The Over-professionalization of the Non-Profit Sector

Thoughts have been percolating in my head for awhile now about how over-professionalization is fucking up non-profits.

By over-professionalization I mean requiring high levels of education and/or licensing for even the most basic jobs at a non-profit organization, often jobs where real-life experience would be exponentially more relevant to the tasks at hand.

Non-profits exist to try and enact social change in ways that government and for-profit businesses can’t or won’t: this is why we call them the “third sector”. In progressive organizations, which are my concern here, this change involves fostering social justice and equality between all human beings. This being the case, non-profits are often focused on providing services or a platform for activism for traditionally oppressed groups: people of color, the poor, women, LGBT people, etc.

The people best equipped to serve the needs of, say, non-English-speaking refugee mothers who are experiencing domestic abuse, would be other refugee women or survivors of domestic violence. Yet these very people who would be the most effective resources are highly unlikely to work at non-profits that exist to help refugees or survivors of DV because they can’t access the educational levels required for the job. Instead, such a woman as described above is likely to face a native-born, monolingual, middle-class white woman who holds a bunch of degrees when looking for services.

Over-represented among MSW-holders are middle-class white women. Often, these women have lived privileged lives in majority-white environments. Often, they are monolingual. Often, their (relatively) privileged background made it possible for them to get advanced degrees in a field guaranteed not to pay much. Often, they are trained or conditioned to think that they know what’s best for the disadvantaged groups and clients they will be helping.

I am not hating on middle-class white women here. I am trying to point out some uncomfortable truths in the non-profit sector that must be looked at with a critical eye if we are really serious about social justice. Middle-class white women have shown a notable interest in this fight, and they have an important role to play. But if we continue to stack the decks in our field in favor of middle-class white women, well then we have a problem.

People from privileged demographics or backgrounds cannot swoop into troubled communities and tell them how to fix themselves. This is a fundamentally disordered way to go about “social justice.” It actually reaffirms the current social order – you know, the one we are trying to change. Middle-class white women do not have all the answers to injustice. The answers lie amongst the people who are experiencing the injustice.

Only members of an oppressed community, such as people living with AIDS, or transwomen of color, or immigrants facing the deportation of a loved one, know what their community really needs to achieve equality and justice. No one else, especially no one from the dominant sector of society, can tell them this. Their struggle can’t really be “professionalized” without also being de-fanged, made digestible to non-profits more concerned with pleasing donors than affecting change.

Here’s where non-profits have set up a lose-lose situation. Most traditional non-profits require Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees to hold any substantive position at their organization. The kinds of positions that matter, where you can make decisions, rally activists, or clear paths to help for those seeking it, all while making a living wage, require a level of education not attainable for the very groups they are “helping”. If our own organizational structures reflect the very social structures of oppression we are purportedly against, we have already lost our battle. If we, in the non-profit sector, can’t innovate structures of equality and justice internally, we have no business going out into the world and telling the government or businesses to find a way to do what even we can’t do.

One must have a high level of support, either financial or familial or both, to get a graduate degree in Social Work and related fields. A Bachelor’s degree alone is extremely expensive, and add to that a graduate degree in a field guaranteed not to pay well, and you have more or less eliminated anyone making less than a median income from ever being qualified to work in a non-profit. According to the New York Times, a four-year degree at a private university now costs 76% of the median family income [2008]. Of course, people of color and other marginalized groups are over-represented amongst those making less than the median income. So you can see the nature of the problem.

What oppressed groups are rich in is relevant experience and first-hand knowledge of the structures and effects of oppression. This is a qualification where they far out-pace middle-class white women, and interestingly, relevant experience not accompanied by prestigious degrees is greatly devalued. It doesn’t matter how long a black father has been fighting for equal educational opportunities for his children- if he didn’t have the cash and free time to get six years of higher education resulting in a Master’s degree, he doesn’t have the qualifications to be paid to continue his fight through an equal-education non-profit agency. Of course, if he had gone to school for six years while raising children and probably working, he wouldn’t have had the time to gain all that experience fighting for equality. So under which circumstance would he truly be more equipped to support an equal-education non-profit?

Education, academic life and intellectual life remain, as always, valuable, vital parts of our society. But the real experiences and insights of those who feel inequality most keenly must come to be valued at least as highly as the experiences the privileged have who study those injustices in the halls of academia. Over-professionalization prevents the non-profit sector from ever really achieving what it purportedly exists to do.

As Audre Lorde said:

Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.

