Justice Begins within the Social Entrepreneur Organization

Social change organizations should focus on creating a just organizational culture for themselves before bringing about global justice.

Before social change organizations can really change the world, many of them will first need to change themselves. We need to invest the effort in creating just organizations that respect and cultivate talent.

Too often social entrepreneur organizations adopt a hero culture, where we take advantage of each other in pursuit of our great cause. I work equally with corporate and nonprofit organizations, and I’ve been stunned by the fact that nonprofit cultures are usually more toxic and unjust than my for-profit clients.

During strategic planning with these nonprofits, I’ll ask, “What’s the biggest barrier to your success?” More times than not they respond, “Our organization.”

The unspoken, but very clear social entrepreneur narrative goes like this: “Because we are good and our mission is noble, I can ask you to work long hours, pay you badly, and ask you to sacrifice more for the cause. So suck it up.”

Through these actions the nonprofit sector is saying is: “We need to be unjust to bring more justice into the world.”

Many young people who are growing out of their post college years at a nonprofit aren’t just disappointed at their experience with social change—they’re bitter. It’s no wonder that more and more of them are telling me they’d prefer to find for-profit social entrepreneur companies than to pursue work at nonprofits.

While more and more social sector organizations are using professional coaches to develop their talent, few invest in the hard work to develop a just organizational culture. But until they invest in developing talent in conjunction with improving the organization, the results will be disappointing.

Social entrepreneurs, who pride themselves on their reputation of being champions for justice, have a difficult time admitting that their own organization is unjust. And it’s rarely in anyone’s interest to call them on it.

But there are nonthreatening ways to do this. The Leadership Circle recently developed an amazing assessment tool. Its Leadership Circle Cultural Survey offers an “MRI of leadership culture,” and I would argue that it is one of the best tools to gauge the health of an organization. Though it is primarily corporations that use it, it can provide a powerful tool for the social entrepreneur sector as well. Basically, it graphs where the organization’s leadership thinks the organization’s culture is, compared to where employees and board members think it is. The gap presents a nonjudgmental starting point for an organizational strategy plan.

It’s next to impossible to make the world a more just place while your own world or organization is unjust. All true world-changing organizations must have a written strategic plan that supports both personal leadership development and improvement to the organization’s leadership culture.

The social entrepreneur sector must better itself before it can better the world.

Read more stories by Rich Tafel.

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  • BY Elizabeth Kronoff at Insaan

    ON November 2, 2011 10:52 AM

    You’ve called out the elephant in the room. I think one reason this can happen is that it requires a specific type of leader to take people through those necessarily hard days in the beginning. Most non-profits do not have angel investors; they cannot recruit based on salary alone because they cannot justify bonuses to staff over extra benefits to the end-users; nor can they promise future wealth. Instead, they have to capitalize on their vision for a better future.

    Combine this with your typical non-profit worker: someone who values self-sacrifice, who is motivated by a vision of a just world, and who probably has a heavy dose of first-world guilt thrown in there.

    These together make it very hard to escape the “leadership” tactics you describe.

    After all, there aren’t enough salaries. There isn’t enough money to pay bonuses. There is always one more person knocking on the door needing help. I think it takes quite a bit of management genius to balance huge over-demand for services, under-supply of inputs, and a workforce that is overstocked with passionate workaholics.

    Your prescription is fair, but I think we would all benefit from hearing more about *how* to make this happen in the non-profit and social entrepreneurship sphere.

    (I would offer our own CEO, who is great, but she’s busy creating this balance herself.)

  • BY Sushil kumar porwal

    ON November 3, 2011 05:55 AM

    Glad to see ur highTech solution info @ Social innoVation Review. Change urself before Change the world > we need to invest in right effort > This is not one sitting TechSolution. I’m intrested due to my daughter in Law Shivani Siroya. I’m Looking for my younger Daughter also. Please keep me update >....

  • BY Sushil kumar porwal

    ON November 3, 2011 05:58 AM

    Glad to see ur highTech solution info @ Social innoVation Review. Change urself before Change the world > we need to invest in right effort > This is not one sitting TechSolution. I’m intrested due to my daughter in Law Shivani Siroya. I’m Looking for my younger Daughter also. Please keep me update >....

