This is a continuation of last Sunday’s post, “(What's Not) Working at a Nonprofit: Tumbling Ideas for Nonprofit Improvement.”
The nonprofit worker's life is full of frustration - while many of us suspected this was the case in our particular nonprofit professional experiences, at the end of July, we learned it wasn't just us. The Working in a Nonprofit Tumblr made it clear - these things are far more wide-reaching than our individual work lives, and weren't localized to Jewish nonprofit, either. Higher-ups taking three weeks to return an email....being expected to take a paycut because it’s a cause you believe in.... the frustration of having to get approval on literally every event detail...someone saying, “we should start a committee for this”...when someone responds to your email with questions that were clearly answered in your first email, etc. These situations resonated with people, and the site was shared widely.
"It’s clear that the current system is broken," co-founder Leanne Pittsford said in her blog post titled "Why We Created the 'When You Work at a Nonprofit' Tumblr Blog." She and her partner Leah Neaderthal (who also co-founded the Tumblr) run Start Somewhere, which helps nonprofits with design, database and programming support, so they've been on the observing and improving end for a number of nonprofit programs and startup organizations, including Equality CA and TechSoup Global. "We’re talking about how we can take the energy around the blog and turn it into something that leads to action to improve working conditions for every nonprofit employee."
Some of these challenges may be deeply-rooted into the infrastructure of most nonprofits, and embedded in the organizational culture in a way that may be unchangeable. But I agree with the blog's cofounders in seeing the success of this Tumblr not just as a funny-because-it’s-true-but-also-sad-because-it’s-true pop culture moment, but as an opportunity for nonprofits everywhere. These challenges present a blueprint for change.
Challenge #1: Bureaucracy and Process Problems
A number of the above examples – and a recurring theme in the Tumblr’s posts – is the unfortunate and widespread fact that nonprofit process and bureaucracy frequently impede progress. In one example, higher-ups take three weeks to return an email. Understandably, sometimes responses take time - CEOs are busy people, and even non-CEOs suffer from a deluge of email – but part of the challenge here is that the message goes into a void. Did it arrive, the sender wonders? Was it seen? Do people know that it's important? Will anyone respond? And if so, when? No one knows, and the sender certainly doesn’t want to be a noodge. So everyone waits, and the process is delayed, and progress can’t be made. Or the sender does prod the recipient for a response, which makes the recipient annoyed and less likely to send an appropriate and helpful response, not just to that particular email but in the future. It's a vicious cycle. (Much like impassive kittens playing ping-pong.)
Suggested Solution: Establish Response Expectations
To respect the heavy responsibilities of all nonprofit workers, perhaps what's needed is some kind of acknowledgement that the request has been received and is being processed, for instance, instituting a timeline for responses from upper management. Having a timeframe for an expected response allows others to continue in their work, knowing and trusting that there's a process for managing requests as well as for followup. Perhaps leadership could acknowledge the high volume of requests with an autoresponse that clearly identifies a timeframe or a chain of command - “if you don’t hear from us by next Wednesday, feel free to email a reminder” or “we will get to your question soon, but if your request is time-sensitive, please reach out to [designated employee] for assistance.”
Challenge #2: Having to Get Approvals on Every Event Detail
When it comes to events, obviously there’s little to be done about the need for detailed contracts that fill nonprofit workers’ lives with the misery that is the approvals process. But the question of when “attention to detail” and “legally necessary” becomes “too many cooks, too many approvals, and way too much micromanaging,” it's time to reassess the process.