(c) idyllicmollusk 12/4/08, with help from cp

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4 thoughts on “The Over-professionalization of the Non-Profit Sector

  1. As someone who is in grad school to examine social issues, I really struggle with this problem. I find it problematic that we devalue experience as knowledge and do not appreciate the various ways of knowing. I can not recall if it was Sandra Harding or Nancy Hartsock who discussed how the group at the top can only see one direction – top down, but the group(s) at the bottom can see both top down and bottom up. Thus, as you said, such groups would have a better idea of not only what their problems are, but also how those problems should be addressed.

    One of my main concerns is that I do not want to simply draw out information from individuals and then use it as I please for abstract articles to be put in scholarly journals and passed around amongst just those with higher degrees. What is the point of that? The two names mentioned about describe using “feminist standpoint” theory, which has at its core highlighting women’s (and other minorities) voices. The idea is not to speak for the women, but to provide them with the space to talk in their own words and bring their voices into various forums which they may not have been able to break into before (for numerous reasons). I still worry that no matter how good my intentions, I am still using their words for my own end goals…

    Anyway, I think we all need to hear more voices describing more lived experiences and value them as crucial to understanding and changing social problems.

  2. It seems like your taking more issue with the “demand” side than with the “supply” side. Which is more fucked up…wanting people with relevant training, or that the people that have experience are denied access to that training. One of the interesting things that has happened in recent years it that non-profits are increasingly taking on the role of service delivery for the public sector. Add to that the continual competition for funding, and it’s no surprise that you need advanced education. In these programs you learn alot of the skills you need for reporting, evaluating and planning. As messed up as it is “black father has been fighting for equal educational opportunities for his children”, nor anyone else, is born with these skills. You want to make power structures in non-profits (and many other areas of the US for that matter) more inclusive, take away the unnecessary burden of education.

    That being said, all of that totally depends on what type of non-profit you are talking about, i.e. service delivery, advocacy, etc. It seems that the comparative advantage argument for more education in non-profits kind of melts away in the case of public advocacy organizations, and to a lesser extent policy advocacy organizations.

  3. @Shannon:
    Some great thoughts there- it’s awesome to know someone else is struggling with these issues and thinking critically about them. While working at an org serving refugees, a friend of mine doing grad studies wanted to come and “observe” and interview the refugees coming to my org for services. She didn’t want to get involved with their struggle to be successful in America, i.e. donate or volunteer, she just wanted to harvest information from them so that she could have an awesome and edgy paper to turn in to her professor. I was like, “you want to use refugees, who are struggling to survive at the very margins of society, to get a good grade on a paper, and give them nothing in return?” For reasons like that the org’s clients and the org itself was very skeptical of grad students’ interview requests. These people are not some anthropological lesson, they are goddamn human beings!

  4. @perry
    I’m glad you commented here, because you are def quite knowledgeable about this topic.

    “Which is more fucked up…wanting people with relevant training, or that the people that have experience are denied access to that training.”

    Well, I don’t think it’s either-or. My critique here is that the “relevant training” may not always be such. Of course making training and education available to more people can be nothing but beneficial. And of course, there are plenty of non-profit jobs that require high educational attainment, and so especially for these positions making the education more equitably available is the answer. But for many jobs, especially service delivery and advocacy, the best “relevant training” may be lived experience. People can learn plenty outside of the classroom. My personal belief is that the best education happens outside of academia. Yet the non-profit sector is following the other 2 sectors in devaluing lived experience (something oppressed peoples are rich in) and over-valuing education and training (something privileged people are rich in).

    “One of the interesting things that has happened in recent years it that non-profits are increasingly taking on the role of service delivery for the public sector.”

    That sounds like a whole new post. Super interesting topic, how non-profits have been stepping into the gap left by the other 2 sectors.

    “Add to that the continual competition for funding, and it’s no surprise that you need advanced education.”

    Well, I have fundamental problems with how non-profits are funded. I recommend reading The Revolution Will Not Be Funded by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence. By accepting money from the government and corporations, non-profits are also accepting a certain amount of control from the very structures that are creating the problems addressed by non-profits in the first place. So how much social change can they really create when they are funded by entities that have vested interests in preventing social change?

    If we move away from foundation and government funding, to funding stemming from the communities and stake-holders of a non-profit, the power moves from powerful funders and a privileged, highly-educated fundraising elite to individuals who know the communities they serve best: MEMBERS of those communities. Isn’t that the direction power should be moving?

    “You want to make power structures in non-profits (and many other areas of the US for that matter) more inclusive, take away the unnecessary burden of education. That being said, all of that totally depends on what type of non-profit you are talking about, i.e. service delivery, advocacy, etc. It seems that the comparative advantage argument for more education in non-profits kind of melts away in the case of public advocacy organizations, and to a lesser extent policy advocacy organizations.”

    Yeah, you got it.

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