In 2003, a 25-year-old named Clint Borgen decided to become a lobbyist for the world’s poor. His plan was to pressure Congress to increase foreign aid to developing countries, with the ultimate goal of ending global poverty. He launched a nonprofit, The Borgen Project, which he funded by working on a fishing boat in Alaska.
Eleven years later, The Borgen Project is now a nationwide campaign with serious sway. Headquartered in Seattle, it has 350 interns in 220 cities and a Board of Directors featuring Congressman Adam Smith (D-Wash). And yet, despite its influence, The Borgen Project can only afford five paid staffers, three of whom are part-time. Borgen himself didn’t make a cent from the organization until January of this year, surviving off of odd jobs and temp work for the past decade.
When thousands of Washington’s college graduates start looking for work this spring, places like The Borgen Project won’t be able to pay them the same wages as Amazon, Microsoft or Boeing. Sometimes they won’t be able to pay them at all. Still, we should encourage college graduates to work at these small nonprofits, because the best minds should be taking on the globe’s gravest issues.
From eradicating diseases to cleaning water supplies to empowering oppressed women, nonprofits work for high stakes under tight deadlines with insufficient resources.
For some, working at a nonprofit will be an entry-level career with a less-than-desirable wage. For others, it will be an unpaid internship. In either case, it will be fulfilling, important, meaningful work. Connections will be made and a great deal will be learned.
Many college graduates scoff at the idea of working for low-paying nonprofits. They believe their degrees entitle them to make good money, which is probably true. But the nonprofit sector is, by design, starved for cash. Places like The Borgen Project have unpaid interns out of necessity, not greed, and the young innovators who work there aren’t being taken advantage of, they’re making sacrifices for what they believe in.
When it’s possible for these nonprofits to boost wages via increasing overhead, we should encourage them to. America’s top charity evaluators say investing in overhead is crucial to improving nonprofit performance. That includes paying employees more.
For the upcoming class of graduating seniors, the thought of working at a small nonprofit might be intimidating. But this is a generation that more than any before it claims to believe in the progressive values that nonprofits embody. If it won’t step up and take on the world’s worst problems, who will?