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Career Challenge

Nonprofit Work: Cause Worth Pursuing?

Employees face lower wages and shabby offices, but social- crusade jobs can be gratifying.


A career in the nonprofit world can bring unparalleled rewards and many frustrations.

Employees get paid to advance important social crusades: They help others, lobby for cherished causes and protect the environment.

But many do so under tough working conditions. They accept low wages, toil in shabby offices, operate with inadequate supplies, and constantly search for funding.

Still, those who have committed themselves to nonprofits express satisfaction with their work.

"People have always said I could make a lot of money with my skill set in the corporate world," said Eileen Heisman, president of the National Philanthropic Trust in Philadelphia. "But I have a huge amount of job satisfaction, and no cognitive dissonance about what I do at work and who I am at home."

Many organizations operate on shoestring budgets, so they can direct large percentages of their revenue to their causes. This often translates into decreased salaries and less-than-luxurious office digs. Old computers, secondhand furniture and unreliable equipment are common in these settings.

When things break or supplies run out, nonprofit workers often must jury-rig and improvise.

Military ingenuity--making do with whatever's available--is prized in this world, said Scott Syphax, chief executive of the Nehemiah Corp. of California, which provides down-payment assistance to first-time home buyers.

"If you have a great sense of irony and humor about how the world works, you'll get through the day," said Syphax, a former public affairs manager at Eli Lilly.

There are other frustrations too. Requests for funding, volunteer assistance and equipment are frequently met with rejection.

"You get so used to people saying no, to begging for basic things, that when people are available or helpful, you are beside yourself with shock," said Kristy Hart, program director of Shake-a-Leg, a Newport, R.I.-based organization that helps individuals with spinal cord injuries.

Daily job demands can be unpredictable, so versatility is essential.

Employees at the Atlanta Community Food Bank are trained to drive forklifts so they can move donated food when the need arises. They also keep aprons, baseball caps and plastic gloves at their workstations "so we can drop everything when an organization calls," travel to kitchen facilities, collect perishable food donations and quickly deliver them to the needy, said Sabina Carr, the food bank's marketing manager.

"I didn't understand flexibility until I worked here," Carr said.

Pitching in during crises is expected too. Deb Glazer, director of Peace Games in Culver City, recalls "orientation week" at a Boston nonprofit four years ago, after a storm had swept through the area.

"I was wearing boots to work, putting Salvation Army furniture on cinder blocks, picking mushrooms off the walls and suctioning water," she said.

Some Organizations Boost Wages, Perks

Historically, salaries at nonprofit organizations have lagged behind corporate compensation. Absent too are perks such as stock options, health club memberships, company cars, first-class air travel and plump expense accounts.

This has led to a talent crunch for many nonprofits. It also has contributed to high turnover among senior managers, Heisman said.

However, over the last three years, many nonprofits have begun to reassess their compensation strategies, according to Heisman.

"I think there's a realization that turnover is costly, and it's important to keep good people," said Frances Phillips, program officer of the Walter and Elise Haas Fund in San Francisco and coauthor of "Nonprofit Kit for Dummies" (Hungry Minds, 2001).

Some organizations such as United Way are offering competitive wages for key positions. Others are coming up with attractive, sometimes offbeat perk packages. About 68% offer flextime; and 85% have retirement packages for their employees, according to a survey by Abbott, Langer & Associates, a social service consulting firm.

The Center for the New American Dream has a health-care package that covers "quality of life" therapies such as yoga and massage. The Bronx, N.Y.-based Gloria Wise Boys & Girls Club (a chapter of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America) boasts several family-friendly perks such as free child care, free day camp and up to seven weeks paid vacation.

Last year, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America initiated a "professional development system" at its 2,851 locations, and distributed career fitness builders designed to help its employees chart career paths.

Growing numbers of nonprofits are also awarding bonuses to long-term employees, and permitting senior staffers to take a few days off each month to do higher-paying consulting work.

Corporate-trained idealists with expertise in fund-raising, financial planning, information technology or marketing/publicity are in demand by nonprofits. Dynamic, inspirational leaders are needed too. But autocrats and egotists need not apply.

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