D is for Disenchantment: How nonprofits are losing out

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When 27-year-old Julie (*name has been changed) began working at the national organization that still employs her today, she had big dreams and an even bigger heart. “I was gung ho about it,” she says of jumping headfirst into nonprofit work. Hired as an administrative assistant, her decision to work in the sector was inspired, in part, by watching her mother and others struggle in the private arena. “The idea of working hard just to line other people’s pockets really wasn’t anything I wanted to do.”

Within a year, however, Julie’s wide-eyed vision of making a difference at a nonprofit started to crumble and she’s currently debating a future elsewhere.

Disenchantment in the sector is neither new nor is it confined to just a few unhappy workers. So we wanted to know: what is it, exactly, that’s causing people to re-think their nonprofit commitment? Are their issues unique to the sector? Are they a symptom of unrealistic expectations or something more substantive? And what, if anything, can be done to prevent many from departing?

Some for me, much more for you

Julie’s disillusionment arose from what she viewed to be less-than-noble management decisions at her organization. It started when support staff were told there would be no cost of living increases. It’s a common story at many organizations but was particularly tough to hear for Julie and her colleagues as it was the third such decision in as many years and many were already getting paid less than industry standards.

But money wasn’t the issue here. “Pay cuts are hard but I really do believe in the mission and in trying to make the world a better place; I want these organizations to stay solvent,” she explains. “If that means everyone buckles down for a little while, that’s totally fine.”

The real point of discontent for Julie and her colleagues came upon finding out the CEO’s salary was going up despite the belt-tightening “She was saying no to us but the board was saying yes to her,” shares Julie emphatically. “It’s just the unfairness of asking support staff to do something that management is not willing to do. That really says something.” That the group witnessed numerous examples of wasted resources by upper management didn’t help matters. Feeling discouraged, a number of staff left. Others, like Julie, are debating their next steps.

Talk to me

Consultant Alison Brewin isn’t surprised to hear stories like Julie’s. As a nonprofit practitioner for more than 20 years and, formerly the executive director of the West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), Brewin worked hard to avoid these and other potential challenges during her years in leadership by developing proactive strategies for attracting and retaining the best people she could.

She wonders, however, if Julie’s situation is more consistent with another issue common in the sector: lack of communication. “Transparency is key,” Brewin states, explaining people need to know the reasons behind pay raises and cuts and boards must justify the pay they’re providing anyone in an organization. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. “Staff often doesn’t know what the executive director is doing; they don’t understand how much time they’re spending on things.” Miscommunication and bad leadership is a common challenge, Brewin concludes, adding that a good leader needs to be accountable.

Lead me not

A good leader needs to be a lot of things, says Trina Isakson, principal of 27Shift Consulting. She often hears young people complain about not having a manager who sees potential in them, who ties them to the bigger picture, who gets them excited about work. Those complaints, of course, are true of any sector, she says. “People don’t leave jobs, they leave managers; I hear that a lot.”

Leadership also comes into play with regards to another complaint in the sector: lack of professional development opportunities. It too, is not solely reserved to the nonprofit sector but has become commonplace here, making it worth addressing. “It’s easy to say we don’t have money but so many professional development opportunities can be done in-house or between organizations or through job shadowing or pure mentorship,” explains Isakson, who’s currently working on an audit tool to assess how organizations are engaging young people.

Jason (*name has been changed) knows a thing or two about poor leadership. He shares his frustrating experience as part of a small group helping a relatively new organization plant its roots in Canada. What began as an exciting time for devotees of a mission soon deteriorated into an all-out mess, punctuated by political in-fighting, enlarged egos and financial disarray.

He credits the majority of problems to the one young man appointed as the organization’s leader, the executive director, a man with little experience running organizations and even less experience leading others. The fact that the man’s relative is the organization’s primary funder (who is currently threatening to pull his dollars if the executive diretor is removed) and a close friend is the most vocal proponent on the board, only makes matters worse.

The way Jason sees it, the problem lies with approach. “They treat it more like a family than an organization” he explains. “They’ve become very insular, like a social club.”

