Do what you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life, they say.

Well, yes. But, no. Obviously, many of us get into this profession because of raw passion. However, many of us leave eventually due to the industry’s high burnout rate. Even Idealist has an entire section on managing employee burnout in the nonprofit sector.

Aside from the high-stress environment, the expectation of free labour also contributes to the high burnout rate. The volunteer/pro-bono work, the obligation to take on extra work, the long office hours, the work weekends, and the ongoing events that need your attention.

In my 5 years of providing professional work in the nonprofit sector (and an additional 5 years of volunteering/involvement), I admit that sometimes I returned home feeling completely stretched and used. I felt like I was milked out of what I’m worth.

Allow me to say this, with no small amount of guilt: it took me a long time to realize that as much as I love doing good work for nonprofits, expecting me to sacrifice my time when I don’t have any for myself partly forced me to stop providing (or at least significantly reduce) free labor.

Why is free labour so common in the nonprofit sector?

An economist might argue that the value of the work is cheapened because supply exceeds demand; it’s easy to recruit new blood. A lot of people view the nonprofit sector through pink-tinted lenses. It is almost romantic to envision oneself as the highly passionate social worker who is poor financially but rich in experience and good karma.

A feminist economist, on the other hand, might argue that the nonprofit sector, which mostly comprised of women, is already used to providing free labour in another way – unpaid care work. To the unfamiliar, unpaid care work refers to the unbalanced distribution of housework, including providing care for children and the elderly.

In this argument, women are simply redistributing their internalized sense of obligation, instead of using that time to increase their economic potential.

Women Must Say ‘No’ When They Mean ‘No’

However, is almost taboo to talk about money and compensation in the nonprofit sector. Someone even tried to make me feel guilty for being a salaried employee when I should have done it for free!

In an ideal world, everyone who works in the nonprofit sector is selfless beings who work for the satisfaction alone. I am not such angel, I cannot make this claim for myself – like most people, I also worked for the paycheck. I am not even ashamed to say this – I believe that sustainability, including financial sustainability, is important.

Can we reduce the expectation of free labour in the nonprofit sector?

The expectation of free labour in the nonprofit sector runs deep, and early, too. Most of us start as interns with minimum to no salary. We are also willing to work long hours and weekends, for the better good.

Just to be clear – getting help from good-willed individuals is a good thing. There is strength in those numbers. It affirms that yes, the world is still worth saving.

Taking advantage of good-willed individuals, on the other hand, is precisely what I am advocating against. Admirably, one of the forerunners in highlighting one type of abusive free labour system comes from the unpaid intern group themselves.

The Fair Internship Initiative advocates for ‘higher quality and fairly remunerated internships within the United Nations System’.

This is a brilliant initiative, and it’s not like the unpaid internship system made sense in the first place anyway. Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University even went as far as saying ‘all internships are illegal’ in the U.S.

Back to the issue I highlighted in the first few paragraphs, employee burnouts partly happen when nonprofit employees get desperate for time for themselves, and they see no other way to make this happen unless they quit it all.

If this thought ever crossed your mind, you need to start saying no to providing free work. Easier said than done, of course, but look at it this way – you’re helping to improve your movement’s sustainability.

That’s a great reason, isn’t it?

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Founder @ The New Savvy
Anna Haotanto is the Advisor (former CEO) of The New Savvy. She is currently the COO of ABZD Capital and the CMO of Gourmet Food Holdings, an investment firm focusing on opportunities in the global F&B industry. She is part of the founding committee of the Singapore FinTech Association and heads the Women In FinTech and Partnership Committee. Anna is the President of the Singapore Management University Women Alumni. Anna invests and sits on the board of a few startups. Anna is also part of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce & Industry Career Women’s Group executive committee. Anna’s story is featured on Millionaire Minds on Channel NewsAsia. She hosts TV shows and events, namely for Channel NewsAsia’s “The Millennial Investor” and “Challenge Tomorrow”, a FinTech documentary. Anna was awarded “Her Times Youth Award” at the Rising50 Women Empowerment Gala, organised by the Indonesian Embassy of Singapore. The award was presented by His Excellency Ngurah Swajaya. She was also awarded Founder of the Year for ASEAN Rice Bowl Startup Awards. She was also awarded the Women Empowerment Award by the Asian Business & Social Forum. Anna has been awarded LinkedIn Power Profiles for founders (2018, 2017), Tatler Gen T, The Peak’s Trailblazers under 40 and a nominee for the Women of The Future award by Aviva


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