Writing or Editing for Non-Profits: When to Say NO! By Jordan Swift

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I recently walked away from a public arts organization that billed itself as a non-profit literary journal. It took other staff members and artists to wake me up. The poetry editor quit due to the senior editor’s unprofessional attitude, while artists that I contacted simply said NO to publishing their work for free.

The “we’ll pay you when we get a grant” job involved accepting all submissions, but I tried to be selective. In reality, I never got any quality submissions (unless you count the senior editor’s regular submitters) and it was for many reasons, including: the journal did not pay; it had the nerve to ask submitters for donations on its guidelines page; it falsely stated that it was not a vanity press (you pay or donate to the publisher to publish your work); and the layout wasn’t even second rate.

In addition to chasing down reluctant artists, I had a monthly publishing deadline. It involved putting together one section of the online edition and selecting artists for the annual print copy. I wasn’t allowed to choose the actual pieces for that one though, because the senior editor suffered from Founder’s Syndrome and, thus, micromanaged everything.

Nit-picking aside, the lack of money did not bother me at first; after all, it was a non-profit. As the months went by, more things irritated me, like if I wanted to get paid, I had to devote more free time for research and grant writing. Nobody was submitting work to me (unless you count the regulars), and there was, oddly enough, a high turnover of editors.

I erroneously saw such non-profits as organizations that help arts communities, so I wasn’t put off by the negatives. In hindsight, places like CNN show that for CEOs and others in charge, there is quite a bit of “non-profit” money being passed around to directors and some of the other “employees”, with pay increases even in times of recession. A top honcho like Glenn D. Loury of the Museum of Modern Art modestly doubled his 2007 salary in 2008, making roughly $2.7 million for that year. At least the big non-profits are following guidelines by making sure there is no year-end profit!

You can see more astronomical salaries of non-profit executives HERE.

Although this organization initially presented itself as a noble entity pursuing funding, I believe it was just hooking in the next unsuspecting victim (me). Back in 2005, the founder planned to apply for tax-exempt status, grants, and pay $100 honorariums, yet they tried to shoulder me with those burdens in late 2009, claiming they had no clue where to begin.

I felt like a heel for doing it, but I side-stepped the grant issue (it was okay to use me, but don’t you dare exploit my grant writer friends!). I continued to carry out the other responsibilities (Hey, I needed the experience, right?).

Yes, this “non-profit” journal is a pathetic example, but there are many stable non-profits out there that pay their editors, writers, artists, and contributors. A quick search via juju lists decent paying grant writing positions for reputable organizations. The onus is on the writer/editor to spend the time weeding out the bogus ones from the decent.

Don’t make the same mistakes I did and let this type of “non-profit” milk you dry, or exploit your trust. These organizations need to provide credentials before you agree to do any work for them; it’s up to you to screen them. By being cautious, you’ll protect not only yourself, but the greater arts community.

Jordan Swift is the pseudonym for a writer who writes non-fiction, short stories, and poetry.