Suggested Solution: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
Yes, it’s a cliché. But just as in personal budgeting, there’s always something small you can live without, perhaps it’s time to relinquish control over having every detail in your personal spreadsheet. If you’re a boss who believes he or she has hired good people, step back and let people do their jobs. Absolutely have a process for events. Give constructive feedback, and clearly communicate expectations for future events. But know when to intervene and when to let go. If you feel strongly about approving the venue, types and quantity of rented tables, color of tablecloths, etc, that's fine - but leave the schedule, the food, the naming of event-themed cocktails, etc to the capable employees you work with. All of the event details must be handled, but do they have to be handled 100 percent your way? Sometimes imposing your structure of supervision on a process that’s already working can serve as an impediment to progress. Trust the people you hired - you won't have to oversee everything and they will be able to implement their own process that will arrive at an equivalent destination, even if they get there by taking a different road.
Challenge # 3: Someone’s About to Form Another Committee, Board, Working Group or Task Force
Committees can also serve as an important engagement tool, but if there’s no clear reason for convening and no respect for the time and talent around the table, it can serve the opposite purpose, alienating your stakeholders.
Suggested Solution: Be Clear About Your Content/Convene the Right People
If there’s something specific you’d like to achieve, if you have a clear goal, timeline and strategy plan, if you have the right people around the table, if you’re being respectful of people’s time and talents – go right ahead and form that body to consider actions or create vision. But bear in mind that the only thing more frustrating than sitting in one meeting where the purpose of the convening is unclear is sitting in a series of meetings where the purpose of the convening is unclear. This is not to say that there’s no role for open space and community brainstorming to identify directions for an assembled body; but even such freer-form techniques should help clarify the issue being addressed or the methods that you will use to address that challenge. So clearly communicate the purpose behind the convening. Have an agenda, establish a series of next steps, and make sure that everyone feels invested in and responsible for the success of the clearly articulated mandate – if any of these links is weak, it decreases the likelihood that anything substantial will be accomplished.
Challenge #4: Lower Status, Lower Salaries, Higher Callings and Higher Expectations
It’s true that nonprofit professionals are expected to do their jobs for less money than their peers in the for-profit sector. There is also, unfortunately, a lower social prestige involved in this field – the typical response to saying you’re in nonprofit is often a head tilt, and a “good for you,” accompanied by an automatic dip in that person’s perception of your professionalism. And this lowering of public perception, combined with the low pay and slow and frustrating process of progress, diminishes professional drive and expectations, resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy: by being seen as less professional many of them become less professional. I have seen many promising Jewish nonprofit professionals who entered the field with idealism and boundless energy - now, they are working their designated hours, meeting their job requirements, but do so with dwindling energy and waning enthusiasm as they realize that in many respects they’re fighting a losing battle. Most discouragingly, in many cases the losing battle isn't the cause itself, but the obstinacy of the organization that is supposed to be tackling that cause.
Suggested Solution: Support and Appreciate Employees
Nonprofit professionals are idealists, but they also understand how it is on the ground. They know that lawyers, doctors, internet impresarios and hedge fund managers make more than they do, so we all know that there’s only so much to be done on the salary front. But appreciation? Validation? Incentives? Schedule flexiblity? This is the area where effort and care can have a real impact on quality of life for nonprofit employees. A new coffee machine or an employee appreciation day or even a crafted gathering for employees to try to troubleshoot challenges together indicate that employees are valued and that their opinions matter. Not every organization can afford a fancy espresso machine or a day at Disneyland to build morale and renew enthusiasm, but using an honest and sincere approach to making employees feel like their opinions and creativity are valued and important doesn’t have to be an expensive investment. Ask your employees what would help them, listen to their responses, and implement as many suggestions as you can; be as transparent as you can be about why you're implementing certain suggestions and not others, so people know their ideas have been considered and are seen as valuable, even if not every idea can be birthed into workplace reality.
A new approach toward effective communication, supervisor trust and support, and employee validation and appreciation could provide the necessary uptick in motivation and productivity and emotional reconnection to the work that drew us all here in the first place. If we’re lucky, the outcomes of our nonprofit work make us feel good. But wouldn’t it also be something special if working at a nonprofit actually felt good while we were doing it?
For more about the When You Work at a Nonprofit Tumblr, visit the Start Somewhere blog.