This article is from the Nonprofit Quarterly’s fall 2016 edition, “The Nonprofit Workforce: Overcoming Obstacles.”
Over the past few years, nonprofits have been creeping up toward new ways of sharing core tasks of their organizations with their staffs. An example of this are the practice models associated with creating a culture of philanthropy. The recent “Bright Spots” study by Jeanne Bell and Kim Klein describes how a number of nonprofits have employed these models.1
Many of the groups talked about sharing fundraising responsibilities with staff as part of a larger, overall organizing strategy, and one of the more interesting cases the study cites concerns a group called Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). At JVP the staff, on top of their other roles, share responsibility for maintaining relationships with six hundred major donors; each staff person has his or her share as a portfolio. The National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) does something similar, raising $2 million a year from major donors, 30 percent of which is managed through portfolios held by the group’s staff, board, and volunteers.
This sharing of fundraising responsibilities has to be supported by rigorous systems and good research, of course. For example, a donor survey by NCLR revealed that donor interests in the organization were much broader than marriage equality, which they had assumed was their draw. The ability to uncover and share such information quickly makes each fundraiser and the group as a whole more effective.2
The following description exemplifies a new model of staff deployment that embodies some powerful assumptions:
- Each staff person can be trusted to represent the organization to important partners.
- Important tasks that require skill and knowledge do not need to be marginalized to one or two staff members.
- Doing this requires continuous communication that integrates into the organization the intelligence gathered in such interactions and keeps each staff person at a high level of organizational literacy.
This form of organization also serves as a capacity for leadership development, in that sharing out the fundraising role allows younger leaders to gain that crucial skill base and experience without locking themselves into fundraising as a career. Angela Moreno, one-time interim executive director of FIERCE—a youth-led, membership-based organization that’s dedicated to building the leadership and power of LGBTQ youth of color in New York City—observed: “It’s not about someone being professional or educated in a certain way. It’s really about shedding light on the fact that we already have these skills in communities of color. It’s about making visible and lifting up the resourcefulness that we’ve always had. 3
And in that last statement are many lessons. For young leaders, the ability to build their capabilities across multiple functions is extremely valuable, creating a comprehensive set of leadership skills that is working capital in that person’s career, because few executive directors do not—as we all know—have fundraising responsibilities. This means that, on top of the compensation the staff receive, staff also hope to develop capacity that makes them desirable employees elsewhere in the future. In return for affording them that opportunity, your organization gets the engagement and energy that comes with helping each staff person continuously develop new skills and knowledge and responsibility; the additional intelligence that comes from keeping employees in touch with constituents and other elements of the external environment; and the redundancy and flexibility that come from cross-training staff.
The Tension in Bridging Eras
Performance appraisals are an instrument for social control. They are annual discussions, avoided more often than held, in which one adult identifies for another adult three improvement areas to work on over the next twelve months.… If the intent of the appraisal is learning, it is not going to happen when the context of the dialogue is evaluation and judgment.
Let’s take the performance appraisal and imagine it as an artifact of a previous age—an age when people believed that the very best way to motivate workers was primarily, if not solely, through compensation and the best way to ensure quality of work was through ever tighter central controls, direction, and monitoring.
The assumptions underwriting the above about what motivates our employees and causes them to be accountable are unflattering to them—and, in fact, the practices that flow from these assumptions are, at their base, not only unproductive in terms of creating a robust twenty-first-century workforce but also are counterproductive, creating a kind of motivation-sucking vacuum.
This has pretty much always been the case; but again, now we are in an era where a track record of incrementally built and well-deployed knowledge is coin of the realm as far as career building is concerned, so a lack of faith and investment in employees is obvious in its absence. The best employees are unlikely to want to stagnate in a job. Their careers no longer depend as much on following directions well as they do on helping re-create the job—and the directions for that job—as times and circumstances change.
But we are in a transition period between the industrial and information eras, and even as we understand that the basic employment contract has profoundly changed, we have not fully accepted that this means our employment practices also must profoundly change. In short, workers may never have enjoyed being used as cogs in a machine, but half a century ago they were exchanging it for a middle-class salary and benefits, and often a lifetime of employment. That contract is not common these days, and has been replaced by a lifetime of more-short-term gigs that require the individual to continuously retool. In a sense, workers are “curating” their own body of work—because, increasingly, stagnation becomes a life sentence of low wages.
Self-Determination and Motivation: The Heart Wants What It Wants
Thus, the issue of self-direction and self-determination emerges front and center in our workplaces. Employees must look at every job for its alignment with their goals, and should do the same with prospective employers. Questions they should ask are: Will I be able to advance my life’s purpose here? Will I learn here? Will I make connections and establish my credibility here? Will I be allowed to take risks and pursue new interests within the context of the mission? Are my potential coworkers jealously guarding their authority and realms of work, or is there a demonstrated interest in helping the energy and capacity of the organization grow through helping the energy and capacity of each staff member grow?
Welcoming and encouraging the learning and advances of each staff member, then, also keep the organization on its own development trajectory—as long as goals and vision, ground rules, and critical information are held in common among workers. Team management and cross-training among peers maintain the advances as organizational assets over time.
We use the term self-determination advisedly. Richard Ryan and Edward Deci have studied and written extensively about the concept as it relates not only to education but also to worker motivation. The framework they termed Self-Determination Theory