Tag Archives: activism

32 Theses About Nonprofit Compensation

  1. Nonprofit work is hard work. It is complex, adaptive work where the answers are not known in advance — we have to invent them as we go. Most nonprofits are tackling huge problems with few resources and many face deep-pocketed opposition.
  2. Nonprofit work is long-term work. The problems we’re working on — climate change, inequality and injustice — didn’t emerge overnight, and we’re not going to solve them in a couple of years.
  3. Because nonprofit work is hard, long-term work, the nonprofit sector needs to attract the most talented people we’ve got — and keep them around long enough for them to become wise and masterful practitioners.
  4. The skills and talent nonprofits need to solve big social problems are complex . We need to be able to draw in people with a broad range of experiences, skills and talents. Failure to do this not only hurts us tactically, it limits us strategically.
  5. Right now, access to wealth — inherited wealth, earned wealth from a prior career or spouses/partners who are the primary breadwinners in their households — is often an implicit filtering criterion for long-term nonprofit employment. This perpetuates and deepens the structural racism and inequity in our society, even as we say we are working to eliminate it.
  6. The student debt crisis is a huge, largely unacknowledged talent problem in the making for the nonprofit sector. While many millennials are drawn to mission-based work, their student debt will prevent them from entering the sector, or ensure that their stay here is short.
  7. The skills that it takes to build and sustain a successful and effective nonprofit are becoming more varied.
  8. Because of the explosion of nonprofits — and the immediate accessibility of a global audience afforded by the internet — nonprofits must not only be skillful at more things, they must be relatively more skillful at more things if they want to break away from the pack. The bar for success is, paradoxically, rising, even as the barriers to starting a nonprofit are falling.
  9. The skills that nonprofits must master to succeed in the twenty-first century are rapidly converging with the skills that organizations in other sectors must master to succeed.
  10. We can see this most clearly in the area of technology. But it’s not just technology, it’s also finance, leadership, marketing and more.
  11. The rise of mission-based “social enterprise” businesses and B-Corps further exacerbates the nonprofit’s sector’s intensity of competition for talented, mission-minded people.
  12. Nonprofits are therefore competing beyond the sector for talent more directly than ever before and the intensity of this competition is only going to continue to increase.
  13. Nobody expects (or deserves) to get rich working for a nonprofit.
  14. Many nonprofits are (or can be) amazing places to work. People will sacrifice some amount of money for challenge, meaning, flexibility and autonomy.
  15. Despite this, we should not expect nonprofit workers to forgo home ownership, children and a secure retirement in order to work in the sector.
  16. If nonprofits want to successfully compete for talent — and keep good people around for the long haul, they need to pay enough so that money isn’t an issue, then out-compete other employers on meaning, relationships, autonomy and opportunity.
  17. The amount of money that makes “money not be an issue” for the diverse, talented people we need to attract and retain is often more than the median nonprofit is paying right now.
  18. The amount of money that makes “money not be an issue” for the diverse, talented people we need to attract and retain is not insanely large. People who are drawn to and can succeed at the complex, adaptive challenges of nonprofit work tend to have strong intrinsic motivation and are rarely highly materialistic.
  19. There are many roles in nonprofits for which it is believed to be difficult to objectively and fairly evaluate employee performance and/or contribution to either the organization’s bottom line or its mission impact.
  20. Nonprofits rarely cut low performing staff.
  21. Nonprofits rarely if ever pay their top performers significantly more than their median or low performers.
  22. Most nonprofits would rather spend additional dollars growing their team or launching new programs and accept turnover as a “fact of  life” than invest in retaining their best people for the long haul.
  23. Nonprofits rarely account for the full costs of turnover: lost relationships, lost knowledge, lost productivity, damage to morale, etc.
  24. Many of the nonprofit sector’s most highly skilled people eventually are forced to leave the sector entirely or go into private practice as consultants in order to meet their financial needs.
  25. The “consultant-ization” of the nonprofit sector has some benefits (e.g. rapid. flexible team formation, deep specialization, diffusion of knowledge, etc.) but also considerable costs.
  26. While nonprofit culture and management practices contribute to some of the sector’s dysfunctions around compensation, nonprofit board members, donors and funders play a significant role in shaping the sector’s culture and determining how it allocates resources.
  27. The overhead myth, preferences for new programs over proven effectiveness, underinvestment in leadership development, failure to admit and embrace failure — these phenomena all contribute to unhealthy ideologies about compensation in the nonprofit sector.
  28. Nonprofit boards rarely involve themselves in staff salary structures or policies, restricting themselves to setting CEO compensation and perhaps approving incremental increases to the overall salary pool during the budgeting process.
  29. Foundation program officer salaries often serve as an effective upper bound on nonprofit CEO compensation.
  30. Funders rarely reward their highest-performing grantees with game-changing infusions of general support dollars — and even more rarely do they cut their low-performing grantees to free up resources for their high performers.
  31. Many funders are happy to reward effort rather than results. This is closely tied to risk aversion, because big results require big risks and it is often hard to claim credit for long-term success.
  32. There is no silver bullet solution to these challenges, but the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors must work together to open a more courageous conversation if we are to make progress.

