A lot of people would like to work for a nonprofit and of course a lot of people already do. So what do people who do work in nonprofit organisations think about their workplaces? Nonprofit Explore founder Victoria Lister is a nonprofit professional who has worked across a variety of organisations and in roles at all levels. She shares some of her experiences here.
I’ve been involved in the nonprofit sector for a combined 40+ years.
No, I’m not that old – I’ve simply often worked in a number of roles simultaneously. I’ve been a volunteer, an employee, a management committee member on numerous occasions, a locum CEO, a project manager, a marketing and business development manager and, as a consultant, have worked and continue to work in pro bono and paid capacities with many social and nonprofit enterprises, the majority of which have had charitable status.
The types of organisations I’ve worked in or with range from community centres to breed associations; from human, legal, refugee and education service providers to economic development organisations, women’s services and many more. Some have been community-serving, others member-serving. Either way, you could definitely say I’ve seen nonprofit life from all angles and certainly from both sides of the boardroom table.
So what exactly have I seen? Here’s the black and white of it.
|A lot of good people, motivated by a love of humanity and desire to serve others.||More ‘people problems’ than you’d dare to think possible.|
|Dedicated board members giving generously of their time.||Board members tearing each other (and their CEOs) apart and vice versa.|
|CEOs and managers who do an amazing job.||Executives who are corrupt.|
|Many beautiful and dedicated nonprofit employees and volunteers.||Fraud, personal agenda and self-interest at all levels of an organisation.|
Yes, the nonprofit world is a paradox – the sector we expect to not only ‘do good’ but ‘be good’ is often a sector behaving very badly, a notion that might come as a shock to some.
So how and why does this happen?
I have a number of theories. In no particular order, here are some of them:
Resistance to change is endemic. Nonprofit people can be mired in history of the organisation, ‘the way things are done around here’ and a refusal to acknowledge and move with the times – or move on if they can’t.
The term ‘Founder’s Syndrome’ is used to describe organisations governed or managed by people who can’t let go. Few have what it takes to lead successfully over long periods of time, yet it is not uncommon to see board members and CEOs in top roles for 20 and sometimes 25-30 years or more.
Staff too are often highly resistant to change and can arc-up enormously at the slightest hint of it, particularly where there is a strong emotional investment in the organisation and its mission or their role in it – or both. A strong attraction to a particular founder or charismatic leader whose tenure might be in question can also trigger strong emotional reactions.
Similarly, the general members of an organisation (where they exist) can galvanise and become politically active if they perceive a threat to their interests, to a beloved leader and or to the ideals on which the organisation was founded.
The majority of us come to the sector because we want to help: to change the world or a part thereof. While this is not necessarily a bad thing and it is certainly an understandable response to the world we live in, we come not knowing what it is that will actually lead to real and lasting change.
After all, we’ve been behaving charitably since man began organising himself socially but our problems have only escalated rather than diminished over time.
This indicates we are continuing to invest in something that doesn’t actually work. Yet instead of asking why, we plough blindly on, looking for solutions, spending billions, building elaborate industries designed to prop up an ailing world.
This doesn’t mean we need to stop what we’re doing but it does mean we need to pause and take quite a number of steps back and honestly ask ourselves if all this activity is effective in the way we want it to be.
In other words, we are investing mightily in hope without stopping to ask if what we are investing in is offering sufficient return.
And hope, as much as any of the other points mentioned here, is but another form of self-interest. When we invest in hope we are seeking to alleviate a personal and collective itch; to find relief by hitching our wagon to yet another solution to our worldly woes.
Effectively, we are providing little more than expensive and elaborate band-aids to the knee of a child that keeps falling over without pausing to ask why the child keeps falling over – and are finding comfort in the knowledge that ‘at least we’re doing something’, whether that something is providing a social service, researching a cure for disease or attempting to alleviate global poverty.
There is much more to say, but for now my observation overall is when it comes to nonprofit organisational life, we have a long way to go and that the overwhelming majority of nonprofit activity is actually very much founded in self-interest of various kinds.
I’d love to hear what you have observed as a result of your involvement in the sector. Do you feel self-interest is what gets in the way of us all? Is there merit in taking a more reflective, big-picture look at what it is we’re actually doing – and how we’re doing it – when we engage with the nonprofit sector?
Comment below or email your thoughts in confidence to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Victoria Lister