The politics of a nonprofit workforce

workplaceAt some point, we all joined the nonprofit sector as a starry-eyed idealist. Take a second now and channel that spirit: you were ready for a change, you were ready for action and you were determined, resourceful and optimistic; and why shouldn't you have been? You were going to change the world. And you did. But somewhere along the way comes that moment of disillusionment where you realize that wonderful intentions don't always equal harmony, much less success. In fact, nonprofit organizations can be just as political (if not more) than their for-profit counterparts. But not unlike their for-profit counterparts, a toxic workplace can still cost time, money and hurt service delivery. 

How can that be? How can a group of talented and well-intentioned people, grouped together for a positive purpose, create an environment of discord, frustration or inefficiency? And once that environment is created how can you turn it around?

Before we launch into the symptoms and cures for workplace ills, we realize that it's just not possible to please everyone all the time. Sometimes workplace unhappiness is just going to happen, and it doesn't always signal trouble. Nonprofits are complicated organizations with much at stake, so it would be unreasonable for us to expect complete harmony all of the time. But that being said, widespread and prolonged workplace tension, low morale or high turnover are issues which merit consideration and action.

The good news is that workplace tensions are usually caused by the same culprits, and some of these issues are going to be universal across any industry. The bad news is that the nature of a non-profit sector can amplify some of the more emotional aspects of the workplace.  Here are some catch phrases you might hear in an unhappy environment, a little decoding as to their underlying cause and a few possible fixes.

PHRASE: "We're always overworked."

Possible underlying causes: Lack of training/resources. Ambiguity over job descriptions or organizational structure.

When staff chronically complains about being overworked, it can signal more than just the demands of the job, it can signal a lack of understanding about the job itself or the resources that are needed to make the job manageable. Take stock of current job descriptions and compare to how it actually measures the job itself. Take into consideration leadership structure and reporting requirements.

PHRASE: "Our concerns never get addressed."

Possible underlying causes: Lack of transparency/communication.

Executives love to use the term "Open Door Policy" but it doesn't always materialize. If staff is complaining about their concerns not being addressed, some further investigation needs to take place about the forums available for staff to communicate issues and common resolution tactics.

PHRASE: "Everyone is afraid of getting fired."

Possible underlying causes: Hostile leadership. Lack of transparency/communication. Chronic budget constraints.

 This is a big one, and its pretty common in the nonprofit sector. Between management turnover, closed-door meetings and constant talk about "the budget," nonprofits can feel unstable for staff who aren't in the know. Its uncomfortable, to say the least, and it doesn't exactly inspire passion or performance. Consider staff retreats, open meetings on the budget and even bringing in Board motions in staff meetings. The staff doesn't need to be bothered with every minute challenge that management is working with, but they should feel like management is working FOR them, not against them.

PHRASE: "Joe does more than Jane, why doesn't Joe have Jane's job?"

Possible underlying causes: Lack of accountability and transparency.

A few things can be going on when staff start measuring each other's performance: either there is a lack of understanding about everyone's job, there is some overlap in the organizational structure, or there is a failure in accountability. It's worth going through everyone's job descriptions yearly and asking staff to self-report on how they spend their time. It's also worth a conversation: How does it affect morale, productivity or culture when individuals are seen as non-contributors. Also, is this feeling creating a culture of gossip and distrust?

PHRASE: "We never have any money for anything."

 Possible underlying causes: Leadership needs to focus operations and providing adequate resources for their staff.

We're in the nonprofit sector, and every penny that's saved is another penny that goes to the program, right? But when you're cutting corners on things like working computer hardware, phones, or office essentials, you're hurting your program performance. Not only does old equipment hinder efficiency, it also hurts morale. If the perception is that you are so tight on funds that you cannot afford a working keyboard, it's not exactly inspiring hope on raised salaries or reduced furloughs.

PHRASE: "This is my program - If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Possible underlying causes: Leadership not keeping their staff in check.

 Ownership is good, usually. When staff feel ownership in the program or project they are likely to be more passionate, more innovative and more committed to the program and the agency. But there's another side to ownership, and it can mean that staff is resistant to outcome measures, trainings or improvements to the program. Having autonomous staff is a wonderful advantage for you, but it can also put you in a lurch if you really need to make program improvements or if staff decides to move on. Even if everything is going perfectly, its good to have continual management monitoring and input on the program.

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