A Skilled Nonprofit Workforce for $10 an Hour?

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January 31, 2013; Source: Boston Globe

Nonprofits now have access to a new human resource pool: thousands of skilled workers willing to work for $10 an hour. Are nonprofits missing out on this source of high-quality, low-cost workers? The success of a program calls ReServe suggests that that may be the case. It sounds like the Peace Corps (or its domestic version, AmeriCorps), but with a twist. Instead of drawing on young people willing to put a few years of their life toward doing social good before settling into a career, the low-cost workers in this case are recently retired or unemployed older workers with valuable skills who are willing to work for a small wage.

ReServe, which opened its Boston program last week, was founded in 2005 “by three social entrepreneurs who saw few opportunities for older adults who wanted to put their professional skills to work for the greater good once their primary careers came to an end,” according to the organization’s website. ReServe puts adults age 55 and up to work in schools, government offices, and community agencies. The group has programs in six other cities in addition to the new one in Boston. Nationally, it has placed about 3,000 workers – or “ReServists” – into 350 organizations including schools, libraries, and hospitals. Many have college degrees.

As NPQ has noted in regard to a similar program, the Encore Fellowship Network, ReServe has found that aging baby boomers like the idea of using their skills and energy in meaningful ways. Even though they might be able to make more money as consultants or in other jobs, many are willing to work for a much smaller salary if they feel the work is fulfilling. In addition, funders seem to like the idea of keeping seniors mentally active. The Tufts Health Plan Foundation helped fund ReServe in Boston. The foundation cites research suggesting that when seniors have a sense of “purposeful engagement,” their overall health improves.

Earning a small wage, like $10 an hour, can be more motivating to some than volunteering in retirement. John Tepper Marlin is a 70-year-old former chief economist for the City of New York who could clearly make more money than he does with ReServe, but he says the small sum is better for him than donating his time completely. Without the wage, he says, “I would have been resentful because it implies I’m not worth anything.”

ReServe works to create flexible assignments for seniors, allowing them to take on short-term projects like marketing, accounting or grant writing for organizations that need that particular expertise. They can also work 10 to 20 hours a week rather than full-time, allowing them to spend quality time on work that really appeals to them. It seems that ReServe has found a formula could help other charitable organizations facing reduced funding. –Mary Jo Draper

  • Sharon Charters

    I find there are some underlying assumptions made with this initiative that bother me. I guess first is the assumption that people over 55 with degrees do not need a living wage but rather can make do with $10 per hour. I also question the assumption that people within this age group need something to keep them “mentally active”. As funders, we do a disservice in supporting initiatives that keep wages low within the non-profit sector. For us, this initiative would actually put us in a position of working against the important work we support of making our community a “living wage” community.

  • Jayne Cravens

    So, this allows nonprofits to fire professional staff – marketing managers, HR professionals, accountants, etc. – and replace them with these $10 an hour workers? Will donors to nonprofits suggest this?

    Involving volunteers is about involving the community – not about replacing professionals with staff that will work for less money.

  • Karrissa Thayer

    I think you may be missing the point. It is not about pushing down the living wage. Salary is not the only motivating factor to someone working. It could be the flexibility (a mother who wants to parallel her day with her children), Some of us take the lower pay so we can make a positive mark on our community.

    The independent contractors who are attracted to this opportunity are not doing this work for the salary since usually have a secondary income stream or their outgoing expenses have dropped dramatically (children graduated college, mortgage paid off, ect.). They are discounting their services to the benefit of the not for profit.

    I struggle with the assumption that it is ok for volunteers to work for free, but people in the NFP community seem to have issue with those who are wanting some other benefit besides altruism. Technically they are spending money to work for your organization if you include the cost of going to work such as transportation, food, and clothing.

