How Nonprofiteers Can Love (or Leave) Their Work

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Photo by Chong Oh

In my last post, “Why Nonprofiteers Fall In and Out of Love with Work,” I explored the reasons many Nonprofiteers dive into the nonprofit world, thrive initially, and then at some point become disillusioned, with some even opting to leave the sector altogether. I soon received thoughtful comments from Nonprofiteers across specializations that added to this discussion. A psychotherapist raised the issue of emotional burnout that is common among those in the helping professions, where serious issues such as child abuse, addictions and major mental illnesses are dealt with on a daily basis and in some cases can be only somewhat mitigated, at best. A “techie” noted the absence of technological leadership at many nonprofits, and how that leads to a sense of ineffectiveness.

Building on these comments and my own observations, I’ve put together my humble thoughts on what we can do to create and cultivate a happier, healthier and more effective nonprofit workforce.

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Investing in Nonprofit Staff
Chris Chavez, founder and Chief Community Cultivator of Prime Produce, also commented on this discussion and pointed me to a helpful quote by Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group:

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Train your people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.

Chavez added, “I think many nonprofits can learn from this organizational and professional growth philosophy.”

So many nonprofits say “our people are our biggest asset.” But do they show it with their actions? While we cannot compete with our corporate counterparts when it comes to salary and benefits, we can certainly achieve a culture of providing living wages, reasonable salary increases and professional development in order to keep great people and reward excellent work.

LIFT staff and volunteers celebrating the upLIFTing Awards, May 2014. Photo by Kari Otero
LIFT staff and volunteers celebrating the upLIFTing Awards, May 2014. Photo by Kari Otero

I would also love to see nonprofits providing planned breaks to their staff so they can rest, learn new things and come back with renewed commitment and new perspectives. This can only happen with creative, brave board leadership and their funders’ support. It may be difficult to implement, but definitely worth exploring. I was pleasantly surprised to see examples of funders, like the Meyer Foundation, Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, and the Gifford Foundation and The Allyn Foundation, in the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s article “Combating Burnout in Nonprofit Leaders,” supporting paid sabbaticals and other awarded time off for nonprofit executive directors. Another impressive example is Do Something, where all full-time staff receive four weeks of paid leave after two years of work to volunteer anywhere in the world. The Do Something Culture Book 2013 states:

…we send them off in hopes that they will come back with an incredible volunteer experience under their belt and some inspiring stories to tell.

Managing Well
There is nothing worse than working for a badly managed organization, nonprofit or for-profit. To support good management, we all need to move away from the mindset that nonprofits should spend 99% of funds raised on programs. Well-run nonprofits sometimes need to spend money on new computers and comfortable chairs for staff just like for-profit companies do — and stop praying for donated miracles. Nonprofits need non-program staff to correctly handle compliance issues, to keep a safe and productive working environment, and to deal effectively with ineffective workers. I love the perspective of blogger Vu Le, in his post “General operating funds, admin expenses, and why we nonprofits are our own worst enemies.”

While a strong mission is obviously crucial, you can’t get around needing good management and functional expertise. The work of tech, operational and evaluation experts cannot be underestimated or disregarded in the name of the mission or aggressive program goals. To help spread this idea, we need programs like the New York Community Trust and the Nonprofit Coordinating Committee New York’s Nonprofit Excellence Awards and The Nonprofit TimesBest Nonprofits to Work For List to foster discussion around best management practices.

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Bronx students work together to paint a mural illustrating the community poem they co-wrote. Photo by Craig Hayes.

Monitoring Burnout
Coming back to the burnout, I’d love to see programs that equip Nonprofiteers with the tools to build up and maintain their own emotional reserves. Dr. Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positivity psychology and author of the book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, argues that negative emotions are more contagious than positive ones. Seligman has worked with the military and in schools to build positive psychology cultures, training generals and teachers so they may help soldiers and students learn positive thinking and build up resilience in times of difficulty.

Nonprofiteers work to improve society’s most pressing — and frankly negative — problems. And they are constantly exposed to these problems. The idea of building up your positivity muscle so you can be prepared to tackle difficulties and challenges in your work and in your personal life is one that underscores the need for all Nonprofiteers to develop resilience. I also appreciate the distinction Seligman makes between having a sense of “well-being” and being “happy”; he explains that positivity psychology is not about slapping a fake smile on your face when things are difficult, but rather deliberately seeking out ways to amplify well-being, even when faced with adversity. This is something I am now incorporating into my work with many of my clients, and practicing with my young children.

Asking for What You Need
Whether what you need is a new training opportunity, a new skill or a flexible work schedule, don’t assume you cannot get it. Ask for what you need and want, then build a logical, business case for it. On the flip side, don’t take it personally if your organization can’t accommodate your request. Many times they just don’t have the resources. But if you have needs that the organization consistently can’t meet, it may no longer be a good fit.

