We need to stop joking about the sad state of retirement security in nonprofit. It’s no longer funny.

[Image description: An exhausted cat sleeping with their head on a wooden platform. They are white with some gray hair on their head, and pink ears. Their eyes are closed. I wonder if they’re dreaming. Do cats dream? Excuse me while I spend the next hour googling whether research has been done regarding whether and which animals dream. Pixabay.com]

A couple of weeks ago, I asked the NAF Facebook community, “What are creative ways you are thinking of in terms of retirement? Me, collecting kitchen gadgets in hope that these cherry pitter and pickle grabber etc., will appreciate in value!” The comments that came back were hilarious, because this is a group of brilliant, witty, and extremely good-looking folks. Here are a few:

  • “I intend to die in whatever museum I’m working in, and have my corpse be mistaken for part of the exhibit program. Until a century later, when an intern is cleaning they figure out that I’m that curator who disappeared. It’s the price of fame.”
  • “Dumpster dive former board members homes.”
  • “Relying on my love of the outdoors, because I’ll be living in a tent. When I’m ready to die, it’ll be with honor- just wandering into the forest and letting the coyotes eat me.”
  • “I plan on selling black market pies at the train station. Not kidding. I make excellent pie.”
  • “Work until I die – in debt”
  • “Commune / small house community with all of the other women I know who gave their best years to the cause and never got enough in salary or retirement benefits to be able to “plan” for retirement.”
  • “I feel like Pokémon will still being a thing in like 40 years, so hopefully I can sell the cards that I hoarded in 1999 to help make the student loan payments I’ll have until I die.”
  • “I’ve thought about dying at my desk”
  • “Counting on society to totally collapse before then, so currency and debt will be meaningless.”
  • “I plan on dying on the phone line, most likely in the middle of an ask.”
  • “My retirement plan is climate change and/or the total collapse of late stage capitalism.”
  • “I will die in my broken office chair.”

An alarming number of comments were along the lines of “I plan to die, lol.” As I read through the comments, it got less and less funny. This is a serious problem and for so long, our entire sector has been ignoring it. We’ve actually experienced a sort of learned-helplessness around the issue of retirement, thinking the lack of retirement funds is inevitable and that we have no choice but to accept it. We’ve developed a macabre sense of humor, the type of gallows humor people pick up in professions that deal with serious stuff (I hear morticians are hilarious people).

We can’t keep joking anymore. The lack of retirement security in nonprofits is sad, pathetic, and unjust. Our people are often paid lower wages than folks from other sectors. We sacrifice financially and in other ways, like our own health, to make the world better, and our reward is an uncertain future as we age.

This is not just a problem for individuals, it is negatively affecting the entire sector, because it is:

Keeping younger professionals away: How do we expect younger professionals to enter into a sector that has such crappy retirement philosophies and practices? Says one colleague, “It’s very concerning – as a young professional, it has impacted my choice of what jobs I even apply for.”

Driving experienced professionals out of the sector: A few months ago a woman of color colleague left her position at an organization she loves. “I’m turning 50,” she said, “and I have nothing saved up in retirement. I need to make more money.” We are losing effective leaders.

Blocking leadership pipelines: Remember when we freaked out about the waves of older leaders retiring? It didn’t really manifest, and likely because these leaders could not afford to retire. As one colleague jokes, “I will never give up the job it has taken me forever to get, therefore stopping any career path for those younger than me. (Kidding)”

Perpetuating the inequity we are trying to fight: Those who are affected the most are women, especially Black, Indigenous, and other women of color, people of color in general, and people with disabilities. According to this report, “Three out of four black households and four out of five Latino households age 25-64 have less than $10,000 in retirement savings, compared to one out of two White households.”

Less than $10,000 in savings? FFS. This is a serious problem. There are a lucky few in our sector who work at larger organizations that provide retirement matching. But the majority of the sector are organizations that are less than $1million in budget size, which means they provide little or no matching, or they don’t have even have any retirement benefits, such as a no-match plan, at all. Even many larger orgs still suck at this. This includes my own organization, RVC; we are working on it, but like many organizations across the sector, we’re also behind.

It’s time for the nonprofit sector to stop ignoring retirement, stop joking about it, stop accepting that the lack of retirement security is normal. We are punishing people who devote their lives to advancing a just and equitable world, and we’re harming the entire field and the people we serve. Here are some things we need to do:

Nonprofits need to budget for retirement: Budgeting and finance is not my area of expertise, but I do know that for many of us, it never even crosses our minds to put in a line item for retirement matching and services. We all need to do our research so we can make informed decisions. Every budget needs to have a line for retirement.

Nonprofits need to pay people decent wages: It’s not enough to pay people a living wage. We need to pay people a wage where they can have a decent standard of living AND also save for their futures. Here are some thoughts about this.

We need more trainings around retirement: Many of us have no clue how much we should be saving or the difference between a 403b, a 401k, an IRA, a Roth IRA, and a 329v4. Many of us don’t think about it because it seems pointless to do so. This needs to change.

We need to advocate for retirement benefits: We need to be louder and use our advocacy skills to get not just our own orgs to talk about retirement, but also to change policies practices affecting pay and retirement, such as getting funders to fund retirement matching.

Speaking of funders, we need to have a serious talk. The lack of retirement benefits in our sector can be traced to many foundations’ damaging philosophies and ineffective practices. For instance, the disdain of paying for the wages of nonprofit staff, the habit of providing funding one year at a time, and the measly payout rate of only 5%. These archaic and harmful practices create within nonprofits a culture of scarcity, short-term focus, and learned helplessness. This is intrinsically terrible, and it’s bad for the people we serve.

Funders have a critical role to play if we are going to solve this problem. You need to provide Multi-Year General Operating Dollars (MYGOD) so that nonprofits have the stability and flexibility to provide retirement and other benefits. You need to increase your payout rate beyond 5% so there are more funds going to nonprofits in general so we can provide matching funds. And you need to use your positional power and influence to encourage nonprofits to think about and act on retirement, as well as to change public dialogue and policies around this issue.

As much as we love poking fun at the various idiosyncrasies of our sector, the lack of retirement benefits and the possibility that many people in our sector will work until they die or be in poverty in their old age are no longer funny. Let’s stop joking, and start doing something about it.

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