Non-profit workers of the world unite?!?!

Let me start by apologizing to all of the non-profit CEOs in Elgin, Illinois. When I was among their ranks many years ago, I remember countless meetings that turned into “bitch sessions”. My fellow CEOs would channel Rodney Dangerfield’s mantra of “no respect” and gripe about how the non-profit sector deserves more attention, more government funding, and more respect from community leaders.

My guilty admission today is that I used to roll my eyes at those meetings. However, my blogger friend Joanne Fritz at wrote the most amazing post the other day titled “Nonprofit Workforce Grew During Recession” and it echoes much of what my non-profit friends were saying years ago, including:

  • The non-profit sector is a large part of the economy; third largest only behind the retail and manufacturing sectors.
  • The non-profit sector accounts for 10 percent of employment in our country.
  • Non-profit employment is concentrated in services that healthy communities demand and need (e.g. healthcare, childcare, education, etc), which can be a great foundation for any case for support.

OK, OK, OK . . . you were right and I was wrong. I sincerely apologize from the bottom of my heart. With age comes wisdom and knowledge, and I was a young executive director who thought I knew more at the time than I probably did. However, I am older now, and I have a few observations of my own that I think you need to hear.

  • I don’t see many of you treating your employees very well.
  • I don’t see salaries and hourly pay being particularly good. How many of you are paying a “living wage”? Because I see too many paychecks closer to minimum wage.
  • I don’t see very good benefits packages for employees who work on the frontline. Sure senior staff traditionally received great health insurance and retirement benefits. However, I see major gaps once you get outside of the executive suites and into middle management and program staff ranks.
  • I see lots and lots and lots of employee turnover. While finding replacements seems to be an easy task during tough economic times, I remember a day not so long ago when it was difficult.
  • I see cash strapped non-profit organizations who aren’t even budgeting cost of living adjustment wage increases for their staff.
  • Sadly, I see non-profit employees accessing other non-profit social services (e.g. food pantries, utilities assistance, subsidized childcare, etc).

I could go on and on, but it I know that many of you know exactly what I’m talking about.

When I see situations like this, my gut always tells me that it isn’t sustainable and a market correction is sure to follow. Again, Joanne Fritz did a great job in her blog post talking about how for-profit companies are starting to step-in to fill the gap. Based upon history, I would guess that for-profit companies will bring more business acumen and more competitive compensation packages with them to this fight. I also suspect that the fight for workers hearts and minds won’t be a fair one and non-profits will likely be at a disadvantage.

However, there is also a second possible development to which non-profit leader should pay attention. History tells us that when employees don’t believe their voice is being heard and their pocketbooks are being squeezed, this provides an opening for unions to step-in and organize the workplace. With union membership dwindling across the country, you know that union organizers are looking everywhere for opportunities.

I come from a union family. I am a union supporter down to my socks. If I were writing a different kind of blog post, I might even argue that non-profits could benefit from a partnership with public employee unions if it was done right. After all, who else in America has a strong enough voice inside the government bureaucracies and legislatures to advocate for on-time payment and processing of government funding and grants?

However, I won’t go there today.

Instead, I encourage all non-profit CEOs to listen to the old ancient Greek expression (and Spiderman’s father, Ben Parker) when they said, “With great power comes great responsibility”. Congratulations . . . you were right about your strength in numbers and economic impact. It is now time that you live up to that promise and do the right thing. If you want to maintain your labor market strength and avoid unionization, then I have the following advice for you:

  • Diversify your funding streams and stop relying on government funding as heavily as you currently do. We’re likely heading into an age of government austerity because we have a lot of debt to pay back over the next generation.
  • Invest in resource development systems and personnel. Focus hard on raising money the old fashion way.
  • Work feverishly at making new donor friends, and work even harder to maintain existing donor relationships.
  • As you raise more private sector fundraising dollars, don’t continue to expand programming and grow your mission until you’re really ready to do so. Instead, invest in your current programs, systems and employees because you’re likely under-resourced right now.
  • Invest in collaboration! Strategic alliances around back office operations could be a start. Sharing resources including staff might help. Partnering with for-profits on those things they do better than non-profits could yield interesting results.

Most non-profits are living day-to-day. The pressure that comes with that lifestyle will kill you. Build capacity and invest in people. It is the only way to guarantee your survival.

Do you find yourself in a different employee situation than what I describe in this post? Do you have a different point of view on public employee unions and their possible value as collaborators? How are you positioning yourself from a resource development perspective in this new economic environment? How are you investing in your employees and treating them well? Please scroll down and share your stories, examples and answers to these questions in the comment box below. We can all learn from each other.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847