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The not-for-profit I work for looks down on me because I’m paid

I work for a small not-for-profit that serves low income households. I was hired a few months ago to help out following a sharp increase in demand for our services due to the pandemic. Prior to my arrival, the organization was run by just one person, the founder, an unpaid volunteer approaching retirement. Any help she needed came from volunteers (mostly local high school students), or a nationwide network organization with which we are affiliated. My wages come from funding secured by this affiliate organization. 

         So far my position has been a jack-of-all-trade type of thing; I help out doing whatever is needed or whatever I can in the moment. I enjoy the work, but more importantly to me, I feel really good about what I’m doing. As a matter of fact, I’ve spent most of my career working the NFP sector for this reason. I appreciate the opportunity to help others, particularly now, in our collective time of need. But here’s the thing: On several occasions the founder—who I work with closely—has remarked that I can never really ‘get it’ because I’m paid for my work (and not much, by the way). It’s as if my efforts are somehow less heartfelt, or altruistic because I get a paycheck at the end of the day. It’s not a big deal when it happens, nor is this the first time I’ve encountered this attitude in my work. I typically brush it off or ignore it. But what’s going on here? Am I right to be just a little bit offended? – Name Withheld

People choose to do the jobs they do for any number of reasons.

A primary motivation is, of course, income. Unless you’re independently wealthy, or otherwise provided for, you probably need $ to get by in this world.

But money isn’t all that a job has to offer.

In your situation, for instance, part of what you enjoy about what you do is knowing you are engaged in meaningful and needed work. This could—and to my mind, should—be thought of as ‘compensation’ too.

In The Enthusiastic Employee (2005), David Sirota, Louis Meltzer, and Michael Irwin argue that the jobs we hold have the potential to satisfy three (3) basic human ‘needs.’[1] One of those is the need to experience a sense of ‘equity’ in the workplace. This is especially true, it turns out, regarding pay. People not only want to be paid a fair wage for the work they do, they feel it should be commensurate with what others possessing similar expertise, or tasked with similar responsibilities receive. This is in part why the gender pay-gap is so reprehensible.

But this desire to be treated fairly and equitably includes other considerations as well. Employees expect their work environment to be safe, for example, and that the demands placed on them will be reasonable. They also expect some degree of job security, reasonable benefits, consistent management, and to be given a fair hearing for any complaints they might have.

According to these researchers, the second basic employee ‘need’ is to experience a sense of achievement and/or satisfaction through one’s work. This appears to be particularly important to you, and the work you choose; as you say, it’s why you’re drawn to the non-profit sector. Interestingly, Sirota and his colleagues point out that this desire seems to operate on both a personal and an organizational level. Not only do most people hope to take pride in their own efforts, they also want to be proud of the work their organization does as a whole.

Finally, most people are more enthusiastic about their jobs when they experience a sense of camaraderie in the workplace. Among the more satisfying consequences of engaging in successful collective effort are the warm and productive relationships that often develop between coworkers. Most people appreciate, and indeed seek out this feeling, according to this research.

Unfortunately for you, through her comments your colleague is failing you on all three counts.

To suggest that you can’t enjoy the same degree of satisfaction that she does because you are being paid belies a fundamental lack of respect for you, and what you do. It’s also unfair, therefore your need to experience workplace equity is denied. Her remark also robs you of the full and rightful sense of achievement you might feel as the result of your truly admirable work. And then finally, her attitude undoubtedly prevents any true feelings of camaraderie developing between you both.

All of this matters, by the way. And not just because it’s annoying.

As Sirota and his colleagues take pains to point out, when all three ‘needs’—for equity, achievement, and camaraderie—are being satisfied in the workplace, employees are more productive. By some estimates, as much as 40 percent more.

What your colleague is doing isn’t just callous and offensive, in other words. By openly dismissing your contributions she infringes on your capacity to be as productive as you might otherwise be.

And that negatively impacts the organization she’s presumably worked so hard to create.

[1] The Enthusiastic Employee by David Sirota, Louis A. Mischkind, and Michael Irwin Meltzer. 2005. Wharton School Publishing: Upper Saddle River, NJ.

 

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