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

Written by Vu Le

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.

Read the full article here

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About the author

Vu Le

Vu Le (“voo lay”) is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the former Executive Director of RVC, a nonprofit in Seattle that promotes social justice by developing leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities.

Vu’s passion to make the world better, combined with a low score on the Law School Admission Test, drove him into the field of nonprofit work, where he learned that we should take the work seriously, but not ourselves. There’s tons of humor in the nonprofit world, and someone needs to document it. He is going to do that, with the hope that one day, a TV producer will see how cool and interesting our field is and make a show about nonprofit work, featuring attractive actors attending strategic planning meetings and filing 990 tax forms.

Known for his no-BS approach, irreverent sense of humor, and love of unicorns, Vu has been featured in dozens, if not hundreds, of his own blog posts at NonprofitAF.com.