  • Talk about timely. You hit that one on the nose Rich.

    Entirely backed up by the facts and really pushes forward the conversation with a solution. Non-profit managers have this problem staring them in the face, but don’t seem to have responded (or have learned the value of saying “Thank you”….Seriously, this is the non-profit world. If we can’t create positive working environments, how are we going to change the world for the better?)

    From the Chronicle of Philanthropy:

    While respondents were concerned about low pay, the major factor that lowered moral was leadership and recognition. In all,“60 percent of workers in Washington and 65 percent in New York said hard work was not valued at their organization”

    Nonprofit Employers Don’t Meet Workers’ Needs for Job Satisfaction, Surveys Find

  • BY Kevin Ivers, Center Strategies LLC

    ON November 4, 2011 11:45 AM

    Very true, Rich.  I would go a step further in defining the ‘justice’ argument a bit by bluntly saying that there are several U.S. nonprofits out there which were founded by a central figure—usually its long-term CEO—who cultivates an institutional culture (permeating up to the Board of Directors) of valuing his/her work the most (reflected also in pay and length of service) and balancing the budget entirely around that.  Often, the gap between the self-sustaining CEO and the rest of the staff is as wide as the wealth gap in a poor, developing country.  Very ironic.

  • BY Ian Curtin, Project Director of the Inner Activist

    ON November 4, 2011 01:26 PM

    No matter what social change agent community you’re in, saying no is frowned upon. No one ever tells you “you can’t do it”. (Well, maybe sometimes,) but we all know the “only” way to prove our dedication to a cause is to stand outside in the cold with a placard chanting, or go to a meeting, or several meetings or go to some conference or fundraiser, because if we don’t our dedication becomes suspect.

    As social change agents, we need to:

    Stop treating activism like it’s an unending crisis that only we can fix.

    Trust each other to do the work and live our politics in our own ways, which fit the amount of resources (time and money) we have instead of expecting each other to bend over backwards to go to every vigil and meeting. Otherwise how will we ever be effective at creating change in the world?

    Support each other in creating a social change culture where we actually live balanced lives. We need to set boundaries and stick to them - instead of just talking about it.

    At the Inner Activist we offer programs designed to create a new type of change agent. Leading from the inside out. Check out our programs and our blog, particularly the sustainability section.

  • Karin Goldmark, KGCE Consulting Enterprises's avatar

    BY Karin Goldmark, KGCE Consulting Enterprises

    ON November 11, 2011 08:27 PM

    Oh, the irony of the organization that has the “Be the change you wish to see in the world” Gandhi quote on the wall, while the employees grumble and the leaders look away.  While there are notable exceptions to the pattern you describe, far too many non-profits falter on the basics.  I also think nonprofits have a higher set of expectations from employees, who are specifically looking do work they feel passionate about.  So if that passion isn’t carefully managed it can easily become disappointment.  People don’t expect amazing things from their time as a checkout clerk at CVS, but they do expect amazing things from their work at non-profits.  This is fair enough, and often nonprofits don’t attend to what the implications are for managing in a passion-driven environment.

  • BY Chris Decker

    ON November 11, 2011 08:32 PM

    Rich - I can agree that our non profit is much less disciplined and chaotic than our for profit company…your comments on making a better working foundation for our service members on Veterans Day is appreceated.  We find there are WAY more volunteers on Wall Street than folks willing to volunteer their time to help injured and critically wounded service members which is an indication of something about social change in our nation ...

  • BY Jim Kolbe, German Marshall Fund of the U.S.

    ON November 12, 2011 07:13 AM

    Rich Tafel’s short piece is spot on.  Social enterprises—not for profit groups—are often their own worst enemy, While their heart is in the right place and they fully intend to do he right thing to bring changes to society, they often get caught up in the same organizational and personnel struggles that conflict every group—profit or not for profit.  Before launching a major campaign, these organizations would do well to examine their own internal structures to identify what barriers or structures might prevent them from succeeding, or being as successful as they would like.  A review of this should be done periodically and is best led by someone from the outside to be sure real problems are brought to the surface and not being glossed over.

