advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

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 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 associated. My wages come from funding secured by this affiliate organization. 

         So far my position has been a jack-of-all-trades 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 in the NFP sector for this reason. I really 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. 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 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,’ or fairness, 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 want it to be commensurate with what others possessing similar expertise, or tasked with similar responsibilities receive. But this sense of fairness applies to other aspects of the job as well, including: a desire to be treated respectfully, that the demands of the job will be reasonable, the work environs will be safe, and that one’s opinions will be taken seriously.

The second basic ‘need’ is to experience a sense of achievement or satisfaction through one’s work. This appears to be particularly important to you; as you say, it’s why you’re drawn to the non-profit sector. Sirota and his colleagues found this to be true more generally. Most people want to take pride in their individual efforts, as well as what the organization as a whole accomplishes collectively.

The third and final ‘need’ is to experience a sense of camaraderie. According to these researchers, among the more satisfying consequences of engaging in successful collective effort are the warm and collegial relationships that often develop between coworkers. Most people appreciate, and indeed seek out this feeling.

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 is unfair. It belies a fundamental lack of respect for you, and what you do, therefore denying you the sense of workplace equity you might otherwise be experiencing. 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 also take pains to point out, when all three of these ‘needs’ are being satisfied, employees are demonstrably 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 in the way that she has, she infringes upon your capacity to be as productive as you might otherwise be.

And that is sure to negatively impact 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.

[ 1 Comment ]

  1. Jim H

    Your comments are 100% accurate. Honestly it’s beyond me why managers don’t get these basic points. Someone running a non-profit who has no empathy or ability to put themselves in their employee’s shoes? It would be nice if that employee could have a frank conversation with their manager. But maybe it’s a lost cause. I hope they found another job by now. I couldn’t take that for too long


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