Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Why Non-Profit Workers Lean Left

The recent series of posts expressing indignation that many people who work for the USCCB lean left reminds me of a pet theory of mine: All other things being equal, people working for non-profits will tend to lean farther left than the general population.

This fits pretty well with my experience, both seeing most of my more progressive friends seek work at non-profits (in the cases of religious ones, often parish or diocesan work.) But I think there are some general reasons why we'd see this be the case.

1) Selection bias: It's one of the major themes of modern progressivism to be suspicious of the profit motive in general and of for-profit corporations in particular. If you see an organization making a profit as being particularly corrupting, it makes sense you'd gravitate towards organizations which are committed to provide a service to society without making a profit. You can see a reflection of this attitude in President Obama's proposal to forgive college debt for people who go into non-profit or government work -- behind which lies an implicit assumption that people working for non-profits and for the government are participating in work that is more virtuous or more valuable to society than people who work for mere businesses. (My impression is that conservatives tend more towards a "job is a job" attitude, seeing non-profit jobs as not being all that different from business jobs.)

2) Occupational influence: More subtly, I think that doing non-profit work often causes people to lean further left, at least in terms of being more in favor of taxation to fund a broader range of social programs. Why? The fact of the matter is that most people do not give very much money to help non-profits. There are, of course, a few non-profits who have wide appeal to folks with lots of money, and thus find themselves looking around for what to spend money on. But most non-profits find themselves scrounging for enough money to operate most of the time. I was rather shocked, when I became involved enough in our parish to get to see the finances of how a parish operates, to discover that if you have an average household income, and give 4-5% of it to your parish, you will be in the top 5-10% of donors. To a lot of people, supporting non-profits means buying from the occasional bake-sale and dropping a couple singles in the collection basket at Church on Sunday. It's fairly natural, I think, that people who routinely see what they believe is necessary and important work going undone because most people don't donate or donate very little, will come around to seeing the idea of taxation to support social programs as being a good idea. On the one hand, they have a very personal idea of the good which social programs might achieve (if it's your work that's wanting, you're likely to feel sure that if money were available, it would be well spent) and on the other they come in regular contact with the fact that most people don't voluntarily hand over much of their money. (That it is conservatives who donate the most to charity, and "moderates" who donate the least, is something which few people know and take into account.)

There is, perhaps, yet another factor, though since this is entirely anecdotal I advance it only hesitantly. Some years ago, I did web development work for a number of Catholic non-profits, and one of the things which struck me is how often people people would observe about some fairly minor screw-up, "Of course, in the business world heads would roll over this." My experience in the business world is that heads actually do very little rolling. If anything, the for-profit companies I've worked for were less likely to demand unpaid overtime, sink into vicious back-biting, or ream people out for minor errors. (This is perhaps an error in which the much scorned HR departments can be thanked.) But whatever the reason, there seemed to be a conviction that employment in the for-profit sector was nasty, brutish and short in the extreme. If such is a general impression among people working for non-profits, it probably adds further to the idea that for-profit enterprises provide virtually non benefit to society, and cause many harms.

While I think it is to the best if people in the non-profit and government sectors gain a better understanding of what business world and of free market economics, it is probably inevitable that these forces will cause many people working in the non-profit world to lean leftwards, and while it is a serious problem if this causes Catholic organizations to fund or support organizations which are supporting causes which are clearly wrong from a Catholic point of view (abortion, euthanasia, same sex marriage, distributing birth control, etc.) one can hardly be surprised at the tendency itself.


bearing said...

"But whatever the reason, there seemed to be a conviction that employment in the for-profit sector was nasty, brutish and short in the extreme. "

I am sure that part of this is the sort of work one does, and part the luck of the draw, but I can attest that the Giant Corporation that employs my husband has treated us very well. I've certainly known people with different employers who've gotten raw deals or suffered from poisonous corporate culture -- mostly at companies that weren't as successful.

I just can't drum up any bad will towards an abstract idea of Big Business. It isn't a zero-sum game. Some companies treat their people well and some don't, and I just don't see that profit-seeking is correlated with treating people badly.

xsive_guy said...

"I am sure that part of this is the sort of work one does, and part the luck of the draw, but I can attest that the Giant Corporation that employs my husband has treated us very well. I've certainly known people with different employers who've gotten raw deals or suffered from poisonous corporate culture"

Having spent my entire career in the corporate world, both "Giant Corporations" and companies that wanted to become "Giant Corporations" - all for profit", that when the for profit company atmosphere is poisonous I go find another company. I'm a "hired hand" working for a pay check. The pay check is necessary but there isn't a pay check big enough for me to put up with a bad work environment.

And perhaps thats the difference. The work I do is rewarding and profitable but it's not of sufficient personal moral value for me to put up with nonsense. If I were in a non-profit I might view the work I was doing as sufficiently righteous with it's own merit that I would put up with nonsense to be able to keep doing it.

Anonymous said...

Darwin observed "if you have an average household income, and give 4-5% of it to your parish, you will be in the top 5-10% of donors. To a lot of people, supporting non-profits means buying from the occasional bake-sale and dropping a couple singles in the collection basket at Church on Sunday."

Hoo boy did you hit this one on the head. We try to tithe, and one-third to half of that tithe goes to our parish. Our donations provide 5% of the support of the ENTIRE parish -- just our little single-income family. It's a small parish, but still ...

Anonymous said...

I used to work for a Fortune 50 company, and employees there were routinely treated awfully, though this wasn't universal across the company. It all depended on who your boss was - some bosses were a--holes, and when they abused their workers the higher-ups rarely intervened. My own boss fired roughly one person every six months, apparently because doing so made him feel powerful.

