Caught Between Volunteerism and Professionalism: Support by Nonprofit Leaders for the Donative Labor Hypothesis

Date01 June 2020
Published date01 June 2020
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-1735QVWoqPxXY6/input 816139ROPXXX10.1177/0734371X18816139Review of Public Personnel AdministrationKim and Charbonneau
Review of Public Personnel Administration
2020, Vol. 40(2) 327 –349
Caught Between
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
Volunteerism and
DOI: 10.1177/0734371X18816139
Professionalism: Support by
Nonprofit Leaders for the
Donative Labor Hypothesis
Mirae Kim1 and Étienne Charbonneau2
The rise of professionalism within the nonprofit sector has transformed the
sector’s reliance on well-meaning volunteers to paid professionals. While the
professionalization of the nonprofit workforce is likely to continue, nonprofits
are increasingly challenged for their inability to pay competitive wages. Our study
argues that a social expectation for nonprofit employees to forgo some of their
wages influences the donative labor narrative, which in turn impacts low nonprofit
wages. We present data from an online survey experiment of executive directors at
467 nonprofits, along with their organizations’ Form 990 filings, to contrast socially
biased attitudes and genuine views toward the donative labor hypothesis. The findings
illustrate that the donative labor narrative should be understood as a result of social
expectations for sacrifice of nonprofit employees, rather than a simple outcome
of supply and demand in the labor market. We discuss the need to reframe the
widespread donative labor narrative.
donative labor, volunteerism, professionalism, list experiment, behavioral public
1Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA, USA
2École nationale d’administration publique, Montreal, QC, Canada
Corresponding Author:
Mirae Kim, Department of Public Management and Policy, Andrew Young School of Policy Studies,
Georgia State University, 14 Marietta Street NW, Atlanta, GA 30303, USA.

Review of Public Personnel Administration 40(2)
The nonprofit sector, often referred to as the center of civil society or the voluntary
sector, has long been a major vehicle for promoting fairness and social justice
(Clemens, 2006; Skocpol & Fiorina, 2004). Many assume that truly motivated non-
profit professionals do not care much about earnings as they choose to work in organi-
zations that “engage in moral work, upholding and reinforcing moral values about
‘desirable’ human behavior and the ‘good’ society” (Garrow & Hasenfeld, 2010,
p. 33). They should, therefore, be satisfied more so by this morally rewarding work as
opposed to being compensated with competitive wages. However, the nonprofit sector
is increasingly criticized for operating based on a culture of self-sacrifice (Cornelius &
Corvington, 2012).
Census records and industry survey results have consistently shown low wages in
the nonprofit sector, and many frontline workers in the nonprofit sector, especially
those in the social service sector, earn close to poverty-level wages (R. Cohen, 2010;
Nonprofit HR, 2015; Third Sector New England, 2014). The problem of earning
lower-than-market wages is even more pronounced in smaller nonprofits, where health
and retirement benefits are often limited (Boris & Steuerle, 2017). Some critics argue
that low nonprofit wages even contribute to perpetuating economic inequality, which
creates greater demands for nonprofit services (Miller, 2016; Schmidt, 2016). In the
face of scarce financial resources, many nonprofits have internalized the “doing more
with less” philosophy. The pursuit of efficiency has also created the “nonprofit starva-
tion cycle,” that is, nonprofits competitively minimize the cost of overhead to appeal
to potential funders (Gregory & Howard, 2009). This norm, however, is hard to merge
with the growing need for nonprofits to hire professionals with subject-matter knowl-
edge and experience. Furthermore, one of the consistently cited reasons for high turn-
over rates in the nonprofit sector is the “inability to pay competitively” (McCambridge,
2017; Nonprofit HR, 2015, p. 15).
Given the growing demand for a professional workforce, the compensation issue in
the nonprofit sector requires more discussion and research. The idea that nonprofit
employees voluntarily accept lower wages, often called the “donative labor hypothe-
sis,” has been pervasive, even though previous studies could not reach a consensus
about this hypothesis (e.g., Bishow & Monaco, 2016; R. Cohen, 2010; Hirsch,
MacPherson, & Preston, 2017). Low pay, lack of adequate benefits, and erratic work
hours, however, contrast with the nonprofit sector’s pursuit of fairness and social jus-
tice. In this study, we argue that the social expectation for sacrifice from nonprofit
workers in the pursuit of efficiency restrains nonprofits from treating their employees
fairly through proper compensation for their contributions.
Using an online experiment with 467 nonprofit executive directors, we show how
the attitudes of nonprofit leaders are subject to social desirability for curbing nonprofit
compensation. We focus on the attitudes of nonprofit executive directors because they
oversee hiring and setting pay rates for staff. We also show how nonprofit leaders
perceive the idea of donative labor differently depending on the financial constraints
of their organizations to offer fair competitive wages.