But can’t this happen in any sector? Mismanagement is certainly not particular to nonprofits. Perhaps so. But, says Jason, “In the private sector, you can always go back to saying ‘this is hurting the bottom line so change it’, but in the nonprofit sector you don’t have that to fall back on.” Plus, he adds, “We tend to over-reward enthusiasm with volunteers and employees and give them too much responsibility. There needs to be more internal checks and measuring and they need to leave egos at the door more often.”

Free to be you and me...and me

It’s a particularly telling statement — a sign of how bad things have become for Jason — considering it comes from the mouth of a Gen Y-er, a member of a generation known to embrace freedom, while eschewing micromanagement of any kind. In fact, says Isakson, one of the biggest gripes of millennials has to do with the fact that, before taking on their current jobs, many were involved with community initiatives that gave them tons of flexibility, ownership and fulfillment.

“Now all of a sudden their new roles don’t involve much innovation, decision-making or strategy and they don’t necessarily have clear ties with the mission,” she says, claiming it a challenge unique to the nonprofit sector. “When people feel their roles are so divided from the bigger picture and the mission of an organization or that the manager insulates them from decisions or anything that’s really exciting about social change, it’s de-motivating.” Besides, Isakson adds, there’s not much opportunity to grow and learn in a junior capacity.

Brewin takes it a step further. “I’ve also observed that there are different set of expectations among people in their 20s than when I was their age,” she says. “I get asked about my career path and I say ‘there’s a path?’” she laughs. “You can create opportunities that are so different and exciting now.”

Eventually, some will choose to make a difference in other ways, such as through social enterprises or corporate social responsibility opportunities in the private sector. There they can not only enjoy greater freedom but also earn more money.

Money talks – sometimes

What about that thing called compensation? There’s no denying that pay is relatively lower in the sector than in the private or public domains. But how big a part does it really play in this discussion? While not denying the facts, Isakson is quick to point out numerous studies that demonstrate money only matters until one’s basic expenses are covered. Beyond that, it isn’t a major motivating factor, she says. Interestingly, many will still blame salary on their decision to move into another sector. “It’s an easy excuse because the organization can’t take it personally when so many roles don’t pay enough in the nonprofit sector.”

According to Brewin, when it comes to money issues the bigger challenge facing organizations is establishing income equality and ethical standards, through various things like transparency, already mentioned above. Of course, that’s not always easy. “Organizations are struggling with creating stability for employees in an environment that’s not exactly stable,” she explains.

Nonprofits need to ensure they meet legal commitments. For example, Brewin relates how impassioned employees often have well-intentioned tendencies to work overtime. Knowing organizations are strapped for cash, they sometimes accept little or no pay for the extra hours, many even dismissing their overtime as voluntary. But these actions, while honourable, are actually problematic in the eyes of employment law, potentially creating liabilities organizations don’t need.

Never mind that overtime engenders burnout (another common issue in the sector) and the overarching feeling of being underpaid. Brewin, for her part, instituted zero tolerance for overtime while she was an executive director. “It made a huge difference,” she relates of a strategy that promoted life-work balance.

What now?

Talking about making a difference, though he admits to being turned off by his experience, Jason claims to still be interested in the mission of his organization, though he’s taken a step back for the moment. For her part, Julie has enrolled in night classes, hoping to learn new skills and gain new opportunities. She’s still unsure of what comes next. “A good mission would do it for me,” she says of what would convince her to stay. “I’m really naïve, I don’t learn at all” she laughs, then pauses for a moment before adding pensively, “there are some people doing it well; there really is potential.”

As for what nonprofits can do to stem disenchantment, Brewin is clear: less reliance on passion. While there’s some truth to the fact that passion attracts good people, it can’t stand on its own. More substance is necessary to keep them here. “Let’s hope we learned that process matters, structure matters,” says Brewin. “People need something to walk into.”

Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She is president of Elle Communications and co-founder of SEE Change Magazine and can be reached at: info@ellecommunications.ca.

Photos (from top) via iStock.com. All photos used with permission.

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