Treading Water: Finding Satisfaction in the Nonprofit Workplace
Did you ever have one of those days when you felt as if you were going nowhere? Where you were doing all you could to keep your head above water?
Well that’s nothing compared to how Shneur Zalman Friedman felt last night. Eight year old Friedman was rescued after six hours floating in the buoyant salt waters of the Dead Sea. Just after 1:00 am, rescue workers were contemplating calling off the search when they noticed Friedman floating two miles offshore.
Now that’s a bad day– or a really good one.
Speaking of treading water, I’ve just been reading a study about workplace satisfaction. Everybody knows that nonprofit environments are notorious for their employee turnover because of low pay and long hours.
Employers seem to think– or hope– that the mission of an organization is strong enough and meaningful enough to keep a worker afloat without money to pay the bills.
I myself have fallen into the trap of elevating the importance of my work in order to overcome the obstacles of the workplace environment. It’s an effective coping mechanism but a losing battle because while it serves as an artificial boost in the short term, it doesn’t solve the longer term problem of workplace dissatisfaction.
Solutions: Finding Satisfaction
But there are solutions. It is my opinion that those who have chosen to work in the nonprofit sector acknowledge the necessary trade off between personal financial profit and community gain. A nonprofit employee uses a different set of measurements than a worker in a business venture does to measure satisfaction.
While everyone wants their work to be meaningful and comfortable in their work environments, here are what I believe to be The Nonprofit Employee’s Top Five List of Must Haves:
- Workplace Culture: an environment where you are surrounded by those with common values and goals. An important cause and an energetic staff make all the difference. Because nonprofit employees spend so much time at work, a friendly workplace culture can serve as a substitute for an outside social life.
- Building Connections with Supervisors and Support Staff: close working relationships with supervisors and support staff is key in developing expertise both in the specific organizational area and in nonprofit management. Nonprofit workers often flow freely within the nonprofit marketplace, moving from different areas of practice in the nonprofit field. Many nonprofit workers seek to do good, and the specific way they go about this is less important than the larger goal. It would not be uncommon for a nonprofit worker to move from an organization that works to protect the environment to a job where s/he was helping find housing for homeless people. This lateral movement is buoyed by good relationships with other workers, creating an interdependency for job references, specific expertise, and professional development training.
- A Good Boss: leadership matters more in nonprofits because the management structure is often compacted and nonprofit employees work more closely with their boss than workers in other fields. Also, nonprofit workers are optimists at heart, so a good boss can take on the role of a visionary in the field. Everyone wants a guru.
- Opportunities for Mentoring and Critique: More than any other field, nonprofit employees are analytical. They want to do better and that includes their own personal growth. A good growing environment where an employee can see pragmatic gains in personal development will be viewed as a positive and compensating factor.
- Potential for Growth: Because there is so little job security in the nonprofit sector, a nonprofit employee needs to know that her work today will reap rewards tomorrow. The potential for strong recommendations, professional development, and anything that will elevate the employee in her current position are viewed as optimal gains.
So what’s the downside?
Positive factors must be consistently present and strongly reinforced on a regular basis to strengthen an employee’s motivation and staying power. Without these factors, a nonprofit employee knows that there are other opportunities out there and– being the optimist that she is– will let them lead her elsewhere.