Co-authored by Llewellyn Boggs and Robert T. Muller, Ph.D.
The benefits of volunteering for both the volunteers and those they help are undeniable. Volunteers tend to feel more connected to others and fulfilled with the work they do. However, the negative impacts of volunteering, particularly on women, are often left unacknowledged.
Women make up 75 percent of volunteers within the nonprofit industry but occupy senior management positions at rates far lower than men. Women who volunteer are often found working in administrative or support roles as opposed to management positions. According to Racheli Edelkopf, a marketing coach and former nonprofit program director, “There is no clear reason why this occurs.” Edelkopf adds, “There is definitely a change in progress with regards to the structure of the nonprofit sector. It has something to do with a generational shift. Younger people are taking an active role in nonprofits, and they want to get involved with organizations that are more diverse from the top-down”.
Unfortunately, stereotypes and old biases are likely the reason why women occupy fewer of these positions. Women are often considered more emotional and nurturing, which is why volunteering with nonprofits may seem like a good fit. Unfortunately, research indicates that stereotyping in the workplace creates higher physical and emotional distress for women. These distress markers include high blood pressure, tension, ulcers, anxiety, insomnia, and depression.
Stereotyping may also play a role in preventing more men from volunteering. According to Edelkopf, “Salaries in nonprofits do not pay nearly as much as for-profit work, which may also be another reason why women dominate the field, as a man may look for work that pays more if they are the breadwinner. Some nonprofits pay very well, but many do not.”
When it comes to job satisfaction differences between men and women in the nonprofit sector, men report much higher satisfaction than women, especially in areas like job recognition. This is likely because women often take on less recognized responsibilities. There are three kinds of invisible work that occur in the nonprofit sector: background work, empathy work, and emotional labour. These invisible roles, which are most often taken on by women, exact a heavy mental and emotional toll on them, and can also impact their personal lives.
Even when women are leaders in these organizations, they face the same mental health challenges that all nonprofit founders do. These adverse mental health effects are especially evident in smaller nonprofit settings in which a small number of volunteers are forced to take on multiple roles. Edelkopf explains, “It is hard in small organizations to recognize that they need to hire more people due to budgeting. Often employees and founders feel the burden of needing to do everything and make everything happen. How are we going to raise more money, and how are we going to justify more help? Everyone wants every penny to go to charity.”
When this happens, those leading the organization are left completely unpaid, and there is no recognition for the hard work they put in. As a result of taking on extra work without pay, these individuals can experience detrimental effects on their mental health.
Edelkopf offers some advice for women running these nonprofit organizations. “Founders and employees do not want to take away funds from the people they are serving. You need to have a salary that you can be comfortable with and not be resentful of the work you’re doing. Also, if you will take care of yourself you will be able to serve your organization for the long term. It’s okay to take a break and to say no to some projects.”
Copyright Robert T. Muller, Ph.D.