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Good Work its Own Reward?

Report finds high turnover, low pay, and educated workforce in non-profit sector

by Ben Sichel

Good Work its Own Reward?

Workers in Nova Scotia’s non-profit sector are poorly paid, highly educated, and frequently leaving their jobs, according to a new study conducted for the Federation of Community Organizations and Phoenix Youth Programs.

60% of non-profit workers – of whom 87% are women – earn less than $40,000 a year, and 94% earn less than $60,000 “at all levels,” according to Miia Suokonautio, director of programming at Phoenix Youth Programs and co-chair of the study.

As well, three quarters of non-profit employees in the province hold at least one university degree, compared to 45% nationally.

“Where there may be a public perception that…good will is enough” to work in the non-profit sector, says Suokonautio, “the complexity, and the level of service delivery and community involvement required from non-profits actually has more and more people having university degrees.”

While many do not think of the United Way, home care services for seniors, the Boys’ and Girls’ Club and the Ecology Action Centre as an employment sector, non-profits actually employ more Nova Scotians than traditional sectors like manufacturing or construction, says the report.

As well, the non-profit sector is key to community health and vitality, says Suokonautio.

“When you think of the community without the little league team, or without the home support services for seniors, or without the programs for immigrants and newcomers to help them settle, without services for homeless adults, you start to see a significantly impoverished Nova Scotia,” she says.

“And in rural Nova Scotia, what we heard from our research is that in some communities it’s really the lifeblood.”

Low pay and instability of funding were directly related to another common problem in the non-profit sector: high employee turnover rates. 60% of current non-profit employees have been in their positions less than two years, according to the report.

This phenomenon has a highly unsettling effect on those receiving services, says Suokonautio.

“If every two years you had to change your family doctor…the impact is huge,” she says.

Suokonautio adds that Nova Scotians should be aware of the excellent value they get from investing in the non-profit sector. “We do things that the market would never do because there’s no financial incentive, and we do things cheaper than if the government were to do it,” she says.

“We know that the provincial government is facing cuts,” she says. However, “cuts to some places will actually mean more costs, so it doesn’t necessarily make sense to cut up front…if you cut some of the essential services…the cost for justice, the cost for health care, are likely to go up.”

The research findings will be presented at a conference with provincial labour minister Marilyn More today in Dartmouth.

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Testing ground?

I work (sometimes) in the non-profit sector.  For me it's definitely not about the money.  Though I am fortunate that I managed to pay off my small amount of student loans early in my non-profit adventuring. 

I think the most attractive thing for me about working in the non-profit sector is that you are your own boss to a certain degree.  You may run a program and for the most part get to make the decisions and put in new funding applications.  It's also a chance to be creative.  I live very frugally so it's not a big deal to be paid less.  Success isn't only measured by one's salary as much as our culture teaches us it is.

Another comment is that in my experience younger people start out working for non-profits straight out of university or after a few years.  Then they do their time and are eventually poached by muncipalities or other governments where they make the big bucks.  Perhaps the non-profit sector is a testing ground for future civil servants.  Though, apart from the wage, imagine how tedious working for the municipality or province must be? 

But this just happened to a close friend in another city.  The good news is that she'll pay off her student loans.  The bad news is that I'm sure she'll be miserable in such a stifling environment.  But that's just my perception and I could be dead wrong.

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