imageFor the past two decades now in the business world, giving more freedom and control to frontline workers has attracted champions as established as Toyota and as “insurgent” as Google or FastCompany. The core refrain of this chorus: The working edge of the organization is where innovation will be found. 

We haven’t seen an equivalent push to improve the working conditions for most workers in the nonprofit world. Instead, during the same period, the dominant theme in the nonprofit world seems to have been the lionization of the social entrepreneur, the romantic depiction of the creative, individualistic hero who, against considerable odds, creates a new solution. There are indeed many inspiring examples of such extraordinary social entrepreneurs. But who knows what possibly greater potential power is locked in the millions of other people working in the nonprofit sector? 

Recently I enjoyed the opportunity to speak with a dozen Coro Fellows in the Los Angeles program, mostly recent college graduates, as they prepared to be placed with nonprofit organizations (during their 10-month fellowships, Coro Fellows rotate through placements in private businesses, government agencies and nonprofits).  Meeting with them led me to wonder how working environments in the nonprofit sector might change in the future. 

Lacking a crystal ball, I can only hope that they see some developments like these:

  • Working for a nonprofit becomes the most attractive choice for highly skilled people also being sought by the private sector and government.

As challenging as replacing retiring Baby Boomers may be, the real challenge for the future of leadership in the nonprofit sector may be attracting bright people to enter the field, and then ensuring that for them, “nonprofit career” doesn’t become an oxymoron. In addition to making significant financial sacrifices, nonprofit employees also give up a good deal in terms of career development, work environment, and non-wage benefits. 

Outside of the “mega-nonprofits,” such as hospitals and universities, most nonprofits don’t offer and manage opportunities for employees to develop skills and leadership. Don’t get me wrong; there is more than enough room in many organizations for people with initiative to try new things and take on more responsibility. Often what looks like freedom in this sense is really neglect – in too many instances, these go-getters can’t expect to be promoted or receive significant pay increases. To move up in their field, most nonprofit professionals will admit that they had to leave one organization for another. Providing other benefits and incentives to those who enter and remain in the field is critical. I’ve always wondered whether a nonprofit professional employees organization (PEO) that provided services along the lines Peter Drucker has described, might do much to solve this problem. In the best instance, PEOs can offer professionals more paths to advancement within their fields, and in so doing, also strengthen the field. The growth of PEOs has been a major trend in the business world, but it doesn’t seem to have taken in the nonprofit world; so far.

More importantly, from the point of view of consumers of nonprofit services, the issue isn’t whether nonprofit employees are paid fairly, but whether nonprofits can attract people with the right qualities. To illustrate this challenge, a nonprofit CEO in a focus group described how he started at his organization some 30 years ago earning $8.80 per hour, with a master’s in social work, and now finds his organization can only pay $9.50 per hour to someone with a GED for similar work. 

  • Nonprofit workers have tools and resources on par with well managed business and government ventures.

People drawn from the private sector to the meaningful work nonprofits offer often experience a painful collision between their heightened passion for the work and the much lower level of on-the-job support. As Paul Light has observed, nonprofit employees are members of “a first-class workforce often imprisoned in second-class organizations that operate with fourth-class technology and support.”  Building a better support infrastructure is one key step nonprofits could take to compete for people.

Ask any nonprofit CEO and she could probably rattle off at least a handful of deferred critical investments – from improving technology systems to hiring additional support staff or providing training and professional development opportunities. Grant restrictions and indirect cost caps, whatever their virtues, certainly discourage nonprofits from investing in their infrastructure. What if foundations or even government funders offered bonuses to nonprofits for improving their administrative systems? (Let’s see some “prize philanthropy” in this arena.) Likewise, what if more nonprofit board members balanced their all too common biases for cost cutting with a heightened commitment to building their organizations’ infrastructures?

  • A combination of true loan forgiveness and fellowship programs provide powerful incentives for the best future leaders to choose a nonprofit career.

Imagine if the government forgave student loans in exchange for an ROTC-style public service commitment, or lifted the cap on deductibility of interest paid on student loans for nonprofit employees. Far more feasible, private donors could develop fellowships for new graduates with advanced degrees or for more experienced people seeking to move into nonprofit work. One model is the Skadden Fellowship for public interest law, sponsored by one of the nation’s largest private law firms.

I could go on, but will stop here. What other steps might we take to try to make it more likely that nonprofits can attract the best people, and provide a rewarding, supportive environment for their workers?

imagePeter Manzo is the director of strategic initiatives for the Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy organization, and a senior research fellow with the Center for Civil Society in the UCLA School of Public Affairs. Previously, he was the executive director and general counsel of the Center for Nonprofit Management.