Editor’s Note: When looking for employment with a nonprofit do you first think about its mission and your attachment to it? We would suggest looking a bit further – to determine if the organization has the “personal politics” to match its stated mission intentions. It is unreasonable to expect any organization to function perfectly but there is an extra measure of unhappy cognitive dissonance involved when there is an essential contradiction between purpose and practice. Here reader, Jinna Halperin discusses the problem as part of NPQ’s Voices from the Field series.
Throughout my nearly 15 years of working as a nonprofit employee and as a consultant for nonprofits, I have landed upon a basic fact: All nonprofits are dysfunctional in some way or another and figuring out where to hang your hat requires one to assess whether the level and type of dysfunction is personally tolerable. Like most of us working in the nonprofit sector, I am motivated by a desire to have an impact, create change and help others. Somewhat surprisingly I have worked in several organizations where the management staff has exhibited behaviors in direct contradiction to the stated mission.
Take for instance the reproductive health organizations that frowned upon any of its staff members having children, because it reduced the individual’s ability to work extended, and frankly unsustainable, hours. Then there was the Africa policy organization that overthrew its executive director in a bloodless coup d’état, and the lawyer at the health and human rights organization who jokingly informed me that they should stop hiring women of reproductive age. I have also encountered an executive director of a service delivery organization who provides services based on clients’ assumed ability to raise money for the organization, either directly or indirectly through a network of wealthy friends and colleagues. In truth, these examples do not begin to scratch the surface of the nonprofit dysfunctions I have seen.
From a personal financial perspective, one enters the field of nonprofits expecting to live on minimal earnings. We often attend graduate school knowing that our earning potential will be no greater when we exit, though perhaps more onerous, thanks to our additional debt burdens. I recall a job panel some years after attending graduate school, where the panelists counseled audience members to accept a position at any level and any salary, if it meant getting a foot in the door at an organization of interest. For a while, these tenets seemed reasonable and feasible. With time and increased experience, as well as additional life expenses like parenthood, indentured servitude no longer seemed acceptable.
This realization dawned on me while working for a human rights organization where it emerged that men, even those less qualified and with fewer degrees, typically earned more than women. The irony was again not lost on me or my colleagues, but the pariah treatment I received for requesting fair wages was still surprising. After being criticized for requesting a higher salary and told that one does not enter the field “simply to earn money,” a friend and I joked that we should start paying our bills in commitment, dedication or service.
During what was supposed to be a morale boosting process, intended to slow or stop the mass exodus, the executive director reported that he had conducted a salary survey of comparable organizations. The official report was that “our salaries are comparable.” No data was offered to confirm his assertion, nor did the pace of departures diminish for quite some time. In fact, shortly thereafter, the executive director was himself transitioned to a new position as a figurehead president. Despite decreasing revenue that led to some staff being forced to take salary cuts, the new president continued to earn approximately $200,000 for several years, according to the 990s, its annual IRS filing.
Upon entering the world of nonprofits, one often hears that the goal of a nonprofit is to put itself out of business. Depending on the issue, such a goal is either elusive or more realistically unattainable, as there are always emerging issues that require interventions and attention. In my case, the challenge of doing good has resulted not simply from the nature of the work but rather from the nonprofit management itself. It is easy to assume that people do not enter the nonprofit sector seeking power and authority, but as power begets desire for more power, I have witnessed several occasions when leadership positions have led to internal power struggles often overriding the organization’s best interests.
Another management style I have encountered that hinders an organization’s ability to create real change is: the visionary leader-turned-executive director. These nonprofit visionaries seek to run an organization that fulfills a personal mission. In such cases, there are often no operating principles or guidelines, other than what the visionary sees as appropriate, so separating the mission from the executive director’s personal preferences becomes challenging if not impossible. The organization typically lacks a sustainability plan or transitional model, so much like dictatorial regimes following the dictator’s demise, after the executive director’s departure, the organization struggles to redefine itself. Sometimes it succeeds and sometimes not, depending on the strength and creativity of the board and staff.
A third category of nonprofits I’ve experienced is the lifelong nonprofit employee who has simply accumulated enough years to merit the transition to executive director. Without real management experience, organizations led by these individuals suffer.
Over the years, I have determined which dysfunctions I can tolerate. And so should you. I am no longer driven only by the mission of the organization. Having so many issues about which I feel passionate and on which I have worked, I have come to believe that employment happiness at nonprofits is more about how one is treated and whether one’s contribution is respected, rather than whether it seems to be the ideal position at the ideal organization. Nowadays, when looking for positions, my approach is dramatically different. As best as possible, I try to read the signs before accepting a position. Perhaps it is like reading tea leaves. How do I spot the red flags?
In my attempt to learn from past mistakes, I make a point of learning as much as I can about an organization. Of course, one important sign is the organization’s turnover rate, as is its power-sharing model. If the organization is too top heavy, it is a likely indicator that there are not enough people to do the grunt work and too many people trying to grab a piece of the power. Public documents like the organization’s 990s are an excellent resource. Organizations are required to disclose the salaries of the top five highest paid employees, and when it comes time for salary negotiations, there is nothing like knowing how much the top dogs make.
Still, having said all of that, I remain steadfastly committed to helping sometimes imperfect nonprofit organizations achieve their mission, but now I go into relationships with an eye first on the integrity of the operation. Fortunately, I have experienced well-functioning organizations that are successful in achieving real impact. Knowing that such organizations exist comforts me in those moments when I ask myself: am I a glutton for punishment?
Jinna Halperin has worked as an employee and consultant for domestic and international nonprofit organizations for the past 15 years.