She gave a workshop . . . and nobody came.

A friend of a friend designed a workshop for professionals who were working in the for-profit field but hoped for work with a deeper meaning, more personal satisfaction, a more pronounced feeling that their work mattered to the world. In other words, folks who were thinking about a shift into the not-for-profit sector.

Guess what? Nobody registered. Not one person.

When my friend shared this story with me, we joked that a way better idea is for someone to do a workshop for seasoned nonprofit professionals who want out but don’t know what else they can do after 20 or 30 (or, ahem, 40) years in the sector.

The gig is up, nonprofits. People aren’t looking at us yearningly. They see us pretty clearly.

The time of hiring people for little money, working them way too hard, demanding the “all in, all the time” mentality from everyone from the executive director on down has run its long, revered course. And while it’s true that most nonprofits are talking, and some actually walking, a different game (because seriously, nobody will take a job if you start off telling them “Life as you know it just ended. Its 24/7 here.”) some of the old problems persist.

And those problems wear us out. They make us feel as if we’re holding up a sinking ship.

So here’s a few thoughts on those problems for the people (and this includes a whole lot of us, in a wide variety of roles) who lead organizations — board members, that would also include you, maybe especially you.

You have to staff appropriately. If your organization can’t afford to pay enough people to do the work that needs to be done to deliver your service to the community, you are not sustainable. Adding more responsibilities to the people you already have, with a battle cry of “all hands on deck” and “it’s such a good cause” isn’t a solution and really, that just gets old. With every expansion of program or services, you have to ask, sincerely, “who’s going to do this work?”. Volunteers are awesome and often can fill gaps with amazing proficiency and energy but they are, in the end, volunteers. With a few rare exceptions, you can’t permanently staff your mission with volunteers.

You have to pay competitively. If you aren’t able to fund decent, livable, competitive salaries for all your people, you are not sustainable. Or you are purchasing sustainability on the backs of your team. If you set salaries by seeing what’s left over after you’ve funded your service, you’re not going to keep people. You will keep mediocre people who are worried they can’t find other work, but you will not keep good people, stellar people, the kind of people you need to grow and thrive and make changes in the world. And having a mediocre staff renders your organization unsustainable. The fact that your organization is a “nonprofit” does not give you the liberty to consistently, intentionally underpay employees.

You have to offer more than money. I’m not talking about a primo health club on site, but I am talking about a health care plan or subsidy. Oh, I know — “We can’t afford that.” I’m not suggesting your employees have company cars, but they do need to be able to submit reasonable expenses for reimbursement without feeling badly. If you can’t fund the basic benefits people have come to expect from employment, then you are not sustainable. 

If you’re grousing every time your Executive Director takes a day off, you’re looking at the wrong things. Flexible schedules are one of the most desirable benefits you can offer, but offering that is of little value if you’re checking regularly to see just how many hours is that woman actually working, anyway. Think about all the ways, in addition to money, that you can build a legitimate work place and stop making the excuse “Well, we’re just a nonprofit. We can’t pay for those things.” If you don’t operate like a legitimate employer you are not sustainable.

You have to be a real business.  Not-for-profit is a tax status; it’s not a business model. It’s not an excuse for being “less” in any way. You have to have an operations model that is nimble, responsive, progressive, and adaptive. You do, in fact, have to make a profit, both a monetary profit and a social profit. You have to show an meaningful ROI for investors, provide a competitive environment for employees, and brand and market yourself successfully. You have to seek out innovative ways to deliver your product or service and you have to consistently adapt to a changing market and social structure. You know, like a real business.

The fact that our friend couldn’t get people interested in learning about a jump into the sector isn’t one bit surprising to me. We’ve got a bad reputation as far as work place satisfaction goes. 

So that all sounds a bit depressing and fatalistic, I know. We can do better. There’s a whole world of work to do that is, without a doubt, best done by non-governmental agencies. It appears to me, in the current political climate, that we may see much, much more dropped from government services, which means more desperate situations that need NGO involvement. So it’s not the time to give up, not the time for a mass exodus out of the sector.

But it is time to get real. Be real. Be better.

Joan Brown