Welcome: A J-O-B, a G-O-O-D Job, or a Vocation?

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The topic of the workplace has lately emerged as a major issue all over the country as nonprofit managers worry about their ability to recruit and retain talented and committed staff in a vastly changing labor market. How can we possibly expect to compete? The articles in this issue prove that we may be in a far better position–if we choose to claim it–than we now acknowledge.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition work is sometimes depicted as one of God’s punishments on the Children of Eve: In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread (Genesis, 3:19). Accordingly, Western society has adopted the biblical dictum, If any would not work, neither should he eat (Proverbs, 603:32). It’s hardly surprising, then, that the routinized labor expended to earn one’s daily bread is called a job–evoking a man who endured many afflictions and indignities. For many, a job is just volunteered slavery; a G-O-O-D job will only help you get-out-of-debt.

Occasionally, though, individuals derive such a sense of purpose, satisfaction and intrinsic value from their work that it transcends mere obligation to become a vocation, perhaps even a calling. Nonprofit organizations customarily lay claim to this latter quality to explain the motivations of their staff, volunteers and board members.

When the Nonprofit Quarterly asked nonprofit workers to describe their jobs, share their frustrations and name the one thing that got them out of bed in the morning, the response from Geoffrey Canada, an anti-violence activist in New York City, was typical. “I get to see the hope in the eyes of the children,” he said simply, without hesitation. The individuals interviewed for this issue share a deep, almost spiritual dedication and resolve to make a difference in the lives of people they serve–a commonality transcending personal histories, geographic location, or expertise. These are all people who are driven to have their work be worthwhile.

Ruth McCambridge reviews comparative studies of workplace expectations of American workers across all three sectors. Echoing the voices of workers interviewed almost 30 years ago by Studs Terkel in Working, today’s workers prize having a voice in decision-making and doing work that is “worthwhile.” Also in the mix of what workers want is a sense that their contributions are valued and appreciated, as well as an atmosphere of collegiality and camaraderie among co-workers.

This basic set of longings should make nonprofits the workplaces of choice–as they reflect the sector’s espoused values of engagement, connection and making a difference. The truth is that we have followed the practices of the industrial model, often creating workplaces that are just as damaging to the human spirit. The Nonprofit Quarterly offers two articles proposing a new set of principles around which to design our human resource systems. Pat McLagan presents a compelling argument for changing these systems and practices corresponding to the changing work environment, and Steve Williamson provides practical guidance for implementing the change process itself.

The basic longing for participation is echoed throughout the rest of our articles. Emerging from their ground-breaking documentation of nonprofit attitudes toward unionization efforts, Jan Masaoka and Jeanne Peters find that the most significant factor driving nonprofit unionization is, again, the feeling that workers are left out of decision-making. While the authors are careful not to draw firm conclusions from this, we are struck by its congruence with the previously mentioned research. Once again, our confidence in the value of practical, applied research done by practitioners in non-academic settings is justified. We congratulate CompassPoint for this latest contribution to nonprofit research.

It would be disingenuous in any discussion about what’s important in a workplace for us not to recognize the importance of salary. Most discussions of nonprofit salaries focus myopically on the top echelons of an organization. Noémi Giszpenc, the newest member of our editorial staff, has taken a different tack, looking at salary issues of those who are paid the least in our sector. She walks us through ideas about salary expectations and examines the impact of living wage legislation on nonprofits. Again, returning to the issue of being valued and appreciated, workers’ perceptions of salary issues have everything to do with fairness.

Who are these people, anyway? Lester Salamon and Sarah Dewees offer some light on the subject with an interpretation of available statistical data. The two researchers from Johns Hopkins found that nonprofit organizations employ a whopping eight percent of the nation’s workforce (some 11 million people), accounting for more than seven percent of the gross national product. Their examination of workforce characteristics confirms what many of us have known all along: nonprofit workers are highly skilled, conspicuously over-educated, and disproportionately female and minority. The authors conclude that whether measured in terms of the annual growth and makeup of the workforce, the diversity of issues and programs, or the sector’s overall contribution to the nation’s productive capacity, nonprofits are playing a central role in our social, economic and political life.

Finally, Jeremy Rifkin contends that although nonprofits “carry on the most basic functions necessary for the maintenance of society,” we have accepted third-class status behind business and government. Rifkin, who has long maintained that the nonprofit sector is the labor force of the future, warns us that if we do not recognize the incursion of business into our function, we may lose our grip on that role entirely. He urges us to assume our legitimate role as the primary sector.

As usual, our “back-of-the-book” departments offer readers a mix of practical how-to information and thought-provoking commentary on a range of issues relevant to the practice of nonprofit leadership, including: a menu of low- and no-cost benefits available to the harried manager wanting to sweeten the pot, a commonsense approach to stabilizing agency cash-flow, and a director-friendly review of application services providers (ASPs). Jonathan Spack asks nonprofit executives if they’re really willing to give up power and offers a chance for a $50 gift certificate for just sharing their wit, wisdom and opinions with the rest of us.

Finally, you have doubtless noted that the dynamics of race, gender and culture appear conspicuously absent from our focus on the nonprofit workplace. Be assured that this is neither an oversight on the part of the editors, nor is it a reflection of discomfort with the subject. Recognizing that a serious exploration of this thorny subject demanded its own forum, we propose to dedicate a forthcoming issue of the Quarterly to a no-holds-barred dialogue on the racism, sexism and cultural chauvinism in nonprofit practice. Our readers are encouraged to contact us with suggestions for questions to explore, stories to pursue and possible contributing sources.