Ending the Nonprofit Talent Hunger Games

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[Image description: A reddish squirrel peaking out from behind a tree. Its left paw is at its chest. Image obtained from Pixabay.com]

Hi everyone. I just came back from speaking at the Blue Ridge Institute, a 90-year-old week-long retreat in the Tennessee woods for nonprofit leaders. It’s a combination of thought-provoking conversations and endearingly ridiculous hijinks, including an all-ages talent show, skits, hiking, dancing, a lot of singing, a softball game with equal-opportunity cheering and heckling from a designated group called “The Best Worst Cheerleaders,” a sarcastic daily news parody segment that roasts everyone mercilessly in good fun, and something called “moonshine cherries.” Basically, if I designed a retreat for nonprofit leaders, it would look a lot like BRI. But with more sock puppets (and Oxford Commas in the marketing materials). Check it out. It’s magical, and kids are welcome.

During my keynote, I brought up the Nonprofit Hunger Games and how all of us are in constant competition with one another for resources and influence. “I call it Stabbing for Dollars,” says one seasoned nonprofit executive. A manifestation of this is through our hiring philosophies and practices. There are thousands of articles on staff recruitment, retention, etc., but they all have something in common: It is always about the well-being of the organization, getting the best talent for the organization to ensure the organization thrives, rarely about the entire sector or community. We recruit professionals to fulfill our individual missions, not paying much attention to what happens when they leave our organizations, or how the way we treat them might affect their work at their next organization, or our own individual responsibility to support a “bench” of talent needed for the entire sector to thrive.

This is all understandable. This is how we have been trained and how we have been influenced by the corporate sector. But unlike the for-profit sector, the problems we are trying to address are profoundly interrelated. Our missions are interconnected. Our successes depend on the success of other organizations, and staff are the most critical resource we have as a sector.

And so the way we think about talent in the sector needs to change. We must all believe deeply that we have a responsibility not just to our mission, but to the entire sector, and invest in our staff accordingly. Professionals naturally move from one organization to the next, and they will carry with them the strengths or the scars they receive from each org they work at. We need to recruit, hire, train, and even fire staff with the mindset that our actions affect the success or failure of the whole nonprofit community. Here are some things I think we can start with:

Let’s treat job candidates with respect: I wrote “Hey, can we be nicer to job candidates and not treat them like crap?” a while ago, but it’s a message that needs to be repeated. For example, there are still too many reports of “ghosting,” where candidates apply for jobs and never hear from the organization again, even after having gone through interviews. I’ve seen too many instances of organizations treating job candidates with disdain—wasting their time with unclear processes and ridiculous requests, poor communication, acting like the org is doing them a favor simply by interviewing them. Our professionals who lift up families and communities do not deserve that; no one deserves that. And if we treat job candidates like crap, they are likely to leave the sector or not even enter in the first place. If all of us can treat our job candidates better—by being more communicative, giving helpful feedback, introducing them to other orgs—even if they don’t get the job with us, this positive experience will increase their faith in the sector, and our community benefits.

Let’s treat our professionals as professionals: How we treat our people affects not just what they do at our organization, but also how they function at other organizations. I’ve encountered many professionals now who need counseling after the horrible treatment they have received at various places of employment. The micromanagement, the backstabbing, the company politics, the infantilizing of professionals happen too frequently. Many will ditch a soul-sucking, toxic environment. But where does that leave the people who can’t simply walk away? What does that do to their morale, their passion for this work, and how they may function when they finally are able to move on to the next place? All of us need to do a better job ensuring our professionals are respected and happy, because that affects the entire sector.

Let’s increase funding for professional development: For-profits in 2013 on average spent $1200 per employee per year, with the tech sector averaging $1800. Nonprofit work is probably five times more complex than for-profit work, and yet we probably spend a fifth what our for-profit friends are spending on professional development for our staff. The people in our field are endlessly creative, but Youtube and the occasional brown-bag book club is not cutting it. A reason why we are don’t budget enough for PD, and an element of why our work is so complicated, is the ridiculous notion of “overhead” that still clings to donors’ and funders’ brains like some sort of stubborn moonshine-cherries hangover. Let’s all increase professional development in our budget, to at least $1,200 per person per year, because why should we invest less in our staff than the average for-profit does? The entire sector would have a stronger pool of talent to draw from. 

