Why the Nonprofit Work Ethic Is Outdated and Needs to Change | Beth's Blog

Why the Nonprofit Work Ethic Is Outdated and Needs to Change

Happy Healthy Nonprofit


Pre-Order my next book, The Happy Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact without Burnout.  The book is being published by Wiley on October 10th.

I’ve just returned from week-long leadership development program in Israel called “Reality Storytellers” hosted by the Schusterman Foundation.   At the beginning of the trip, we were interviewed by Sharonna Karni Cohen, a women start up founder of a dreams portal, about our hopes and dreams for the trip and what we wanted to take back with us.  This information was given to artist Paulina Correa who created a visual from the interview which was presented to us upon our departure from Israel.

I talked about hoping to find spiritual (not necessarily religious) meaning from the experience. Part of the reason is related to my soon to be published book on self-care and wellbeing (The Happy Healthy Nonprofit). Those concepts are broader than physical health and include other areas like spiritual. The drawing includes the first line in the book.  “Why does something bad have to happen before people who work with nonprofits begin taking care of themselves.”

To be an effective change maker you need to take care of yourself. But often the culture of working in a nonprofit is based on scarcity and that becomes difficult.

My greatest hope and reason why I wrote the book is that nonprofits begin to talk about this challenge.

My colleague, Mark Horvath, Invisible People, shared this article with me, “The Plight of the Overworked Nonprofit Employee” that discusses why the Department of Labor most significant update to the federal rules on overtime in decades will have a negative impact on nonprofits from social service to the arts. The new rules will more than double the salary threshold for guaranteed overtime pay, from about $23,000 to $47,476.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) is projecting that the increase is especially unrealistic for non-profit, cause-oriented organizations because covering higher staffing costs under the rule, nonprofits will be forced to hire fewer staff and limit the hours those staff can work.   And we all know that people who work for nonprofits are passionate about the causes and will most likely sacrifice their free time and volunteer their overtime and potentially sacrifice their health and well being too.    We have the recipe for burnout in the nonprofit or even worse brain drain of people who leave the sector.

The article asks a question that we address in our book, The Happy Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact without Burnout:

These responses expose a gap between the values that many nonprofits hold and the way they treat their own staffs. There’s no doubt that nonprofits today face serious financial difficulties and constraints, but do they have no choice but to demand long, unpaid hours of their employees? Putting questions of fairness aside, is their treatment of their workers limiting their effectiveness?

The article discusses how pressure from funders to tighten budgets and reduce costs, especially to social service agencies a operation environment that has been dubbed “nonprofit starvation cycle.” The cycle starts with funders’ unrealistic expectations about the costs of running a nonprofit. In response, nonprofits try to spend less on overhead (like salaries) and under-report expenses to try to meet those unrealistic expectations. That response then reinforces the unrealistic expectations that began the cycle. In this light, it’s no surprise that so many nonprofits have come to rely on unpaid work.  It also reinforces the scarcity mindset or doing without.   Research has shown that the scarcity mindset actually makes organizations dummer because it diminishes effective decision-making.

In our book, we chronicled the plight of many nonprofit staffers and change makers whose passion for their work is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, it keeps them going no matter what adversity they face – long hours, low pay, etc.  But it can be a recipe for burnout and what we describe in the book as passion-fatigue.    The people who do most of the work and put in the hours need self-care strategies, but nonprofits need to stop this culture of abuse and shift to a culture of well being.

The article says it this way:

It’s certainly the case that nonprofits face considerable challenges, but it doesn’t seem like every organization is making a good-faith effort to do right by their employees when they decide how to respond to those challenges. And, setting aside the issue of fair pay, many wonder whether getting the most work out of staff for the least possible cost is efficient or sustainable. Work-life balance is particularly relevant when employees’ work is emotionally taxing and poorly rewarded, and turnover for any organization is notoriously costly. Nonprofits that don’t take this seriously may be shooting themselves in the foot.

Does your nonprofit view work/life balance seriously and encourage a culture of wellbeing in the workplace? Does your nonprofit connect the dots to wellbeing and high performance?


7 Responses

  1. Leslie says:

    Ah yes, the dreaded overhead. Many funders have % limits for overhead costs, which includes fundraising costs. More than likely the development department of the majority of nonprofits is woefully understaffed and these development directors will not be allowed to add any staff because, well then, your fundraising costs would be too high. But of course you are required to raise even more money, but with no more staff. Sigh…

  2. Heather says:

    Alas, it is even more complicated when your dedicated employees respond, “but my work is my life!” as you roll out new policy regarding limits to the work week. Upon such sturdy (and tireless) backbones, many transformational programs have achieved success.

  3. Beth says:

    Heather: That is true, but on the flip side, we interviewed many people who viewed their activist work as their life and ended up in the hospital or sick. Some were able to recover and go on to sustain their important work and have a life outside of work – and be more effective.

  4. ROZ mandelcorn says:

    It is HIGHLY unfortunate that nonprofits do not raise enuf money to pay their employees the going market rate for similar work. THIS MUST CHANGE.

  5. […] Kanter follows up on this story, with a post on why the non-profit work ethic is outdated, highlighting the perils of what others have called the Nonprofit Starvation Cycle — ‘a […]

  6. Linda Craig says:

    Amen. I’m a one employee non profit that helps thousands of people. But it’s hard to secure the right kind of donations or grants for a salary.

  7. Thea LaG says:

    Our NPO has always crowd-sourced contractor or volunteer talent per project totaling $1M in volunteer services. Things take 3-10x longer to get done since you rely on other peoples availability but they get done -so you multitask moving many project forward at once. I burned out during a 4 year period helping my mom who became ill after my dad passed away. Becoming a caregiver on top of saving the world ha. At that point realized the need for self care and surrounding myself with spiritual people who nourished my soul and were fun to work with. Because of the lapse we do not have the street cred for significant grants. We’ve remained agile and are focusing on networking with larger value aligned orgs for mutual benefits. I could go on about the challenges but have learned to enjoy and appreciate life regardless. What compels us to do this work and sacrifice our well being? Is there something deeper going on?

Leave a Reply