A Word From The President

Three weeks ago, I volunteered to speak with students at a local school here in Washington DC. It was Career Day. As many as 80 students came to listen where I had set up a table with posters, leaflets, photos, and brochures that tell the story of our non-profit organization, Action Africa Inc. Many photos show children in parts of Africa attending school, an entire classroom of children surrounding one laptop computer, volunteers packaging and loading supplies for shipment, teachers teaching under a tree, health workers giving out multivitamin tablets to nursing mothers, organization board members working at a meeting, etc. The students asked many predictable questions about my work and about life in Africa. But the most telling question that they asked me was: How much do you get paid working as a non-profit director?

There were other presenters at the Career event including an attorney who owned his firm, a restaurant owner, a local politician, a certified public accountant, a college professor, a pharmacist, a registered nurse, a police officer, and a real estate broker. Those same students rotated from table to table, and sure enough, would have among other things asked each presenter the same question: How much money do you make each month?

My answer to the income question was not a straightforward statement. As a nonprofit officer, in the way that I have been doing it, much of what I take home is intangible and therefore cannot be taken to the bank. The joy of seeing one hundred children graduate at the end of the school year because of the work I do; seeing babies vaccinated and saved from epidemics; providing nutritious food to so many families after a natural disaster; yes, that’s part of my paycheck. But when you are a student at a Washington DC school, these spiritual benefits do not count right now. Taking home one thousand dollars a month is not as dignified as taking home twelve thousands. I understand it better now than I did many years ago. On career day, it makes sense to see most students navigating toward the highest paying professions. As one student said to me in the end, “it may be when I retire as an NBA basketball player and need to get out of the house once in a while, I would consider volunteering for a charity.”

I share this story because there are growing cases of low morale among aid workers as well as reports of more program failures in the nonprofit world in recent years. Some of the failures are caused by new regulations and restrictions in how charities work, while others are caused by sharp declines in donations and popular support of mission projects. The motto of “America first” has a way of making people look inwards, and so block off what is going on in the rest of the world. Also, deeply embedded in the struggles of nonprofit entities, is low compensation levels of charity workers and volunteers. Spiritual satisfaction is healthy, but it does not put food on the table of the family of a charity worker; neither does it pay utility bills for a volunteer. This week, I have heard one nonprofit team leader in Africa tell me that out of the “survival stipend” he received this month, he has had to use part of his money to repair the van used for their mission project. He was paid just about $140 for the month, to support his family of five. He was the highest paid member of his team. Nonprofit work is a vocation, a special calling. However it takes someone standing to raise another crawling.

Nonprofit organizations must find ways to compensate their service staff better. Aid workers should be able to pay their children’s school fees, feed them and clothe them. People who spend their lives serving the needs of the poor and underprivileged need the support and appreciation of all of us who are also called to mission and outreach to the needy. We live in a world of so much inequity. I use this opportunity to reach out to ask our benefactors and others to consider doing even more to support our work. Our world is in need of aid workers, just as it is in need of missionaries. There are many people out there who are willing to step forward and to help find answers to many of the world’s problems and challenges. Education, health, and development projects do not do themselves; it takes people to design and implement them. Often, the people who run these programs and projects do so on survival stipends, not salaries.

Dr. Chris N. Egbulem
Author: Action Africa

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