Saving people in need by killing people who care
Pst. here’s a secret. NOBODY WANTS TO HEAR THIS. What if your nonprofit is the villain?
Here’s what I realized while reading HENCH.
Our sector is like superheroes who actually destroy much of what they touch.
Are you serious Mazarine I can hear you saying.
YES I am serious.
Let me tell you a story.
Here’s the premise of HENCH, by Natalie Zina Walschots. The protagonist, Anna Trumedlov, a downtrodden office temp, gets smacked out of the way by a hero, gets a spiral fracture in her femur, and is laid up for months.
In that time, Anna discovers her suffering at the hands of a hero is far from unique. She starts quantifying how many people and businesses that heroes hurt.
- – How many actual life hours lost by people who die or get hurt with no healthcare?
- – How many lives ruined by the collateral damage of heroes smashing buildings?
- – How much does it cost to start a business, and how much does it hurt when Businesses shuttered
- – How many people displaced? It all adds up. This hero is as bad as a hurricane.
When people start listening to the story that her data tells, she realizes she might not be as powerless as she thinks. She realizes that for her, the key to everything is data: knowing how to collate it, how to manipulate it, and how to weaponize it. By tallying up the human cost these “heroes” wreak upon the world, she discovers that the line between good and evil is mostly marketing.
You should definitely buy this book. (SPOILERS AHEAD!)
Eventually, her work gets the attention of Leviathan, who is a reclusive supervillain, who actually acts like a caring boss-unlike the terrible treatment she received at the hands of the “heroes.” He helps her get the healthcare she needs, allows her to write her own job description, and then allows her free rein to build her team. He helps her start to bring the villainy of heroes to the world’s attention. It’s quite a turnaround. She starts to become powerful.
Here’s what Anna did in the book. She decided to SHOW THE HERO IS HOLLOW and TAKE DOWN HIS SUPPORT STRUCTURES to expose the emptiness at his core.
MY VILLAIN ORIGIN STORY
Looking at Anna’s story, I can’t help but see parallels to my own.
I was a downtrodden development associate at a domestic violence shelter who got into a car accident while going to pick up auction items and got whiplash. My healthcare was not covered. The shelter didn’t pay for my accident even though I was on the job at the time.
I could not afford to get my car fixed, but I needed a car for work, so I paid for the accident with a credit card.
Then I started buying groceries on credit.
My boss told me to come in on Christmas but not to clock in so she wouldn’t have to pay me overtime. Meanwhile she was bullying the entire staff. There’s more but too long to write here. Then I went to another terrible nonprofit job, more bullying, more low wages and no consequences for those in power. Maybe the nonprofit is the villain? I got so mad and so tired.
They didn’t care if I was sick. They didn’t care how much money I raised them. The boss decided to just dump me one day and that was that. It’s a system that grinds up and spits out workers like us.
It costs them more to do this, and they never see it. Here are the numbers on how much money you lose every time you lose a good fundraiser.
And that leads to donors losing trust in you. And fewer donations. And eventually an even bigger hole in the budget.
EVENTUALLY HEROES CREATE THEIR OWN NEMESIS
And the Nonprofit Sector created me.
Maybe this is my villain origin story. Now I speak about workplace bullying. White supremacy and its children, capitalism, slavery, class war. How work won’t love you back. How laziness does not exist. How we can resist work.
How could “the caring sector” treat us this way? WHY were the nonprofit workers seen as expendable?
In the last 20 years I’ve looked at the sector, over and over I’ve seen the arrogance of humanism, the hubris of well meaning white people like me, who think we are doing good, while we are exacting a terrible toll on the lives of people we work with, and purportedly help.
When I left the sector, I looked around for the last 10 years and saw the jobs that paid the same terrible wages, had no upward mobility, and no benefits. How many years had I struggled to make ends meet in a sector that ultimately did not care about my wellbeing?
Is the line between good and evil mostly marketing?
5 questions to quantify the actual villainy of the nonprofit sector
- 1. REPLICATING SYSTEMS OF OPPRESSION: How many people feel rejected by the very organization that pays them because the organization’s marketing and fundraising department wants to elevate the high level donors instead of the workers? Not to mention the way we fundraise is based in white supremacy, and this is just one aspect of it.
- 2. NO FUTURE: How many people have no way to dream of a retirement where they can relax, or save for a house, because their organization not only doesn’t pay for their healthcare, it doesn’t pay a pension either? How many people have been reduced to living on public assistance and disability because they gave their lives and their health to the nonprofit sector? Why has no one ever measured this? This is what Uncharitable by Dan Pallotta was talking about.
