Can we talk about this nonprofit stuff?
As workers in public benefit organizations, we need to think deeply about the dignity of our work
The education nonprofit that I lead, brightbeam, is taking a “pause” for the next three weeks. We will use this time to rethink our work and determine how we earn the investment in us funders make
Why are we doing this now? Because I believe there is a higher level of excellence that my team can achieve that we are not achieving. We can get there, but only if we take the time to stop our operations, reconsider what we do and why we do it, set bigger and bolder goals, and align all our resources to those goals.
It’s humbling to admit that we are not living up to the highest level of performance possible. Still, I’m committed to being and doing better.
As I thought of engaging my team in this “big pause,” I had to locate and reflect on the troublesome ideas that had been stabbing my conscience about our nonprofit work for a long time.
The answer was tied up in those two words, nonprofit and work.
Those of us who have been in the nonprofit world long enough to be veterans tend to swim through ebbs and flows of funding, funders, metrics, grants, and reports so much that we may never stop to think deeply about our sector or the value we create in it.
What is the nature of a nonprofit?
Why is it important?
Are we merely the handmaidens of philanthropy, or are we the essential agents of impact that make the world better for millions?
And, what are the expectations of our work?
Are we interchangeable with workers in other low-expectations fields, or are we the mission-driven high-performance helpers that actually change lives while others talk about it?
I wish I could say I’ve finished my thinking, and I had profound things to tell you about all of this.
I don’t. Yet.
But, I do have a few thoughts based upon my 22 years in nonprofit work, which, I suppose, now makes me a Generation X elder.
Here they are:
Good stewardship. Every dollar invested in us is a pass-through to the people or causes we serve. Speaking for my team, we are a child justice organization that only exists to increase public understanding about childhood issues and to force decision-makers to prioritize the policies and practices that best support youth to thrive. Your nonprofit may have a different mission, but you probably have an intended beneficiary of your work who is the real reason that investors give you money to operate. Be good stewards of the dollars.
Honor the nonprofit role. Though many look down on our sector as if we are a workforce of glorified volunteers, we serve an essential function between the public, private, and grassroots spheres of American help systems. The National Council of Nonprofits says, “America’s 1.3 million charitable nonprofits feed, heal, shelter, educate, inspire, enlighten, and nurture people of every age, gender, race, and socioeconomic status…[and] they foster civic engagement and leadership, drive economic growth, and strengthen the fabric of our communities.” We must elevate perspectives about our work. Whenever anyone discounts the nonprofit sector, educate them and fight for our dignity.
Be excellent. Maybe I’m getting old, but the ethics of work seem to be in decline. One indicator is the national discussion about “the great resignation,” characterized by a grievance-driven anti-work culture that raises questions about the relationship between workers and employers. In some unfortunate cases, that discussion leads to suggestions that workers should not put their back into their work. I sympathize with the workers and employers in that discussion. Still, I hope that mentality doesn’t take hold in the nonprofit sector where the human needs we serve demand our best efforts. Of course, as nonprofit workers, we deserve respectful work environments and adequate pay and benefits, but the desperation experienced by many of the people we serve requires us to show up as if lives depend on us being great at what we do. Never coast in these jobs.
Lead or leave. Here’s a secret that many nonprofit workers I have met seem to be unaware of: It’s okay to quit when you aren’t good at what you do. You don’t need an invitation to leave. You don’t have to blame your failures on anything or anyone. Sometimes a job isn’t for you. There are thousands of occupations in this world. Surely one is your best fit. Our work is too crucial to be the refuge of workers whose hearts aren’t in it. Make a decision. Are you down with the mission enough to bring your a-game for the people, or are you phoning it in? If it’s the latter, do the right thing: quit.
There’s so much more that I’m considering about our mission and our standing at a nonprofit. I’m thinking about the urgency of us being more creative about solving problems.
How we shouldn’t be such slaves to grant metrics that we fail to be freedom fighters for solutions and real impact.
How we should stop being so territorial about our work and more collaborative across organizations so that all of our boats row in the same direction (hopefully toward a just future for all).
How we should stop talking about equity and start demanding it in all of our relationships, including our relationships with foundations.
And, finally, how we give ourselves grace when we fail, but not so much grace that we begin to accept failure as the norm.
My team is hard at work rethinking every inch of our organization so that we come out the other end worthy of the amazing trust our investors place in us.
Wish us luck, and I’ll return the favor to you.
Let’s all improve the world for the people who need it most.