Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Nonprofits, mission and employee morale

Posted in HR and personnel, nonprofits by Timothy Platt on February 13, 2010

The nonprofit organization offers a complex and often rewarding work experience to its employees as they contribute to fulfilling its mission. The nonprofit workplace also offers significant challenges and in forms that can limit or erode employee morale and limit organizational capacity and effectiveness. I intend to outline some of underlying factors and causes that can damage morale in this posting and will offer some suggestions as to how to forestall them where possible and limit or remediate problems where necessary.

As with most of my postings in this series on nonprofits I begin with the basics. In this case that means repeating a very basic observation about nonprofits as organizations:

• Effective nonprofit organizations are organized and run so as to direct as large a percentage of their gross revenue as possible towards mission.

Several consequences immediately fall out of this that connect directly with the topic at hand in this posting.

• Payroll tends to be among the largest operating expenses that would compete with mission for funds coming in.
• This puts a limit on headcount to keep these expenses to a minimum.
• This can also place limits and restrictions on both base salary and benefits, and on annual salary increases.
• This can also increase the range of responsibilities and tasks that any given employee will be responsible for as the same complex and changing range of tasks and responsibilities still has to be effectively covered.
• These fiscal constraints can and do limit opportunity for advancement too, at least within the organization as fewer positions on the table of organization limit opportunities for vacancies.

Together these points could paint a fairly gloomy picture as far as long term employee morale potential is concerned, but to put this into perspective it also has to be noted that employees in general, and in both nonprofit and for profit organizations do not primarily gain job satisfaction from salary. Much of job satisfaction comes from doing the job and making a positive difference for others you work with and for clients the organization serves.

This means jobs that offer a wide ranging, rich set of responsibilities and duties can be a real positive. This makes the positive and uplifting nature of the nonprofit mission an important and supportive factor in creating and sustaining good employee morale. This also makes effective management and supervision a crucially important factor and both in employee morale and in retention of key personnel. Good managers have to first and foremost be able to effectively work with people to make this work and they need strong, positive communications and interpersonal skills for that.

Think of this as the mission applying both directions:

• Supportive and caring for an outside community that is directly impacted upon by the issues the mission seeks to address.
• Supportive and caring towards the employees in that nonprofit organization as they individually and collectively seek to meet the goals of that mission.

This means managers and supervisors have to keep an eye on both the metrics and priorities of their assigned tasks, and on the people who work with them to achieve those business objectives. That means stepping in when there is an appearance of friction or dissatisfaction to identify causes and to help resolve them. That, I add requires training and support from Human Resources and I cite my posting series on HR and Personnel in this context. I will simply add here that sometimes issues come up that a line manager or supervisor can and should handle and sometimes issues come up that require expert third party intervention and involvement. Managers need guidelines to help them determine which is which, and where to go for help in resolving problems where help is needed. They need good, experienced managers they report to who they can turn to if needed and they and their managers need an actively involved HR department to make this work.

To pick up on the role of more senior managers in this context, managers who report to them should be performance reviewed at least in part on their interpersonal and communications skills as they are validated by their teams’ performance and morale. Senior managers have to, among other things, keep an eye out for empire building behavior and for behavior on the part of managers who report to them that would suggest they are advancing their careers at the expense of their teams.

Good morale is contagious and it spreads as a righteous cycle and bad morale is contagious too and as a spreading source of friction and discord. Good morale can be achieved and maintained, and problems that could lead to its breakdown can be identified and positively addressed but this takes an ongoing awareness of staff and staff morale and in what leads and guides it.

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