Tasha Williamson is no stranger to the workings of a nonprofit organization. Cofounder of the San Diego Compassion Project, which offers support and outreach for families who experience the loss of a loved one due to violence, she also co-created the Block by Block program, which caters to high-risk gang members by guiding them towards educational and job opportunities and helps them stay out of jail. Williamson was also the manager for Project Safeway, which ensures children get to and from school safely, and is completely staffed by volunteers.
“I was able to find what my true gift is to the world, and help so many other people with a team of folks who, like myself, really love helping people,” Williamson says. “And helping them overcome their greatest challenges in life.”
While many desire to help the needy, the only reason not to pursue a career in this otherwise altruistic, noble and respected profession is the first thing many take into consideration when deciding upon their future career: the little (and many times nonexistent) paycheck.
There’s a good reason why the typical image of a nonprofit organizer involves a millionaire with an abnormal amount of disposable income. It is a common, selfless hobby amongst the affluent, from Will and Jada Smith, whose Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation has granted hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Lupus Foundation, the Baltimore School for the Arts, and the Make-A-Wish Foundation, to Beyoncé Knowles, who donated $4 million to a drug treatment nonprofit in California, on top of creating the Survivor Foundation for victims of Hurricane Katrina, and donating the proceeds of her song “I Was Here” to humanitarian causes.
This particular challenge facing those who want to dedicate their lives to doing good, but find themselves entrapped within their own modest means, involves a lot of passion for work that offers much in terms of fulfillment, humanity and connection, but little in salary. And Williamson knows all too well what a toll it can take. Her day job involves working as a community outreach consultant for the Urban League of San Diego, and can only take up so much of her time when her philanthropic causes need her attention.
“With the work that I do—it really is a lot of volunteer work, so there’s no money,” Williamson says.
But money isn’t all that she sacrifices. The Compassion Project handles intense confrontations, emotional fallouts and serious issues that are both exhausting and time consuming. This means Williamson spends a lot of her time away from her family.
“I think about the sacrifice that my family has made, so that I can do the work that I do. Including my own children. Because a lot of my work takes me away from the home.”
But Williamson’s dedication to her job finally paid off directly in October, when she received the call that she had won the California Endowment Fund’s California Peace Prize, which happened to come with a $25,000 check.
“To hear that there was a prize that came with it, I cried. I didn’t believe him at first, so I kept asking him, is he serious? He says ‘you know people hang up on me. They don’t believe that I’m serious,’ and he said this is really a real call.
“I just broke down and started crying, because you know, we really needed good news.”
Unfortunately, Williamson’s is an infrequent case, as many people dedicated to a career in philanthropy and volunteering without the money to support themselves find it difficult to live, as they balance the fine line between getting by and declaring bankruptcy.
Manish Vaidya, a nonprofit worker who has since had to leave the industry, recently spoke out about the grim treatment and financial support he received from his job.
“It was the ultimate paradox, that in these organizations that were committed to doing social good in their communities, wage exploitation was ripe,” he says.
Vaidya goes on to describe a job he ultimately had to abandon—not because he didn’t believe in its cause, but because he simply could no longer support himself.
“I worked seven days a week and wasn't paid overtime. I stopped one day to do the math on what I was actually making, and realized I was being exploited to the tune of 12 cents an hour.”
“When non-profits are doing the jobs that a government is supposed to provide, it's usually the sign of a breakdown and of a failed state,” said Carla Sapsford Newman, a former employee of PactWorld, a non-profit that works to strengthen charitable sectors in third-world countries.
But as the non-profit industry in America faces a crises in financial management, Williamson’s story serves as a hopeful reminder that if more is done to acknowledge nonprofits and charitable organizations, it will not only give rise to the betterment of an ever-important sector in America’s economic welfare, but will create a lucrative opportunity that may make the philanthropic profession within reach of anyone—even those who, in lieu of money, have only their work ethic and compassion to offer.