Rachel Wright (Syracuse U) was awarded the 2012 Eric R Wolf Prize from the Society for the Anthropology of Work for her paper, “Who’s the Boss? The Matryoshka Power and Governance in Nonprofit Organizations.” Below, Rachel discusses the research and findings that led up to this winning paper.
As one of the largest and fastest growing sectors of the US economy, nonprofits provide critical services for vulnerable populations in the wake of the rapidly retreating welfare state. Employee unhappiness in nonprofits produces high rates of staff turnover, organizational instability, and decline in program effectiveness, all of which pose serious consequences for clients. Further, nonprofit employees as a category of workers are remarkably unprotected. Stridently enforced anti-discrimination policies and procedures that protect employees and promote equality on the job can be absent in the nonprofit setting. Yet nonprofit employees remain relatively unstudied from a labor perspective, perhaps due to the overwhelming public perception that nonprofit workers recoup intangible rewards to buffer the stress of their work.
My dissertation research, conducted in Memphis, Tennessee, challenges such notions by examining the working conditions for a stratified group of nonprofit employees. Despite reputations as havens for altruistic and resilient employees, the nonprofit labor process co-opts ideologies of race, gender, and class, which produces familiar-sounding discourses about inequality. Cast as more naturally caring and organized than men, women disproportionately occupy low-ranking administrative positions and perform front-line care work with the clients. Race crosscuts gender in many ways. The idea that employees are more successful if they “look like” their clients confines black men and women to low-paid programming jobs where they experience greater emotional and sometimes physical risks. Nonprofit organizations are also in the business of class mobility: they facilitate the American Dream. As such, ideas about social welfare and individual responsibility map onto social relations in nonprofit workplaces.
While I observed isolated examples of activism, nonprofit employees more often encounter legal, structural, and cultural conditions that inhibit or weaken oppositional consciousness. Federal legislation ambiguously defines nonprofit employees’ rights to unionize, and Tennessee’s labor laws pose additional barriers to organizing. Culturally, many employees interpret adverse conditions through mitigating systems of belief. In Christian-based nonprofits, employees characterize their work as “a ministry:” they will receive spiritual payoff for financial and emotional sacrifices. Employees also take pride in the degree to which their jobs differ from governmental bureaucrats and corporate cogs and define themselves in opposition to organized groups with whom they might otherwise identify.
Structurally, nonprofit employees, especially those involved in direct programming, engage in strong caring relationships with the clients they serve; they fear taking action to oppose their conditions will harm the clients rather than management. Put simply, the incorporation of a third party into the labor process fundamentally shifts the social relations of production. Pushing beyond a dichotomy of altruism and exploitation, this study articulates to the growing body of research on caring or emotional labor by laying bare the complex coexistence of care labor’s rewards and consequences in a particular social milieu.
The paper submitted for the Eric R Wolf Prize entitled “Who’s the Boss? Concentric Circles of Power and Governance in Nonprofit Organizations” focuses on the structural barriers to activism in nonprofits. Organizations tend to be small in size, which leads to physical and cognitive isolation, and employees perform highly individualized jobs, which curtails the formation of solidarity on the basis of work categories. More importantly, power in nonprofit is highly opaque: many rings of governance such as boards, funders, the IRS, and even the Public encircle employees and muddle decision-making. With many groups influencing the labor process, employees experience grievances but are uncertain from where the injustice emanates.
I am honored to receive the Eric R Wolf Prize not only because of the recognition from the Society for the Anthropology of Work, but because of my personal connection to Wolf who advised my advisor, John Burdick.
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