Sticky Business

Sunhay is a rising Junior and is interning in Queens, New York at the Women in Need Center, which primarily serves as a shelter for Asian women in crises.

After our tea ceremony class at the shelter, the instructor engages in a conversation with one of our clients. The client is looking for work and is having a hard time finding a job she can do. I overhear her say, “Sometimes, I have to ask myself whether I’m earning money to live, or if I’m living to earn money.”

I haven’t figured it out—my relationship with money and how I see myself using it in the future. I feel hopelessly naïve in the face of its power. But I’ve had many encounters with money and the dissonance it can create between two people, much less between people in general.

My best friend of ten years lives in a four story mansion in Seoul, Korea. Growing up, I remember going to her place to sleep-over every weekend and marveling at how she had a driver and a nanny who cut expensive fruits for us to snack on.

It took a while before I mustered up the courage and pride to invited my friend to my home in some forgotten suburb of Seoul. And as we entered our neighborhood, the streets filled with little girls and boys playing with hula-hoops, old men and women lying out in the benches wearing pajamas, teenagers crowded around our corner store for some orange soda slushies, I could feel her tense up.

The blow was when we were in our room speaking quietly because my room had thin walls. My mother entered our room to give us fruit, and my friend’s surprised and awkward reception of this gesture cut deep into my psyche.

Granted, I’m still friends with her and love her to death. But in the abstract (more subconsciously), I resent rich people and excess wealth and money. I  feel anguish over the unequal distribution of wealth in the United States.

And for those whose aim is to close this gap? I wonder if it’s possible to walk the talk, especially when pay inequity exists in the very non-profit organizations fighting for equality. What’s all this fuss and secrecy over people’s pay in these organizations? There is a sense of shame that I feel as an outsider.

I also remember going to a strategic financial planning workshop for non-profits in the place of my boss. I ended up speaking to a finance guy (probably a CFO for a nonprofit) who told me not to get involved in non-profit work—that he had ridden the technology wave, the finance wave, and the non-profit wave. There was nothing to earn anymore in the non-profit venture, at least monetarily. Humanitarian motives and intentions did not cut it.

I left the workshop thinking I’d much rather earn a lot of money to donate than get myself involved in the grittiness of non-profit work (having to worry about money half the time–although something tells me this is not something exclusive to non-profit work). That’s where I saw the need in the movement—a need for money to raise salaries so that people most affected by monetary issues can still participate in the activist work and still afford leisure.

But I think again and wonder about the whole “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” idea. I feel like we need a new way of thinking about money and a new format in which we can challenge the status quo. The non-profit business model isn’t working and sometimes does more to alienate the poor. Who is getting paid and who decides where the money goes and how are those being served being empowered within the structure of a non-profit organization?

I just need to think more about this. Money complicates things.

5 thoughts on “Sticky Business

  1. Sunhay,
    Your perception of the flaws in the non-profit business model is sound. Virtually all non-profits are completely dependent for funding on government and private business, and their resources are unequal to the demands they face. Practically, they offer few job prospects at any pay level. As you continue to grapple with the complicated issues of money and power, you are wise to consider a wide range of situations in which you can serve. Best wishes.

  2. Your observations about the complications of money and nonprofits are astute and shared by quite a few people who work in the nonprofit sector. Many of us who work for nonprofit organizations have made the conscious choice to follow a career path with deep personal rewards – but significantly lower financial rewards than other opportunities. This can often lead to a “martyr” mentality amongst nonprofit professionals – an unwillingness to advocate for our own compensation or even talk about pay issues because our intentions are so “noble” they transcend issues of money. Sadly, I believe this pattern is one of the reasons that historically the nonprofit sector has not created viable career paths for young professionals. Let’s face facts – everyone has to earn a living, and if you can’t earn a good living in the nonprofit sector, most talented people will be forced to seek an alternative. I have started to see a change in recent years, though – particularly as more young college graduates have pursued opportunities in the nonprofit sector and demanded career advancement and development opportunities (and the compensation that comes with this growth). I applaud you for being concerned about these issues because they are very important, and I hope you will continue to think about them as you consider your own career goals after college.

  3. The relationship between money, life’s work and power IS complicated, and not limited to the non-profit sector. Especially in a capitalist society (and in the Wall Street driven world of New York), money is frequently the sole or a major motive behind career choices as well as life choices with “making money to donate” a common response to the discomfort of income inequality or sense of humane obligation to those less fortunate. But noble work can be found in both the for-profit and non-profit arenas, or by volunteerism, and ultimately teaching a (wo)man to fish is more important than providing a fish. Perhaps you can put monetary concerns to the side or back burner to focus on what living a meaningful, productive and enjoyable life means to you and how best to use your skills to achieve it, on the theory of “Do what you love and the money will follow.”

  4. I agree with Karen that the relationship between money, power, and meaning in life – is complicated – particularly in NYC where the gaps between rich and poor are astounding and troubling, and where to live even a moderate lifestyle requires, of course, money. I have seen many of my friends, over the years, get too focused on either working in a career which provides meaning and financial struggle, or getting too attached to money as to lose perspective. I think its important to decide, at this moment in time, what is most important to you. And, in doing so, speak to people candidly in different fields in which you are interested – including the private and not-for-profit sectors, be realistic about what each will offer you for now, and trust your instincts. No right answers; no easy answers; and always time to change course. I think there are many ways to have a meaningful life – which can involve a public sector career, or choosing a better paying job – while still committing to volunteer work that is important to you, along with making donations, and potential work for social change in the future. All the best, and great that you are considering all of this while in college. It took me much longer.

  5. Sunhay,
    When I chose the to work in the field of education, I was very conscious of all that I was giving up. (My father would not stop pointing it out). And yet I have not ever seriously regretted my choice. This field suits my personality as well as my academic and social strengths. I am happy to work in a field where I know that despite serious disagreements, all but the greatest of cynics (and they are rather few) are working towards empowering those we serve. So the financial sacrifices I make I do gladly — no martyrdom here. The enjoyment and rewards I receive from my work allow me to explain calmly to my children why they do not get to enjoy some of the luxuries their friends and acquaintances might indulge in, and support them in their own exploration of their values and convictions.

    I guess my advice would be to be very clear — reflective, honest, and concrete — with yourself about your *core* values and political ideals. Then be equally clear and careful about how you can try to live according to those core convictions, including any economic compromises you might be willing to undertake. This of course is a dynamic process of personal exploration that is likely to take some time. Therefore you should continue in the path you have begun this summer, developing a skill set that will serve you in a range of positions, so that you may explore different career paths.

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