  • Kevin

    As an private sector accounting professional with an interest in nonprofit development, accounting, and public policy, I find this disheartening. I’m never going to be able to compete with someone in a labor market that is willing to make not only below fair market, but also below a living wage. As a twenty something with debt from my professional training, without publicly funded healthcare, and without a social security check, I have to be able to support myself fully on my job. If this is the future of nonprofit, then I simply can’t afford to work in this sector.

  • Christian R. Quimpo

    A tremendous opportunity for those who dedicate their talent for good…to help spread those blessings to others for an affordable price!

    There are several non-profits organizations caught by the sweeping economic changes that today have never taken off the ground for lack of funding. We started an organization to provide an emergency home for Abused and Battered Mothers with small children. For two years at the time, the whole project was readily initiated through personal funds and backgound as a Realtor.

    We are in search for management skill…Grant Writer, Marketing help and the like… to initiate us into a more stable financial

    How do we get hold of these network of professionals?

  • Marcus Cunningham

    I would argue that this is already happening with programs like AmeriCorps. I’m. In my mid-twenties with a degree, and there’s no point where I could’ve worked for $14k a year. I’m actively trying to establish myself in the non-profit sector, and this doesn’t make me feel encouraged about my career prospects.

  • Mazarine

    I agree Jayne.

    It’s difficult to get a living wage in nonprofits at all, and most people don’t make enough to save, let alone pay bills like groceries, rent, clothing, and their phone bill.

    I think it’s a sad state of affairs in this country when people who are over 55 have to work $10/hour jobs to pay their bills.
    I think this is what this is really about. It’s nice to stay active, but 75% of people in this country do not have enough saved for retirement. Source: http://www.fool.com/retirement/general/2012/10/15/17-frightening-facts-about-retirement-savings-in-.aspx

    That means they have to keep working long past the age of retirement. And programs like this may also drive down wages for others.

    Unfortunately I don’t have the best experience with Elder Work programs actually put into practice. A person from an elder-work program came to work at my old job, first as a volunteer, and then for $10/hour. This person was not as competent as some other people in various ways, but the most glaring way was the folliowing example. They were supposed to be managing the finances, but under their watch, the CEO got away twice with stealing $2,000 and then $44,0000.

    The potential for abuse of this program may be too great to ignore.

    Whether it’s Americorps Vistas or Elder work, these are meant to be short term solutions, not actual perma-temps. Some nonprofits just abuse the system and use these workers so they never have to hire anyone. I’ve seen that too.

    If you pay people for-profit wages, you get better results than if you try to nickel and dime us all to death. This is why we have a crisis of leadership in the nonprofit sector. This is why many ambitious, competent people are leaving the field. They don’t want to mortgage their future by working for so little.

    And I’m not the only one who thinks this way. Here’s a post about Dan Pallotta, author of Uncharitable and Harvard Business Review Blogger, and his concept: No life, No Liberty, Just the Pursuit of Wealthy Donors: http://www.wildwomanfundraising.com/life-liberty-pursuit-wealthy-donors/

    And my perspective about 10 reasons to pay fundraising staff more: http://www.wildwomanfundraising.com/top-10-reasons-pay-fundraising-staff/



  • Salle H

    Did you mistakenly state that the assumption is “it’s ok for volunteers to work for free, but people in the NFP community seem to have issue with those who are wanting some other benefit besides altruism” ? or did you mean that? I don’t think that’s the assumption of the article or of NFP professionals in general. It would be great if we could provide NPO staff with competitive wages, benefits, etc., but with so much federal and state budget cuts, it seems that salaries in the sector are easily reduced and cut. This is something that needs to be changed. Management and leadership understand the problems this creates such as high turnover, getting approval for new positino, hiring, training, etc.

    Clearly salary isn’t the only motivating factor for working, but there comes a point when $10 for skilled professionals (of any age) is simply not enough. NPO workers are clearly not working for the salary, but for the cause… Let’s not saturate the market any more by adding more competition for lower salaries. Instead we should aim to increase salaries if we want to train and keep young professionals who will one day serve as management.