Making a Living at Making a Difference: A Study of Employees in Nonprofit Social Service Organizations in Memphis, Tennessee

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




John S. Burdick


Care Labor, Class, Gender, Nonprofits, Race, United States

Subject Categories



As one of the largest and fastest growing sectors of the U.S. economy, nonprofits provide critical services for vulnerable populations in the wake of the rapidly retreating welfare state. Often cast as havens for selfless and resilient employees, nonprofits offer unique rewards such as a sense of fulfillment, the gratification of making a difference, and a flexible work schedule that presumably buffer the stresses of the work. These rewards, however, are offset by salaries below the median income, limited opportunities for career advancement, and a paucity of benefits such as health insurance and retirement plans. Stridently enforced anti-discrimination policies and procedures that protect employees and promote equality on the job can be absent in the nonprofit setting. Further, the nonprofit labor process co-opts ideologies of race, gender, and class, which produces familiar-sounding discourses about inequality. Though high rates of staff turnover and other indicators of employee unhappiness are widely recognized, nonprofit employees remain remarkably unstudied from a labor perspective. Set in Memphis, Tennessee, this project examines working conditions for a stratified group of employees in social service nonprofits. With a few potent exceptions, employees most often encounter legal, structural, and cultural conditions that either counteract grievances or otherwise prevent them from taking action to change working conditions.

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