At any rate, my own impression was that most of the employees, and especially most of the management, were pretty far right of center. They just wanted to make money, and wanted the least government interference possible. (Although when federal funds were available for technical research, they sucked on that teat without shame.) Granted, this company was heavy industry, I'm sure the political environment would be different at, say, Google.


P.S. FWIW, I'm now a civilian employee of the US Navy, and the management in my department, both the civilians and the uniformed personnel, are mostly centrist or even a bit to the left. Surprising.

TC said...

I work at a Catholic agency and as was said about the Fortune 50 company, a lot of the bosses are a-holes but with the added layer of high-sounding ideals of workplace "shred governance" (HAH!).

Perhaps the worst is that policies regarding both employees and clients are enforced selectively, some people give umpteen second chances compassion others none at all.

One co-worker, on discovering that I'm a Republican responded, "Why? You're white but you're not rich." I answered because I'm pro-life and she just shook her head.

DMinor said...

Your post brought to mind a former colleague of mine who said that she would work for the government or non-profits, but never for a for-profit business. She was very left of center. In contrast, one of the most left-leaning people I know currently owns a small business.

One always has to be careful with rules of thumb . . .

CMinor said...

Said small businessman is still in his twenties and would therefore, as the saying goes, have no heart were he not a liberal. He's having to grapple with reality even as we speak and we hope that wisdom will come with age and he will be both a good employer and a successful businessman. Suggestions of some good reading on how economics works for a reader who is more artist than bean counter would be appreciated!

Anonymous said...

Interesting thesis and perhaps true for many of those who go into leadership positions in non-profits.

For the rest of the workforce, I think xsive_guy's last paragraph is closer to the truth.

Nearly all the jobs I've held as an adult have been in non-profits, but I chose that type of work specifically because I wanted to work in a (n orthodox) Catholic environment. The work I wanted to do figured into my decisions more than the money I might make doing it.

I held a job at a tiny, very orthodox, (staff took an oath to the Magisterium) Catholic institution for 4 years and burnt out badly doing it. (Don't get me wrong, most of the people there were beyond nice- saintly, in fact.) I found I just couldn't keep up doing the work of 2 people and scrounging to make ends meet.

Now I hold a job at a much larger and not terribly orthodox Catholic non-profit. The money isn't much better, but I'm not asked to bear an unreasonable work load, and I try to inject faithfulness to the Church's teachings where I can.

Because I'd much rather do work that matters to me, I'm looking at getting back into the field I left for my current job. But I'm doing so with a very jaundiced eye, when it comes to pay/work load/treatment of workers, etc.

But, as a result of my current job, I think I've swung even further to the right!

Darwin said...


Hmmmm. The lot of the 20-something business owner is not an easy one. (I basically washed out on that one.)

To be honest, I think what might be most useful in that situation is the kind of very concrete stuff he'd find in something like Inc. Magazine.

CMinor said...

Thanks! I'm looking at the online version now. We'll see if we can start him off on some good article links without being too obvious!

Darwin said...

The good thing about Inc is that it often provides in depth articles about how business decisions get made. One I remember and refer people to after a number of years was this one on how Buck Knives ended up deciding to move to a new headquarters, and moved many of its staff in the process. It's an example of how moving a business to where labor is cheaper can be essential to survival, yet done with the maximum of responsibility towards workers.

Also, it's incredibly cheap to subscribe to (probably because business owners are a group advertisers really want to get at.)

That said, the biggest difficulty for the young business owner is that often your struggling just to get business. You can have all sorts of great knowledge about how to run an established business, but without enough money coming in the door in the first place (what I always struggled with) it can be hard to know what to do.

Another realistic book about starting a business, now I think about it, was The MouseDriver Chronicles about a couple of guys trying to start a business selling computer mice shaped like golf club heads.

CMinor said...

Thanks for the suggestions!
He actually seems to do pretty well in the customers department, but of course, that's only one aspect of running a business.

Suddenly, I'm envisioning a MouseDriver stand somewhere along a thoroughfare leading to a certain golf club about the first week in April. Sound like a plan?:-)

Darwin said...

Sounds like he's got a good start, at least. :-)

Unknown said...

Heads do not necessarily roll in the for-profit world, but people are held accountable for what they do. Businesses will fail if they are not well run or do not provide a product that the public wants. That's how it should be.

My husband and I are aiming for 10% charitable contributions overall. We are not there yet, but gave 4% of our after-alimony income to the church last year. The other 2% went to other charities. I shudder to think that our modest contributions might be among the highest.

Brian said...

Interesting to see that the non-profit workers here are working in specifically Catholic (and conservative) agencies. I've always worked in small non-profit museums -- which can be hard to find employment at for a younger (thirties) conservative Catholic white guy. I've ended up in a lot of military history sites and historic navy ships for that reason (those curatorial staffs tend to the right, and my work is in working with artifacts management and archives processing).

Alas, between the type of sites and being held to an artificially-low level of my field due to my politics and sex, I can't be considered a "provider" enough to get any woman to say yes to dating me, but at least I can get my my charitable contributions up to 25% in most years (40% in the year of the market tumble) due to how often I need to grimace and take "internships" as a grown over-certified man who as a result may or may not get paid depending on how the site's doing -- but frankly, if you'll pardon my language, I don't give a flying sh!t about my comfort if it means that our history gets preserved and properly told by someone who cares and has the actual skills and knowledge of how to handle it...