On a personal level, you owe it to yourself to understand your own strengths and weaknesses in your role and as a professional so that you can recognize and grab great opportunities when they arise. Pay attention to the areas in which you want to improve, of course, but take stock of your true strengths and think about how to continue to leverage and build on them. There are myriad free and paid tests to help you understand your strengths. I personally found the ones in the Strengths Finder 2.0 and Flourish to be helpful. You can also ask trusted coworkers and friends about the areas where you shine most.

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Row New York staff training for marathon. Photo by Row New York.

Cultivating Work Relationships
People you work with can make work more fun and satisfying. Your “work friends” already understand and appreciate your professional accomplishments. They can be your thought partners as well as provide a sanity check when the going gets tough. Start to build your own “team” of advocates, advisors, allies, mentors, and yes, friends, at the office. My own support network consists of so many of my former colleagues, many of whom used to work for me and are now in a position to really help me and my causes, both in tangible ways and through moral support.

Organizations can help foster stronger relationships among coworkers by creating opportunities for shared meals, activities and projects across the organization. My former organization, iMentor, worked hard on this, even appointing staff members to serve on a committee called “Team Fun,” where social events for the whole organization are planned and executed.

As Aaron Hurst’s book, Purpose Economy reminds us:

People gain purpose when they grow personally, when they establish meaningful relationships, and when they are in service to something greater than themselves. ..Service is certainly at the core, but….I’ve discovered that there are two other key sources of purpose people seek: a sense of community and the opportunity for self expression and personal growth.

Infusing Joy and Meaning Into Work
Like in any relationship, your love for nonprofit work will slowly wither if you stop feeding it. If you began your career in this field because you love children and, as your responsibilities have changed, you now only see other adults in conference rooms, find a way to volunteer within or outside of your organization to reconnect to the reason you fell in love with the work. As you make time to do this, you might also discover something new about it that you love. This can be especially true for non-program staff—those who don’t work directly with the population the organization serves. As Craig Hayes put it,

What makes us most satisfied with our jobs is the impact that we witness in the students, families and teachers. When we succeed at our mission, we see magic.

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Photo by Craig Hayes, Community-Word Project.

But organizations have a responsibility in this, too. If they consistently “sell” their mission to attract top talent, they have to figure out a way to keep that love alive. Perhaps by incorporating mission-related work into everyone’s job, helping each person connect their job responsibilities to the mission, or finding ways to celebrate program milestones with the entire organization, they could achieve this.

The truth is that nonprofits would and should never compete with for-profits when it comes to money. But we see corporations now scrambling to locate and advertise the meaning behind their products. Nonprofits already and inherently have meaning fueling their aims. Let’s not lose that important edge.

It’s OK to Fall Out of Love
Nobody stays in one job forever anymore. If you’ve tried in earnest and feel you just can’t muster enthusiasm or interest, you’ll do yourself and your organization a favor by finding your next opportunity. You may leave to work in another nonprofit, try something different all together, or even come back if you wish, but don’t be the person who stays in a loveless relationship way past its expiration date, feeling bitter and making others miserable, too. If you do, you may be doing a disservice to the clients and the cause. And when you move on, know that you’re making room for the next generation of idealists raring to make their mark. Support them as volunteer, advisor, donor and cheerleader.

I would like there to be enough healthy turnover in the sector so that when people do leave their nonprofit jobs, the majority will do so because they have fully lived that experience and learned everything they possibly can. They should be able to look back at their nonprofit work history and view it as a productive, happy time in their career and lives, and not a terrible blip in their trajectory.

For the Record, It’s Not Just Us!
The recent New York Times article, “Why You Hate Work,” highlighted the fact that there are tired, demoralized folks in every sector who are in need of inspiration and motivation. It’s clear that this is not a problem specific to Nonprofiteers. The authors point out that people are most satisfied and productive when “four of their core needs are met” and those needs are:

Physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.

Perhaps because we Nonprofiteers decided early on to put less emphasis on the monetary rewards of work, we are more susceptible to feeling undervalued and, following that, dissatisfied. However, the nonprofit sector already has an abundance of meaningful work to offer employees and will hopefully continue to evolve to keep its people happy, so there is a lot that the for-profit world can glean from the way we do things. The reverse is also true, of course. I’m hoping that this piece keeps the conversation going and generates more new ideas for strengthening the nonprofit love.

  • Great piece, Caroline, There are actions we can take to improve work environments.

    However, I don’t believe non-profits need to compete with corporate counterparts when it comes to salary and benefits.

    According to a recent Gallup study that we highlighted in “Secrets of Millionaires Who Work 40 Hours a Week or Less,” “70% of American workers are ‘not engaged’ or “actively disengaged” and are emotionally disconnected from
    their workplace.”

    The primary motivators for employee engagement are not financial.