The Highs and Lows of Working in the Not-For-Profit Sector

While many for-profit businesses struggle to define their higher purpose, that’s not the case for not-for profits – their purpose is clearly defined by their social mission. This makes it easy to attract people to the cause – whether it be potential employees or volunteers. People sign up because the mission statement appeals.

But with this enthusiasm can come some tricky issues that can lead to frustration and even conflict in the not-for-profit sector.

The first issue is one of capacity. Not-for-profits are keen to ensure most of their funding goes directly to the cause. And rightfully so – that’s what donors, governments and any other funders want. But one consequence can be that an organisation’s resources are stretched; systems and processes are starved of the investment needed to ensure they are robust. While pro-bono work from corporates can help supplement this, the lack of systems and processes can frustrate staff.

The second issue can be directing the passion and enthusiasm for the cause into productive work. This especially applies to volunteers. Balancing the work of a volunteer workforce, who can choose to be elsewhere, with the roles of the permanent staff who might not have the same sense of commitment can cause conflict. Permanent staff may lack the skills to manage a team of volunteers. Conversely, volunteers with a strong sense of commitment can not only resent being managed but actively disrupt management’s role. After all, there’s no pay packet on the line.

So, what can these organisations do to better align their “great purpose” with their workforce?

First, ensure a clear code of work conduct is part of a robust induction program. Often, the focus is on issues such as health and safety (obviously important) but they do not constitute the full picture. What is often neglected is the so-called “soft stuff” – expected behaviours from permanent and volunteer staff and what constitutes reasonable management direction, especially for volunteer staff. A thorough induction process can highlight these issues from the outset, and, in the process, reinforce a workplace culture.

Second, giving staff and volunteers a safe space to address the niggles referred to above. Do they have the skills to have effective conversations about their roles? Do volunteers get sufficient opportunity to ask questions about what they are being asked to do and how it contributes to the greater purpose? Without these mechanisms, issues can quickly escalate into conflict and grievances. Organisations with limited human resources capacity (remember, most not-for-profits operate on shoestring budgets) will find it difficult to respond effectively to these grievances and can expend too much of their pro-bono legal support (or paid legal support) to address them. In this case, it is very much a case of prevention is better than the cure.

Third, not-for-profits should address management capability. Any program that helps to upskill managers in providing direction, coaching, and nurturing high-functioning teams should be encouraged. Enthusiasm for the cause can paper over the management cracks for only so long. As that old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Lindall West | Managing Director
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