From a young age, most people are told to follow their passions when choosing a career.
Though the realities of finances, talent, and other factors may push people in different directions over time, at a school like Penn, a good number of students are still willing to take the necessary risks to chase after their dream jobs.
Most students who are deeply passionate about social justice believe they will work in the nonprofit field throughout their time at Penn and beyond. But reality seems to strike hard when students begin looking for summer internships—a pattern emerges: unpaid work, long hours, or a minimum wage salary in a city like New York with exorbitant living costs.
For students working in nonprofit or social justice spaces, unpaid internships and work remain the norm, even as more criticism is leveled at them across the board. People still sign up for these positions in droves, because they want exposure, the nonprofit’s mission fulfills an important community need, or it advocates for a necessary global cause. With this, the term 'passion exploitation' has been utilized to describe the way social justice organizations pull dedicated workers in and exploit their labor under the repeated rhetoric of “working for a good cause.” Though many employees know that their efforts would be properly compensated elsewhere, they stay because they love the mission.
For example, the United Nations offers only unpaid internships, instead promising interns that they “will be exposed to high–profile conferences, participate in meetings, and contribute to analytical work as well as organizational policy of the United Nations.” In February 2017, about 200 UN interns from New York to Geneva protested the UN’s reliance on unpaid labor, highlighting the fact that it reduced diversity within the organization and actively conflicted with the UN’s outward–facing mission of social equality.
Shady nonprofit organizations have been parodied on TV and social media, with TikTok creator Nicole Daniels’ (@nicoleolived) “POV: Your Nonprofit Boss” series racking up thousands of views. Her videos comedically highlight the impossibility of asking your nonprofit boss for a raise, or the frequent “promotions” that just mean more work without a pay raise.
Similarly, on the HBO show Insecure, the main character Issa Dee (played by Issa Rae) spends the first three and a half seasons working for “We Got Y’all,” a community nonprofit focused on improving Black children’s access to afterschool programming. Ironically, Issa is the only Black person on the entire team, is extremely underpaid, and is overworked, something that the show frequently highlights for comedic purposes.
Much of the discourse around passion exploitation centers around pay—while nonprofit CEOs can make upward of $120,000 a year, many employees have to rely on public benefits to get by. As noted by the UN student protestors, passion exploitation is particularly harmful to low– or middle–income individuals, who can’t afford to live with little pay in expensive areas. A 2013 report by the Urban Institute found that, when faced with financial hardship, “most nonprofits choose to cut salaries, benefits, and other costs long before scaling back their operations.”
In a viral October tweet, unhoused rights organizer @ahouse4all wrote, “My advice to young college kids aspiring to work at nonprofits: Don't. Go work for a soulless corporation that pays you in real money and has a decent work life balance and volunteer with a mutual aid org on your own time. These nonprofits are good person soul sucking vampires.” Their comments filled up with others sharing their poor salaries and equally poor treatment while working in the nonprofit sector.
This is not to say that all nonprofit work is exploitative—so many of these positions and organizations fulfill their social mission while still offering interns and employees decent pay and a solid work–life balance. Many employees have great experiences working at student–led nonprofit organizations part–time, even unpaid ones.
However, students should be aware of exploitative organizational practices. Most importantly, they should be aware that you can still be passionate about social justice work and find a job—whether corporate or nonprofit—that values your labor. Passion exploitation isn’t limited to nonprofit organizations: it’s also the newspapers that hire young, unpaid staff writers, or the artists expected to sell free designs to “get their name out there.”
At the end of the day, when looking towards your future career in social justice, know that the promise of experience doesn’t equate to compensation. And, as @house4all points out, many corporate jobs offer the flexibility for workers to also spend time organizing and giving back to their communities. There needs to be a balance between passion and realism—and never let your passions drive you to devalue your time and energy.