I overheard a graduate student majoring in public health saying this the other day. I think it’s quite a thought-provoking statement. A part of me wants to shake my head and wag my finger at anyone who would say something like this, especially someone who’s training in social work or public health or other human services related field, but then as I’m aware of the fact that we live in a market economy, a large part of me finds it hard to disagree with the statement.

There are two opposing issues that ties into this sentiment: (1) many people who devote their time and skills in non-profit organizations (especially those geared towards serving vulnerable populations) are not paid very well; and (2) some people who can devote their time and skills towards non-profit human services work have bloated expectations about what their wealth and comfortable standard of living should be.

The second issue I had a hard time wording it properly because I do not want to portray non-profit workers in a negative light. In this type of economic system, everyone is a consumer. Everyone living in United States of America must inevitably be concerned with the concept of revenues vs expenses. In this society, people make money by working, and people use money to buy essential items and services like food and housing and plumbing and transportation, and also to buy non-essential but still important and desired products and services like movie tickets, a night out at the bar with friends, trendy shoes, video games, etc. Everyone needs money, and the maxim that everyone seems to live by in this society is that the more you have of it, the better your life is. This system is thought of as a rat race, as people clamoring to get their slice of the pie, with some slices being bigger than others. Everyone is susceptible to this, including those of us working in the so-called “non-profit” field.

To be willing to say and actually mean, “Even at the sacrifice of a nice salary, I want to follow my passions and help people”… First, it’s fucking hard. And I’m not sure if anyone – including myself – is actually being totally genuine and authentic when s/he says this. Helping people is important, a calling so desirable to those of us trained in the human services arena, but the question remains: at what cost? No one wants to become poor even it’s to help the poor. No one wants to become sick even if it’s to help the sick. No one wants to be attacked and harassed, even it’s to help those who’re being attacked and harassed. Self-preservation always comes first. This poses an ethical dilemma of wanting to help others, but only to an extent where we feel comfortable.

The challenge is to find a balance between how much we’re willing to sacrifice vs how much we feel is desirable and comfortable for us. The lower the balance the easier it is to accept difficult grueling work, and the higher the balance the less sustainable non-profit work will prove to be. Take the balance too low and you’ll certainly end up imploding, and go from being a helper into someone desperately needing help. If the balance gets really really high, then you’ll probably turn to either of two things: (1) for-profit work; or (2) a non-profit position with very high compensation (i.e. consultant, executive director, analyst, private contractor). Either way, one can contribute greatly to society, but what might be ethically troublesome is the methods or means someone uses to end up in a high-paying position.

All that said, I still see the root issue not as non-profit workers demanding too much, but as non-profit work being so devalued by the general public and by policymakers. America is a strange place when a lot of social services that should be the responsibility of the public sector has been contracted out to private organizations. So afraid are Americans of their tax money going to the poor that the political and economical system in place makes it extremely hard to follow how tax money ends up in the hands of charities who are serving the poor. There’s a great deal of transparency regarding the budget of non-profits, but really only for those who know how to find that information and understand the information. Non-profits are in a rat race for funding because money is not easy to come by and without money how can non-profits provide services to people in need? Why does the general public think it okay to not compensate helping professionals well and expect them to work overtime and work to the best of their abilities without getting worn out and burnt out? How is the public okay with spending trillions of tax dollars on giving weapons to rebels in other countries but not so okay with using billions to serve the needs of fellow American citizens?

For me, I think non-profit work is sustainable because I think my balance is quite low. After I graduated with my BSW, I was able to make it okay with a 29k salary (about 31k including my overtime hours and such). I of course would like to earn more than that after I graduate with an MSW, but I don’t have too high of an expectation about how much I earn. If I make 60k/year in the course of my career, I will be very satisfied and comfortable. I am in a privileged situation of having a very affordable rent and my dad has trained to be very frugal and adept at money management since I was young. Other than video games and books and fancy food once in a while, I don’t really have too many things I like to spend money on. I am excited to be able to make a living by being in a profession I’m passionate about. That’s the greatest source of joy for me.

However, I don’t think it’s fair to expect all non-profit workers (and myself included) to have this attitude. It is definitely a struggle I think for most non-profit workers to have their non-profit work life be sustainable. I wonder why that has to be the case. I dream of a society in which the only people who can say “non-profit work is not sustainable” are people whose salary aspirations are much beyond the ethically acceptable range of non-profit compensation (the range is debatable but I want to say that salary over $300k definitely starts entering that ethically unacceptable range). Right now though, I think the status quo is woefully incomparable to my dream society. Right now, non-profit work is often not sustainable to many people simply because the pay is so shitty. Many non-profits do hard work all the while being demonized, overburdened and under-appreciated. We should not be surprised that some of them unfortunately give up on this work. But we should also realize, things don’t have to be this way.