A neat trick Engagement Organizations can do

Here’s a neat trick that Engagement Organizations can do: because they have solid, integrated website and database systems, they can quickly identify contact records that have missing information, then send out an email blast like this one I just got from Dogwood Initiative:

Contact update email from Dogwood Initiative

As you can see, the email includes a personalized URL that takes me directly to a page on the Dogwood website that displays my current contact info from Dogwood’s database, and lets me update it with a single click.  The information feeds back directly into the database–no data entry or cumbersome import processes are required, so it’s fast and easy both for me and for the Dogwood team.

Dogwood contact update web page

Dogwood sends an email like this a couple of times per year.  In just a few seconds, their members are able to easily update their contact information.  Dogwood reaps the benefits of an up-to-date supporter list and its supporters get the most relevant, personalized information possible.  That sounds like a great deal to me!

“Engagement Organizing” is live!

I’m pleased to announce the release of “Engagement Organizing,” a short whitepaper about the culture and technology of building power for social change in a networked era.  I had the great pleasure of collaborating with my dear friend Matt Price, and I’m really pleased with the final results.  If you are working to make progressive change in the world, please give it a read and share your thoughts with us at http://engagement-organizing.org.

Collective Impact

I’ve been reading and thinking a bit about “collective impact” lately.  (Here’s the seminal article introducing the buzzword.)  It’s a solid, mostly-common-sense framework for thinking about collaborative/coalition efforts.  There are five elements that define a “collective impact” approach:

  • Common agenda.  If you don’t have a shared vision for change, you can’t really expect to collaborate effectively.
  • Mutually reinforcing activities.  Successful collaborators need to coordinate their activities, play to their strengths, and know their role in the larger effort.
  • Continuous communication.  If you don’t communicate regularly you can’t hope to build enough trust and shared language to collaborate effectively.

At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Jon, why are you wasting my time with such obvious folderol?”  Most coalition efforts I’ve seen fulfill these first three conditions pretty well.  Hang in there, it’s the next two that are the most interesting:

  • Shared measurement systems. Hmm, now we’re getting somewhere.  Collective impact suggests that collaborative efforts need agree on a shared set of indicators of success and the systems for monitoring and reporting on those indicators.  Without shared indicators, collaborators have no way to really know if they are succeeding or failing, and no feedback systems that allow them to “course correct” as needed. 
  • A backbone support organization.  Proponents of collective impact assert that successful collaboration efforts need to have a strong, staffed organization at their center, in order to run the collaborative process with sufficient intensity and focus to drive it forward in the face of distractions.  It’s not clear to me whether they think a strong “lead coalition partner” fulfills this condition or not.  (I suspect not.)

It’s these last two points where most collaborations falter, and probably not concidental that they require sustained, long-term resource commitments.  How do collaborations you’re involved with stack up?

Managing money for social change agents

I’m hardly a financial wiz, nor am I fabulously wealthy.  But I’ve managed to do a reasonably decent job of saving and managing money over 15 years as an underpaid social change activist.  Here’s some big-picture advice:

1) Live beneath your means, even if you’re not making a lot of money.  If expenses > income, you are screwed.

2) Have a credit card. Use it. Pay it off every month. Never, never, never run a balance. This helps you build a credit history, which will matter when you want to buy a home.

3) Start saving. Compound interest is your friend. But if you’re not-so-young, start saving anyway.  15% of your income is a good, aggressive target.

4) First savings priority: an emergency fund with 6-9 months’ living expenses. Keep it in cash or a money-market fund. This is your “oh no, I just lost my job” fund, or the “gosh, that was an unexpected car repair bill” fund.

5) Next priority: retirement. Take advantage of any 401k or 403b matching that your employer offers–that’s free money. Saving is easier when it comes directly out of your paycheck and you never get the chance to spend it.  Invest in low-cost index funds or ETFs. David Swensen’s “Unconventional Success” is a fantastic guide to asset allocation that will help you avoid the traps of the mutual fund industry.

What Steve says

The always-insightful Steve Wright pretty much nails it in this short post on OWS (emphasis mine):

Social media does a fantastic job of creating noise and through noise you get attention. But noise has no narrative. The decentralized approach has served us brilliantly. Again, I am grateful and in awe of those in the OWS movement who have done what I do not have the courage to do myself.I believe we are rapidly approaching the time when old school Port Huron style organizing is necessary. Reading up on the early days of the last civil rights movement, it took them about 10 years to get to the catalytic moment of 1968. I think we are at our 1968 moment today but don’t have the structure underneath us.

What is effective environmental organizing?

We’ve been talking a bit internally at Groundwire here about how to define effective social change organizing.  Here’s what we have so far:

Effective social change organizing creates relationships in order to build measurable power and wields that power to achieve specific, significant behavioral, policy or political outcomes.

How does that work for you?

We like that it is succinct and clearly connects relationships, power and tangible outcomes.  But it also raises questions of what we might mean by “measurable power” and “specific, significant outcomes.”

Any organizing campaign or organizer will need to figure out what measures of power are most meaningful for their context, but in general, we think that power is most often measurable in terms of “I can motivate X people to take action Y, which results in Z.”

“Specific and significant” outcomes will also vary greatly across campaigns, but again, we want to emphasize how important it is to be able to articulate these outcomes in specific and measurable terms.  Some examples could include:

  • Winning an election
  • Passing legislation or administrative policies
  • Measure shifts in public opinion or behavior

If your “big hairy audacious” goal will take years to achieve, that’s OK, but you need to be able to define some specific shorter-term outcomes to let you know whether you’re on track.