When I started in nonprofits, I was 19 years old. A people person and a problem solver, I had been a highly sought-after babysitter and the person my friends turned to with their problems. I was in college to ‘help people’, with no real understanding of what that meant. I worked at a YMCA, did a year of AmeriCorps, and decided this was my path, this was my world. I’ve always loved it a bit more than it’s loved me back, but it’s home. Nonprofit folks are an unusual bunch, warrior spirits, big hearts, and a relentless ‘make it work’ attitude. For many of us, putting ourselves last becomes internalized, a core part of our identity, but it’s time to challenge the sustainability of that pattern.
Over the 20 years I’ve worked in social impact nonprofits, I’ve seen an enormous amount of change. Currently, nonprofits across the nation are struggling with long term structural issues and changing cultural expectations. We’ve never been a particularly well-resourced sector, but we see budgets tightening and expenses rising even further. Nearly every nonprofit leader I’ve talked to recently has noted how much harder it has felt over the last decade. We all got into this work because we care deeply, we see things that are wrong in the world and we want to set them right. We are driven to do good, and that’s how we want to spend our time and energy. While this is understandable and noble, solely focusing on ‘the work’ has allowed the systemic issues that commonly plague nonprofits to linger for so long that changing them now may seem nearly impossible.
Our Work Matters
The thing I love most about nonprofits is their ability to quickly respond to critical issues in ways that are community driven. This is something for which neither the public nor private sector is well equipped. Our industry is now comprised of over 1.6 million nonprofits and represents 10% of our national workforce. The vast majority of these organizations, over 66%, have budgets of less than one million dollars, with an additional 25% falling between 1-5 million. While many people think of large ‘business like’ entities such as Goodwill and the American Heart Society when we think about charitable works, they make up less than 10% of the nonprofit landscape. Further, many of the smaller sized nonprofits are charged with protecting some of our most vulnerable. We focus on children, people with disabilities, animals, those experiencing homelessness, local art, local environmental issues, and so much more. We often support efforts that require a lot of community knowledge, passion, and determination to address. We do it in small offices, on Ikea desks we build ourselves, with as little in the way of formal supports as we can make work. It doesn’t seem to be working as well as it used to.
“I Didn’t Sign Up for This!”
When I first started working in nonprofits in the late 90’s, the bottom line tended to be ‘how can we do the most with the fewest resources?’ Quantity of work tended to be prized over quality, and we had few structures for understanding, much less measuring, the impact we were making. I can tell you a million stories of personal change from my direct service days, but my efforts were tracked in the most basic ways, number of client contacts, basic notes, and checking off boxes. We’ve learned so much since those days, and today’s funders demand outcomes. They rightfully want to know if their dollars are really making a difference. This is ultimately a good thing, as we should know what works and be held accountable to make our work as impactful as possible. But this mandate came without much notice, training, or time to recalibrate our services. We’ve had to race to become experts on measuring outcomes, tracking long term patterns, and analyzing efficiencies. If you came to nonprofits because you love service, asking for surveys to be filled out, monitoring follow up calls, and staring at outcomes reports feels very far from that passion. These systems seem onerous and daunting, and still do little to inform our work over all. Without extremely intentional planning, training, and support, tracking outcomes can easily seem like one more box to check on your endless to do list.
Passion Doesn’t Pay the Bills
Staff compensation has also been a primary way nonprofits have kept costs low. My first job after college was doing case management in a home for state dependent adolescent girls—it’s the job that haunts me the most. Those young women were the strongest, toughest, savviest bunch of survivors I’ve ever known. At 23, I was making their school decisions, handing their medical care, teaching them to drive, and helping them with job applications. I was also there through so much trauma; sexual assaults, unintended pregnancies, kidnaping, forced prostitution, involuntary hospitalization, and even the death of a staff member. This was a job I eventually left when local pimps began threatening me at my home after I’d managed to help several young women escape their clutches. I still worry that leaving was wrong, that considering my safety was selfish. I worry about them and hope they are safe. But I also wonder about the appropriateness of my role. This is a lot to ask of a recent college graduate, particularly for $24,000 a year.
Nonprofits are not where anyone goes to get rich. Low pay has long been a common expectation of the work, and it makes sense that mission-driven organizations have historically prioritized channeling resources to the service before the staff. However, this is an unsustainable model for the future. We have come to greater understanding that our staff are our greatest assets in achieving our service goals. The old style of ‘hire young and get what you can until they burn out’ is now viewed pretty realistically for the exploitive system it is. Many of the direct line staff jobs I saw when I was first getting into the field required a college degree but paid very little. This attracted a fair amount of good-hearted people that held enough privilege that they could afford to join nonprofit teams over the more lucrative private sector. On the whole, very few nonprofits at that time had teams that were reflective of their communities in any way. This is still the case in many nonprofits, but more and more are beginning to recognize how much community representation matters.
Time to Walk the Talk
We’ve come to a juncture now where we understand that our internal organizational practices must mirror the expectations we have for the work. We can’t exploit our staff and say we care about fairness. We can’t manage non-community-reflective teams and say we care about diversity. We can’t deny a living wage to our employees and say we care about sustainability. Ultimately, the goal of getting to a place where equity is reflected in all people and systems in nonprofits will strengthen the whole sector. However, this represents a fundamental shift in the way nonprofits work and getting to that point will take sustained intentionality and dedication.
As we are in this moment of change, it is taking a big toll on our people. Those just coming into nonprofit work now have a more native understanding of issues of equity than many of us started with. There is a tension between those who’ve known the system as it’s always been and those who are coming into it with a critical eye, and this is often breaking down along hierarchical lines. This leads to significant productivity issues, high turnover, low morale, and lack of trust in the organization. In a stressful work environment, suffering through team disunity can be incredibility painful and tricky to manage. These systemic issues can dramatically limit us in doing the good we want to do.
Do Good, Better
The changing expectations of nonprofits are difficult to manage but can be addressed. This is tremendously challenging without adequate time, space, and resources, all of which are notoriously hard to come by in the nonprofit world. Many leaders in the nonprofit field are acutely aware of these issues, and have the desire to restructure their work in ways that are more inclusive, less exploitive, and more sustainable, but are not well positioned to take on the enormity of that task alone. Many of these leaders came to the work with a personal mission that aligns with the organization they serve, not necessarily to tackle internal systems change. Our leadership is frequently tasked with incredibly demanding work, high pressure, and mounting internal and external expectations, and many did not come equipped with the training and support to effectively navigate these complexities. We see too many fantastic, passionate people burn out, lose faith, and ultimately leave the sector all together.
My partner Susanna and I launched this business because we are so passionate about the potential of the nonprofit sector. We know how extraordinary the nonprofit workforce is, and how hindered they are by outdated structures. The issues we face in our nation today are complex and layered, and despite their challenges and pitfalls, nonprofits are best positioned to tackle some of our most pressing societal problems. No other sector can match the nonprofit world’s ability to mount a rapid response to critical issues, while reflecting the needs of the community so passionately. We have tremendous power to expand the impact of organizations already doing good work with intentional support and systems design that put people first, so that all of us can do good, better.