Nonprofit Workforce Issues: Realizing Our Potential through Policy and Practice

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Working together / Lenore Edman


In 1974, social documentarian Studs Terkel published his classic, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. The core insights in this massive collection of interviews with ordinary people ring as true today as they ever did. It is a monument, in Terkel’s words, to workers’ continuing “search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short for a life instead of a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

In Terkel’s book, Norah Watson, an editor in a large publishing concern, said in her interview:

I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job. Most of us have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people. There’s nothing I would enjoy more than a job that was so meaningful to me that I brought it home.

Nonprofits are all about meaning. We are organized around higher purposes—our missions—and we employ people who have their own deeply felt missions they hope to live out within and around our organizations. We should be ideal workplaces for people like Norah Watson, who want their work to have meaning and to be worthwhile. But, as employers, there are times when our practices belie our potential.

Over the last few years, there has been a lot of policy movement at the federal, state, and local levels around wages in general. This follows a long period of stagnation for many. The minimum and living wage fights, the new overtime regulations…many of these measures will affect service delivery nonprofits, which feel caught in a vise made of public contract rates that are too low to support a living wage and fair employment practices on one side and low unemployment rates on the other. The combination leads to an unstable workforce that’s inadequate for current needs, never mind the future of certain fields that are expected to expand over the next decade. These fields include home health aides, personal attendants, and childcare workers—all workforces that overwhelmingly comprise women and people of color. This creates a perfect storm that begs for a cohesive and principled response on the part of the sector’s advocacy bodies.

At the same time, our nonprofit workforce embodies some very big advantages for nonprofit organizations: It extends beyond paid workers to unpaid workers or volunteers, and the motivations of workers align strongly with the sector’s emphasis on purpose over profit. For years, this has provided the opportunity to make impacts larger than our resources might suggest. But what kinds of management must be in place to honor those differences?

In many other ways, however, the nonprofit workforce is torturously similar to any other: It has large pockets of employees who are paid very little, problems with diversity and inclusion that follow well established patterns, and a hesitancy to adopt management and engagement methods that respect the motivations and self-directed nature of its workers overall. Unquestionably, we can do better, but before we can redress long-standing problems, we must be able to acknowledge them.

Thus, in the next month, NPQ will be examining the nonprofit workforce in some depth. Interwoven among examinations of issues like these will be a special feature: a series of 20 remarkable profiles of nonprofit workers discussing their motivations for the work they do. These profiles are, in part, our answer to the constant elite focus on so-called “thought leaders,” a bad sectoral habit that often distracts from acknowledging the full intelligence, talent, persistence, and sheer collective power of those who bring their bodies and their spirits every single day to work in nonprofits for a better world.

We welcome article contributions from readers to this focus, and we thank the many authors and interviewees who have helped to shape this next month’s content.

  • Third Sector Radio USA

    Pure genius! Looking forward to more. The response from many “thought leaders” (as if the thoughts from the rest of us are less important) have been mildly disappointing because of trying to cater to all. True leaders are willing to step up for what is right.