  • BY W. Hunter Roberts

    ON November 12, 2011 10:07 AM

    twas ever thus. Low pay, overwork expectations, and toxic corporate culture also figure into the difficulty non-profits have in recruiting top talent above the age of 30.

  • Joy Barnitz's avatar

    BY Joy Barnitz

    ON November 12, 2011 05:59 PM

    Rich’s point is well made. For-profit and Non-profit organizations face similar challenges. Of course: they are composed of people. In Snoopy’s famous phrase: I love mankind it’s people I can’t stand.  What are the stories we tell of these encounters?  Is there a positive way to phrase the same message? Is the condition transient?  Let’s think how to tell the story in ways that provides a vision of a ‘safe path’ to a changed future.  As Ira Chaleff put it: Great leaders need great followers.  Many of the traits for leadership are the same as those for ‘great followership’: courage to support, courage to participate in transformation and courage to challenge.  And, finally, the moral courage to withdraw with honor so the organization’s good is not harmed by your leaving.

  • BY Richard Tafel, Public Squared

    ON November 13, 2011 06:45 AM

    Thanks for the feedback:
    Elizabeth: Great point, maybe I can write a future piece with some more of the strategies. It’s clear this topic hit a nerve. Maybe interview your CEO?

    Cmiller: Thanks I hadn’t seen that piece until you brought it to my attention.

    Kevin: Great point. Focusing so much attention on the world changing CEO sends a false message that it is his brilliance that changes the world, leaving staff in the cold. Hero leaders lead to hero cultures.

    Ian: Wonderful insights and we need to make it easier especially for younger staffers to say “no.” I checked out your site and you clearly have some great strategies.

    Karen: Agreed! Not only do we expect a lot of staff, but the staffers have an almost romantic relationship to the organization so that when they break up feelings run high.

    Chris: Peter Drucker observed that running a for profit was easier than a nonprofit because of the challenge of motivation and leading volunteers as you described. Thank and thanks for your work with veterans.

    Jim: Appreciate your insights. I know you worked with thousands of NGO’s around the world. I like your suggestion of periodic updates.

    Hunter: I can see what you mean by saying it was always this way. I know you’ve worked in the faith based world. My sense is that this is even more challenging than the nonprofit world.

    Joy: I think you are dead on the leadership in this sector and throughout the world must change. Like Kevin’s post, we need to move away from the one great hero leader and instead look for leaders who can facilitate and give credit to the group.

    I appreciate everyone taking time to comment.


  • Jay Adams-Feuer, retired's avatar

    BY Jay Adams-Feuer, retired

    ON November 14, 2011 12:29 AM

    The truth is, Rich, that somehow I have found as a volunteer for animal welfare groups, that not only is the pay lousy, the bitterness of the people involved somehow also involved inappropriate behavior and the sort of insubordination that would not be tolerated by even the most progressive corporations. If you can’t take care of yourself, whom cna you take care of?

  • BY Rich Tafel, Public Squared

    ON November 15, 2011 06:23 AM

    Ha! It doesn’t get any worse than taking care of abandoned kittens and being treated badly. This must change. Thanks for chiming in.

  • BY Carole Lévy

    ON November 30, 2011 11:13 AM

    Hi Rich, thanks for this clear post and your general assessment. It actually triggered some thoughts for me that I’d like to share with you. I’m an executive coach and my own experience with Non Profit/Foundation leaders, is that below the narrative “we are good, our mission is noble, sacrifice more for the cause…” there is often an tension between a genuine desire to give everything to the people they serve and a fear of being perceived as selfish or self serving if they invest energy and/or money in the internal needs of the organization (well being of people, time balance, career development, personal growth etc). It’s basically a fear of the ego of being perceived as unfair or unjust. So to complete your statement, in order to bring more justice, we create an unjust internal culture, but it’s by fear of appearing unjust… Unfortunately, I see more and more non profits or philanthropic leaders being burnt out and demotivated. Fortunately, it helps to bring more awareness to the fact that, in order to give back to others from a resourceful and creative place, they need to create a sustainable culture in their own organization. I hope we can respectively support this shift of paradigm.

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