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Women in Nonprofits: Then & Now

women nonprofit then and now
The author with her daughter Katie, now a practicing attorney in Pittsburgh, PA. 

For a 65 year old woman to be asked to write on Women in Nonprofits: Then & Now seems to assume that I am the Then. The old saw, “you're as young as you feel” assures me that I remain also the Now! But to be given an assignment to think about my life in the midst of living it is a welcome one...and there are both many differences from Then and Now and in some ways, too few.

It is a pleasure to be part of this GuideStar series on the lives of women in nonprofits. I appreciate the work of GuideStar and it has been great to see them pursue the topic of gender equity in pay. We at the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University have been exploring these issues since 2008 with our 74% Project. Women are 74% of the nonprofit workforce and are often paid 74% or less to do the same job as a man. It was my privilege to moderate the panel on which GuideStar's Mizmun Kasairi spoke at the Independent Sector conference in Miami last month.

So a bit about the Then...if you look at a chart beginning in the early 1970s that shows the number of women entering the workforce and the number of existing nonprofits, you will see a hockey stick drawing of both numbers going straight up. For young idealistic people shaped by the civil rights, anti-war and women's movements, the nonprofit sector offered a rich place to live their values through work.


My first job was in a community art museum in Austin, Texas in the late 70s. We were all young. The oldest person working there was thirteen years my senior. There was no best practice...there was only practice. Organized philanthropy beyond the large and established was nascent...everyone was learning their job and making it up as they went along. In some ways, I am reminded of the tech start-up world. We were creative, more tolerant of failure because of lower stakes and primarily led by cool men. The biggest difference is that we didn't become personally wealthy, but the world was definitely trying to be a better place.

I was unintentionally, but powerfully, mentored by the women at the museum. My children were welcome in my work place when my other support systems failed. I didn't know to call it family-friendly, but it was. We hadn't even begun to network. We have the 80s to thank for that practice! I was unaware of any leadership programs for nonprofit employees. There were very few nonprofit academic programs and nonprofit scholarship was just beginning.

However, when it began, the seminal texts were written by men. The reality of the gendered sector was largely ignored by these scholars. In a recent article in the New York Times, Ruth Bader Ginsberg (AKA The Notorious RBG) remarked that doing work on women's equality was considered frivolous in 1970s. The preponderance of women in the nonprofit workforce and their lower pay and status went unnoticed. We were, after all, the social justice sector and thus, could not be characterized by a lack of justice in our own ranks.

However, the nonprofit sector was on fire. Those who wanted to advance in their careers could get another job if they needed to make more money. When Ronald Reagan took office in 1980, the period of devolution from government provision of human service to nonprofits as service providers sparked a tsunami of growth in nonprofits. Young women as well as men rode a wave of growth to bigger jobs and bigger salaries. I believe the hard-wired injustice remained in place, but individuals were advancing and thus, unaware of the systemic imbalance.

As part of our 74% research, I did almost 70 interviews. I talked to young and old, workers in human services, the arts, education, civic improvement... 74% women and 26% men...people who are diverse across race, gender, sexual preference and age. While most women reported some gender and/or racial discrimination, the most common complaint from younger women was being disrespected for being young.

As I said before, when I got started, everyone was young. I live in a community that has had a long-standing, vigorous strategy for retaining the talent of recent college graduates...and yet, young woman after young woman reported condescension and theft of their ideas. The Never Trust Anyone Over 30 generation seems now not to trust anyone under 30!

This has major ramifications for our sector. In a sector that has little money for infra-structure and therefore, poor to non-existent HR as characteristic in many organizations. It's an unfunded mandate. Coupled with the age of Baby Boomers who often still occupy the top job and thus will be stepping aside over the next five to ten years, the lack of respect and nurture inherent in these reports is a train wreck waiting to happen.

When you look at the tenure of nonprofit executives and the effect that that the 2008 global downturn had on people's careers, we find that women's tenure in senior positions have lengthened by 50%. The lack of effective professional development and the lack of ready availability of progressively good jobs has in some ways paralyzed our sector. Woman after woman told me "I feel stuck".

So while pay equity and women's career advancement matters from a social justice perspective, from helping mothers feed and educate their children perspective, from a global competitive and effective use of human capital perspective…from a very practical standpoint of a Boomer who will need the nonprofit sector in old age, I issue this call to women like me who have a Then. Make it your urgent business to help these younger women grow in their current jobs. Help them find their next job. Teach them what you can - and learn from them what they know. Our collective future depends on it. Embrace the Now!

Women then and now

As Executive Director of the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, Peggy Morrison Outon has led research on the 74% since 2008. The 74% project has received more than six million media impressions since inception. The research has been presented nationally and has affected the thinking of nonprofit boards and staffs.

A nationally recognized leader in nonprofit capacity building for the last thirty years, Ms Outon served as the founding Board Chair for The Alliance for Nonprofit Management, was chosen for the Nonprofit Times 2006 Top 50 in Power & Influence, and has personally served as an organizational effectiveness consultant to more than 1,000 nonprofits from Louisiana to Pennsylvania. For more information on the 74% project, see here.

Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice