Highly educated, poorly paid women in short-term jobs without career support – welcome to the world of NGOs!

This is a very blunt summary of interesting research on the non-profit sector in Nova Scotia, Canada.
Granted, Nova Scotia may not be a hub for international development work and my assumption is that it is a relatively small part of the non-profit sector here, but nonetheless this is an interesting view from the ‘margins’ with some likely broader implications for other parts of the world and development work in particular.

Recently, the lead researcher shared some of her key findings and they are definitely food for thought. 
This is in a nutshell what the project has been about:

In 2007, Phoenix partnered with the Federation of Community Organizations (FOCO) to undertake a labour market study of the NFP sector in Nova Scotia. 
From January to June 2011, the labour market information was followed-up with an intensive six-month mapping of sector development strategies.
Labour market information on the non-profit sector is especially valuable because it helps us understand:
Who works in the sector;
How they are compensated;
Push and pull factors to working in the sector.

Most of the key findings are not breathtakingly surprising, but especially for students, recent graduates or anybody who feels enticed by ‘charitable’ work this is worth reading.

Well qualified but pay is low

Almost 75% have at least one university degree, which is about 10% higher than reported nationally.  Despite high education levels, pay as compared to national sector participants, is markedly lower.

Given the increase in students who are paying a lot of money to get ‘into development’ through BA and MA courses, internships or volunteering projects it is worth pointing out (again) that there is no well-paid career path waiting for you.

Women account for 87% of the workforce

This is a high ratio compared to the national sector where women account for 76% of workforce and even higher where women account for 50% of general workforce in Nova Scotia.
Feminization of the workforce begs policy related questions, including pay equity, reliance on spousal incomes and benefits, and disproportionate impact of parental leaves.

This does not come as a surprise, too, although I find the second point quite interesting. Large (I)NGOs may already have appropriate policies in place, but it is an area of concern.
What I also find interesting for the development is that the ‘feminization’ of the sector is rarely discussed in teaching for example. What about working with men and on masculinities? What about policy management and leadership (why are there so many old men with ties at international conferences? To earn nice tax-free international organisation salaries so they can support their partner’s work in NGOs…?!)? There are plenty more fascinating questions for research and teaching, but also practical ones for (young) men who want to work in the sector.

Only 13% of organizations have a dedicated staff for HR 

HR management is most commonly added on to another staff position, such as the Executive Director.           
Only 20% of organizations reported having formal written policies on human resource management.

Wow…again, not really surprising, but also quite concerning. Imagine some of these organisations sending staff abroad-can they make sure to send the most suitable candidate and can the candidate be sure that s/he knows what is expected from her/him? All sarcastic stories about international aid workers stumbling across villages aside, the sector needs to invest more into professionalization of staff and donors should probably push more (and provide adequate funding) that this is taken more seriously.

Over 40% have been with their employer for less than 2 years

This increases to 60% working for less than 4 years.
Only 60% have been in their current position 2 years.
Interviews and focus groups indicated this could be explained, in part, by the project orientation of many positions and the desire for career advancement.

This is a very sobering reality for those who work in knowledge management, want to create sustainable organisations and take all those nice things about learning, sharing and capacity-building seriously. Forget it. Once the funding for your project is over, the person is likely to leave. This could also serve as an excuse for organisations that do not want to invest in HR development, because they may think that the person will be moving on sooner rather than later. Right now there seems to be little room for innovative approaches which can only lead to frustration of highly educated and motivated people who are ready to work for a better future in their local or the global community.

As I said, this is a study from Nova Scotia and the findings may not be easy to generalise, but it is another reminder that work in the non-profit sector may come with limitations and challenges that do not always lay the foundation for ‘smart aid’ projects, sustainable careers and good ways to pay off your student loans. I also think that this is a reminder for DIY aid entrepreneurs that creating organisational structures is important, time- and resource- consuming and tempting to overlook when there are so many more pressing issues in the quest to 'eradicate poverty'.


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