize it is happening because as we become more economically stable, we become less and less aware of how other people’s lives are. We are also more likely to hang out and build relationships with people in similar financial situations to us, which creates a bubble that affirms our views and prevents us from receiving information about people who are not in similar situations.

All of us need to do a better job being aware of when it is happening, when we are complicit in advancing it, and taking an active role in countering it. Here are a few things we all need to keep in mind:

Assess how your privileges are affecting your positions: If you are against a proposal, for example an increase in compensation for staff, you may come up with all sorts of seemingly valid reasons for your stance. But you may not be considering that your thoughts are affected by your privileges. White privilege, male privilege, etc., but also possibly the privilege of having money and other resources (like healthcare) and not worrying about your family’s basic needs being met.

Notice if people who agree with you are in similar economic situations as you. You may see patterns like everyone who agrees with you on something is a homeowner with a stable job or is a financially secure retiree, while those who disagree may be lower-paid people, single parents, etc. Think about who would be most negatively or positively affected by this decision; you and the people who agree with you will likely be least affected.

Scan to see what voices are missing and why: Because of disparity in privileges, people may be missing from important discussions that affect them. A lower-income person may not be present at a meeting where compensation is being discussed because they might be working at another job. A staff member might miss a vital debate about paid family leave because they have to take care of an aging parent. Our default practice of “whoever is there gets to make the decisions” has concentrated a lot of power into the hands of privileged people. If you don’t have the voices of those who will be most affected, don’t have the meeting, don’t make decisions.

Take the perspective of someone who doesn’t have your privileges: Try to remember what it was like when you weren’t as secure in your financial situation or career, and the hardships you had to endure. Now imagine that version on you being in the room and what position that version would take. If you don’t have first-hand experience, try to imagine someone else. If you can’t put yourself into the shoes of a person who isn’t in your economic situation, then you shouldn’t partake in making decisions that would affect them at all.

Assume that one or more people are experiencing financial hardship: Just because people put on a brave face doesn’t mean they’re OK. Many are likely facing challenges that you don’t know about, especially if you are financially stable and tend to hang out with other financially stable people. And people shouldn’t have to openly disclose their situations for you to support equitable practices. If you are making decisions about money, whether it’s increasing staff compensation or starting furloughs or even going out to lunch or whatever, work with the assumption that there’s probably at least one person there who is facing hardship.

Be alert and speak up when you see potential inequity: For significant things like compensation. But also in everyday practice. For instance, I remember earlier in my career going out with some colleagues to an expensive restaurant for dinner. Everyone ordered cocktails, appetizers, entrees, and dessert. When the check came, someone asked to split it evenly. A colleague piped in and said, “Vu only had grilled asparagus and some water. Let’s just cover his portion. Also, maybe we shouldn’t take a vegan to a steakhouse again!” Everyone laughed. I was grateful for that colleague. No one knew how relieved I was that I could still make rent that month AND have groceries.

Our sector does wonderful things. Because of that, we tend to attract wealthy people who don’t need to work to earn money to feed their families; they just want to make a difference in the world. If that’s you, please keep in mind that your words and actions have significant consequences for people who do need to earn money to feed their families, who need healthcare and paid family leave, etc., who don’t have the luxury of not worrying about these things.

And the rest of us, as we advance in our careers and hopefully obtain some measure of financial stability, we too need to be aware of our increased privileges and whether we are making life better or worse for our colleagues who are not as financially stable.

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