It’s possible to make a difference in the non-profit sector, but no one should assume that work life there is a picnic. Like for-profit and public employers, non-profit employers run the gamut. Some are terrific, many are okay, and others are positively dreadful.
In addition to facing the financial pressures of trying to do more with limited resources, non-profits suffer from their own brands of employee relations problems. So steer clear of the myths of non-profit employment, and understand the realities. Here are among the major ones:
1. Myth: Non-profit employers care deeply about their employees.
Reality: Don’t count on it. The non-profit sector sometimes forgets about its own.
In a 2007 piece for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “Guess Who’s Socially Irresponsible?,” fundraising consultant Mal Warwick noted that “philanthropy — the love of humankind — is missing from the practices of many nonprofits.” He urged that non-profits must “come to understand that philanthropy begins at home.”
2. Myth: There’s very little bullying, mobbing, or sexual harassment in non-profits, because people working in that sector watch out for each other.
Reality: Some of the worst bullying, mobbing, and sexual harassment situations I’ve heard of over the past 15 years have come out of the non-profit sector.
A do-gooder organizational mission doesn’t ensure high-character employees. It’s one thing to fight for The Cause; it’s quite another to treat people decently. I’d be surprised if prevalence rates of interpersonal abuse are materially lower at non-profits than in the for-profit or public sectors.
3. Myth: You won’t encounter any psychopathic or narcissistic types in the non-profit sector; they’re only to be found in the big bad corporations.
Reality: Sorry, but these folks can easily turn up as senior administrators and board members in non-profits.
It seems like such a disconnect when people with these personality traits and disorders are hired into institutions that embrace a social mission, but it happens — a lot. Once empowered, they may bully, connive, and manipulate, sometimes while serving as the charismatic, smiling face of the organization.
4. Myth: There’s very little hierarchy in the non-profit sector, because everyone is in it together.
Reality: Oh, don’t get me started on this one.
Malcolm Warwick observed that many non-profits use “strictly hierarchical, command-and-control” management techniques. Check out a typically large, multi-layered non-profit organization, and you’ll see what I mean.
5. Myth: Non-profit board members really care about the organization’s employees.
Reality: Non-profit boards often are comprised of business executives, many of whom don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the well-being of rank-and-file workers.
To the degree that employee relations matters are brought to their attention, they usually will be filtered through the organization’s top management. Workers’ concerns are more likely to be regarded as a nuisance than as a priority.
6. Myth: Lawyers who represent non-profits take on a more humanistic approach to employment disputes.
Reality: Do not make that assumption, ever.
Many non-profits, especially larger and more prestigious ones, are represented by corporate law firms that specialize in advising management. Especially if a non-profit has a track record of treating its workers poorly, one can expect its lawyers to echo those values and practices.