Let’s pay our people decent wages: A team member at my own organization just wrote a blog post reflecting on the lessons we learned in determining pay for the fellows in our leadership program. It was eye-opening and humbling to realize that we could be paying poverty-level wages even as we claim to fight poverty. Paying people decent, livable wages is not just practical, but the ethical thing to do. It allows us to keep talent in the sector, and allows people to remain living and establishing roots in the community they serve. Let’s have better processes for determining wages, and let’s pay our people fairly. It is good for the whole sector, as happier, more secure employees means more stability for our sector.  

Let’s mentor emerging leaders inside and outside our organizations: I’ve benefited so much from the various leaders in the sector who take time to provide me with advice and guidance throughout my career, especially during some of the darkest times of my career, aka, galas. The generosity of these leaders was especially poignant considering that I didn’t work for their organizations and would unlikely help to advance their missions. If we can all take that sort of philosophy to heart, that we are mentoring future sector leaders, and not just organizational leaders, the returns for our community will be significant.

Let’s encourage our staff to build relationships with other orgs: Let’s be more generous with our staff and encourage them to connect across missions. Some organizations build into their employee handbooks that staff have a couple of days of paid time off that they can use to volunteer at other organizations. That’s awesome. Let’s do more stuff like that. Let’s encourage our team members to involved with other organizations. The influx of new ideas, the sparks for potential collaborations, these are all things our organizations could benefit from. And our sector will become stronger and more effective at addressing societal issues as our professionals are talking with and supporting one another more across different missions, and even across different sectors.

I know the Nonprofit Hunger Games are ever present in our sector. They make us see one another not as partners in the fight against injustice, but as competition. This has affected how we treat the professionals in our field. We’ve been trained to care about our staff only to the extent that they can help us carry out our missions and survive and win the Games. And when they are not yet part of the team, or when they leave, our investments in them wane.

But remember, “When you play the Nonprofit Hunger Games, either you win or you die.” I think… 

Looking at the nonprofit leaders laughing and joking while the cicadas droned beneath the Tennessee moon, I was reminded that it doesn’t have to be this way, that we don’t have to participate in the Games. Let’s start by changing how we invest in our people. We can build a better sector and a better world if we all commit to caring about and treating every professional and potential professional as a critical partner in the ongoing fight against injustice, whether or not they work for us.

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Donate, or give a grant, to Vu’s organizationRainier Valley Corps, which has the mission of bringing more leaders of color into the nonprofit sector and getting diverse communities to work together to address systemic issues.

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  • Diane Jarvi

    After a long career in higher education I spent 5 years with AmeriCorps with the plan to transition to nonprofit work. It was a mostly satisfying experience but the job hunt and horrible experience with my last VISTA assignment has soured me on nonprofits. I have rarely been treated with so little respect for my skills and experience. The nonprofit sector has lost out on a passionate and committed voice. I refuse to put myself through it anymore

    • Kelly Ace

      Hi, Diane.
      I’m sorry that you had such a miserable experience. Still, how is it that you’ve decided that the entire nonprofit sector is disrespectful and not worth your time and effort based on one bad experience? Bad fits, leaders with poor people skills, and dysfunctional organizations abound in all sectors.

      • Diane Jarvi

        I’ve spent the las two years interviewing, and supposedly being a finalist for positions, often traveling at my own expense. I have been one of three candidates for four different positions with four different organizations and after numerous conversations the best they can do when they don’t hire you is send a terse email. After devoting so much time and energy I feel like it at least deserves a phone call. I don’t think enough nonprofits have good Human Resources policies.

        • Hypsicratea

          I’ve experienced this pattern throughout my career, especially large multi-location national charities. I am amazed at how often, after multiple interviews, they act like I’m overreaching when I request status updates. (My friends in the for-profit world tell me this happens to them all the time, so I just think HR is rude by design.)

    • Sherrie Smith

      Wow, I guess that’s a sign those are nonprofits not to work for! Each person I interview gets a somewhat personalized letter with the results of our hiring process.

  • Patrick Jinks

    Vu,

    As always…. good stuff… I have a slightly different perspective on the whole competition thing, but in short, my biggest takeaway from this post is that the actions you propose here work either way — in collaboration OR competition! They are the right strategies, regardless!