- 3. PRECARIOUS LIVES: How many people have precarious work, not knowing if their job will be there next year? How does it affect their health, knowing their jobs and lives are so undervalued? Is there more anxiety and depression from working in the nonprofit sector than the for-profit sector? If you look at the Decent Work for Women research from the Ontario Nonprofit Network, the answers are… A LOT OF US.
- 4. SUBSISTENCE WAGES: How many people have no way to pay for an apartment, pay down student debt or medical debt, because the nonprofit sector does not pay them enough to live? The answer is millions. I talked with a business development expert from a government agency and I asked him why they didn’t focus on nonprofits, and he said BECAUSE THEY BRING THE MEDIAN INCOME OF A REGION DOWN. So, for all that we encourage people to work in our sector, according to their calculations, we are HURTING people every day. Ontario Nonprofit Network is working on this too.
- 5. LACK OF CONSEQUENCES FOR THOSE IN POWER: How many people get full consequences for what they do, and even take the fall for their boss, and the board, which wields all the power, has no consequences for its decisions? For more about redistributing board power, see my interview with Sarah Oliveri
If we are the biggest sector in the USA, if 1 in 10 people works at a nonprofit (including hospitals and schools) then to criminally underpay and under-support us directly contributes to the increasing economic downward spiral and whittling away of the middle class in the US.
We become the permanent underclass that capitalism requires, while trying to stop its inexorable effects.
The Nonprofit sector is the lowest paid sector in the entire country.
Program staff get paid a pittance because we don’t see their work as valuable. Instead we choose to thank and overthank the donors for “making the work possible” when it wouldn’t happen without our program staff.
Fundraising staff get paid a pittance to raise huge amounts of money. Fundraising staff are by and large women, and often there are men at the heads of organizations with the bulk of the work done by overworked, underpaid women.
We recreate the dynamics of oppression inside our organizations by devaluing the work of BIPOC and oppressed women who fill these positions 90% of the time. Efforts to unionize have not led to a lot of results though we have had some victories. People get involved in the sector because they want to feel good about going to work, and end up feeling dragged through the street by the organization and after a few jobs, the whole nonprofit system.
Here’s an organization who is doing it differently. Check out this interview with Sean Goode
If you’d like to learn to ask for more-whether more from systems, or a higher salary, let’s talk.
You might say, but Mazarine, SURELY working for the nonprofit sector is better than going to be a programmer at some faceless tech company!
Is it though?
Could you get your needs taken care of better by a tech company that gives you full benefits, as well as regular raises and a clear pathway to more pay and more responsibility?
Could you still “make a difference” by volunteering and donating?
5 Questions to Ponder
- 1. ARE nonprofits complicit in neoliberal white feminist papering over of our complicity in white supremacy?
- 2. ARE nonprofits aggressively depoliticized to help whitewash, greenwash or pinkwash corporate money so we can continue to be employed?
- 3. WHY are nonprofit leaders not asking their associations to help pass legislation to get pensions for every worker in their state, like the Ontario Nonprofit Network did?
- 4. WHY are nonprofit leaders not asking electeds to step up their corporate tax rates and redistribute the money to social services programs?
- 5. WHY are nonprofit leaders not looking at the root causes of their extreme amounts of turnover in their program and fundraising staff?
I’ll tell you why not. Because nobody is holding them accountable for how they treat their workers, how they spend their money (as long as they don’t spend too much on salaries) how often workers leave, or what benefits workers don’t have.
And because it’s easier to ignore white supremacy than it is to look at the structure, and how it hurts real people that you know and love. And yes, it even hurts YOU. An undeclared class war, and permanent underclass makes all of us less safe. You think crime and homelessness is bad in your city now? It gets worse, unless we deal with this problem.
Is Your Nonprofit A Villain? If so-How to Understand then Take Down the Villain
OK how do we change this?
How do we do embodied decolonial relational repair work?
How do we operationalize anti-oppression work?
How do we stay with our feelings?
I don’t have to have the answers. The community needs to come up with the questions, and solve them together.
This is a fantastic article- thanks for taking the time to write and share. We need more voices like yours. Thank you.
thank you so much for reading it Cynthia. I appreciate you. I am glad it resonated.
Thank you so much. So it hasn’t been the leadership in the non profits where I worked and I was the leader and have been on boards. It is the magnitude of the problems we try to solve with too few staff. Of course we supplement with volunteers, partners from higher Ed etc. But fundamentally we need to ask why do we rely on nonprofits to address these gigantic problems to begin with? I don’t see our reliance changing due to all the isms you point out. The best a nonprofit can do is to scale back to essential work that fits the number of staff they have so their workers don’t have to be martyrs.