Kim and Charbonneau
This study extends the existing literature on the donative labor hypothesis as we
focus on the social expectation toward nonprofit employees, which influences non-
profit wages, and yet has received little attention thus far. Previous studies did not
directly tackle the social expectation aspect, partly because there are inherent difficul-
ties in asking individuals to share their thoughts about appropriate levels of nonprofit
compensation without social desirability bias. Using an innovative survey experiment
technique that provides individual anonymity, we can illustrate the social expectation
for donative labor in the nonprofit sector. To be more specific, we estimate the aggre-
gate level of support, both covert and overt, from nonprofit leaders for the donative
labor hypothesis in the nonprofit sector. Our study contributes to the donative labor
hypothesis literature as we move the discussion beyond wage comparisons and explore
the social expectation for nonprofit wages. The results of this study will also help
spark discussions about appropriate levels of nonprofit compensation by illustrating
the social expectation for the sacrifice of nonprofit employees and the do-good
dilemma nonprofit leaders find themselves in.
Previous Literature
Nonprofits are currently caught between the social expectation for dedication and sacri-
fice from their employees and the need to recruit and keep a professional workforce.
Volunteerism has been one of the central forces in the nonprofit sector that provides an
avenue for individuals to express their values in the form of making donations, volun-
teering, and working in nonprofits (Frumkin, 2005; Salamon, 2012). The donative labor
suggests that nonprofit workers are participating in volunteerism via working
for lower wages. That is, nonprofit employees are willingly accepting lower wages than
what they deserve or would earn in the for-profit sector, and it is considered as “donating
part of their labor” in exchange for the satisfaction of doing mission-related work (Leete,
2006; Park & Word, 2012). However, the reliance on the donative labor narrative makes
the nonprofit sector address social welfare at the expense of fair compensation for non-
profit employees. In other words, the idea of donative labor justifies the practice of lower
wages in the nonprofit sector although not being able to offer competitive wages can
make it harder for individual nonprofits to attract professional workforce.
Professionalization of the Nonprofit Workforce
Over recent decades, the nonprofit sector workforce has shown a shift from a largely
volunteer workforce to paid professionals (Hwang & Powell, 2009; Park & Word,
2012; Suárez, 2010). Even though some subsectors such as health care have been long
reliant on paid expertise, and volunteers still play an important role in the nonprofit
sector, many nonprofit agencies have started hiring well-trained, paid employees over
the last few decades (Salamon, 2012). Nonetheless, nonprofit wages, especially in the
human service sector, are generally so low that some nonprofit employees even seek
assistance while helping others through their nonprofit career (R. Cohen, 2010;
McCambridge, 2016; Word, 2011).

Review of Public Personnel Administration 40(2)
The shift from well-meaning volunteers to the professional workforce has to do
with the increasing pressure for nonprofits to provide the “professional work of highly
trained people” (Frumkin, 2005, p. 164; Salamon, 2012). Well-meaning volunteers
cannot reasonably meet the level of professional work performance now expected of
accountable nonprofits; the sector’s main workforce has shifted from amateur volun-
teers to professional, paid staff (Clotfelter, 1999; Stone, Hager, & Griffin, 2001). The
changing nature of workforce is one dimension of the multifold concept of profession-
alization, which prior studies measured in various ways. Examples include the ratio of
paid staff to volunteers, the presence of professional membership...

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