    On a personal note, thank you again for your time with us at BRI last week! We could not have found a better partner to kick off our week. Thank you for engaging with us!

  • As usual, Vu is on the right track in ‘outing’ a serious problem. I’ve been consulting with nonprofits for over 20 years, and studying their internal productivity just as long. And for all that time, the major findings have shown significant lack of productivity, which is tied directly to under-investing in professional development. Do we think for-profits outperform nonprofits (in productivity terms, anyway) because of good luck, accidental talent or magic? No. Their leaders tend to invest, often heavily, in both professional and organizational development. And that takes money – getting it and SPENDING it. Last month we published our first podcast, featuring Vu speaking about a new approach to fundraising – community-centric fundraising – in our series Rethinking Fundraising. Check it out on SoundCloud or iTunes. This month we’re publishing our conversation with Ruth McCambridge, managing editor of The Nonprofit Quarterly, on the nonprofit wage ghetto, who calls this problem “the industry of poverty.” This situation sucks, let’s fix it.

    Vu, you make me super jealous; the BRI sounds fantastic.

  • Eric Burgess

    The nonprofit ‘Hunger Games’ is a fun metaphor, but are you insinuating we are all kids??? 😉

  • Liz Gutierrez

    I have to say, I made the decision to start a new organization that hopefully will behave better than the experience that I have had personally and those of others around me. As organizations that supposedly seek to create solutions to our society’s problems due to racial and economic inequality among others, too often we don’t do much better. I appreciate you putting it out there! Nonprofit trainers would do well spending as much time on the topic of creating organizational cultures that heal, build and make stuff happen, pay well and create transparent professional pipelines for personal success and growth instead of just the basics or board governance, finance management and raising money. We must change to attract great committed and talented people to our sector.

  • Lisa M Stone

    Yes to all this, and I have another tenet to suggest: I tell all new staff persons at the beginning of their time with us (and as often as I can remember) that if they identify another job they want, whether because of their passions, or for advancement, or because it pays more (only please talk to me about pay before taking another job, so we can reassess our standards), to tell me about it as early as they can, so I can help them get it. I have great colleagues, and I don’t want them to leave, but I also view their success as everyone’s, so if I can help them move on/up/elsewhere, then that’s my job. Launching more unicorns with shiny wings, is what I’m saying.

    • Rosa

      I think a normal unicorn does not have wings, but a Pegasus does have wings. If you are launching unicorns with wings, they are really some sort of unicorn/pegasus hybrid which is rarer and more exciting. You should be proud!

      Also great article Vu!

  • Tara Marlowe

    Thank you for saying this.

  • Sherrie Smith

    My org is continually struggling with our wages but are slowly and surely inching up as fast as we can. We also have a lot of “stepping stone” positions, where young people tend to come in and work for a couple of years before moving on, and my goal as their manager is to ensure that they will
    1. Have a good experience and hopefully stay in the nonprofit world
    2. Leave here and continue to care about the organization that helped build them
    3. Will be nonprofit badasses for life.

    I spend a lot of my time mentoring, training, and helping them assess their professional goals and while yes, it takes up a lot of time, it also creates loyalty and happiness even when you can’t pay people the wages they deserve yet.

  • disqus_zKxIGW6jPb

    Ironically, as I was reading this I got pulled into my director’s office and was laid off with 5 days notice and no severance. I have 12 years of nonprofit experience and a masters degree in public admin and nonprofit administration, and this latest twist is the last for me. I’m done with this sector and am disappointed that leaders can’t see how damaging it is to the broader sector when they treat people so poorly. New opportunities wait for me, and that will be fine, it’s just extremely saddening that my experience is nothing close to unique.

  • Stevie

    Spot on! I wish every nonprofit director or manager would read this. Thank you for this. It feels very validating to have someone acknowledge some of the pain I’ve experienced in my career working for nonprofits and job searching. My favorite part of this post: “All of us need to do a better job ensuring our professionals are respected and happy, because that affects the entire sector.”

  • Alexa

    Oh my goodness, yes to all of this! And even worse than ghosting on applicants, I’ve noticed, is not responding to their resume, but adding them unsolicited to your email mailing list. Why would I want to donate to your cause when you don’t even show me the respect of a “thank you for applying.”