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Are non-profits socially responsible by default? Or should society demand more?

There’s a concept I want to socialize. It’s called Non-profit Social Responsibility. It isn’t a term I coined, nor is it widely used or accepted. But It’s a concept non-profit leaders must strive to create shared vision around.

I’d venture to say most people believe non-profit organizations are socially responsible by default (because of their mission), but they’d be mistaken. Yes, most non-profit organizations are missioned for social good, however, there’s room for improving internal practices, processes and operations that focus on employee wellness, diversity and inclusion and sustainability. Just like for-profit companies and government agencies, non-profit organizations have a responsibility to be good beyond their mission. And while these demands are levied on for-profit companies and governments, society must demand the same from non-profit organizations. Non-profits have a greater responsibility beyond the population and communities they serve. They have a responsibility to deliver their services at minimal or no cost to the system in which they exist. This is easier said than done, but should be a Big Hairy Audacious Goal of employees (including leadership) at non-profit organizations everywhere.

Over the years I’ve had an opportunity to serve organizations in various capacities, from providing board level services, serving on advisory committees, as non-profit staff, and now as a corporate volunteer. As I’ve progressed through the types of services I’ve gifted these organizations I’ve had time to reflect. I’ve concluded that regardless of how much time I’ve served, I believe there’s more to do. Beyond establishing policy, generating external support or providing direct service to these organizations, I’m a firm believer that more can always be done. I also believe that non-profit organizations have an obligation to leave things better than the way they found them.

While positions in non-profit governance often come with some influence and clout to create this change, it still requires more than just a push from the top. What I’m talking about is the fundamental change in how non-profit organizations operate. It’s not lost on me that this will take a societal culture shift. Whether this involves non-profit executives, members of the board of directors, or non-profit generalists, it’ll require the actions of many over generations. But change starts now.

Facade of the virtuous non-profit.

This sounds harsh, but non-profit organizations should be more transparent about their own faults, shortcomings and what they need in order to clean their own backyard. Let’s be real, the non-profit sector is a big enough part of most western nations workforce, so much in fact that it’s sometimes called the “third sector,” and “voluntary sector”. In the United States it’s approximately 5% of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), that’s nearly $1 trillion dollars. Indifferent from their for-profit and government counterparts, however, non-profits also have problems centered around talent gaps, diversity and inclusion, employee turnover rates, unequal compensation and unethical labor practices. That’s not me throwing shade, that’s just reality.

But I don’t know what’s worse, when a non-profit ignores this and claims it’s in the name of mission success or when they instead place blame on donors and volunteers for not giving enough time and money. Let me be clear, serving society at large is not a valid reason to continue practices that aren’t sustainable. Those very practices often undermine the work they’re aiming to achieve.

Leading by example.

It’s time bad-practiced non-profits be held accountable, to clean house before they continue to demand the same from society. After all, they’re a part of that same society.

This is a huge undertaking, but together society needs to work for progress, not perfection. Not only will this take action, but it will also take a shift in thinking. For those working in the non-profit sector (even for those who aren’t a part of the problem), I have some ideas I’d like to share. Think about making these adjustments to how challenges are approached.

  • When what’s planned doesn’t pan out, seek reasons not excuses. Reasons are explanations or justifications for actions taken based on circumstances identified through a process of logic. Excuses are explanations put forth to defend a fault or offense. Conflating the two is a mistake, non-profit staff will need to work to differentiate between them. Doing so will help map out a path to actions needed to create the necessary change. Let’s take soliciting funds as an example. If the responsible staff fails to secure a specific program grant; an excuse would be to say the donor didn’t care to fund the program. The reason may be that the program impact wasn’t sufficiently communicated to gain buy-in during the pitch. By identifying the reason, it’ll be easier to identify the root cause in order to fix whatever problem exists. Excuses only hold us back from doing that.

  • Stop being a martyr. Yes, I said it. Martyr syndrome (or martyr complex) is a real problem in the non-profit sector. Perhaps It can be attributed to much of the burnout non-profit professionals and volunteers experience. Non-profit workers must work to unapologetically set boundaries between their personal and professional lives. If this is too difficult for folks to do by themselves, I suggest they find an accountability partner. I always say that you can’t take care of the mission if you can’t take care of yourself. Not feeling guilty and setting boundaries will help provide the mental and emotional walls allowing staff and volunteers to protect what’s theirs, adding to higher energy levels. This isn’t selfish, it’s self-care. It’s up to those who hold positions of influence within their organizations to create self-care plans for the organizations staff.

  • Take a moral inventory. Non-profit staff will have to ask of themselves, does my behavior reflect what I want to see from others? They’ll need to dig deep and answer this honestly, if the answer is no, than it’s time to do some soul searching. Honesty is sometimes tough to grapple with, but it’s the first step in making a change. By reflecting introspectively one will be able to take stock of the good features of the current practices while identifying the ones that aren’t so glamorous. At the very least, identifying the troublesome behaviors equips those carrying out these actions to make a change. Now, whether they make that change when confronted with it is up to them. But having folks in their corner to help encourage that change is extremely important.

I personally don’t continue my work with non-profits out of guilt, or because I like to grovel and make excuses as a victim. I continue supporting non-profits because I know the extraordinary change (with these organizations) that I can continue to make beyond my military service. In the military I wasn’t allowed groveling or making excuses, so I’ve taken that warrior mentality and reapplied it to a different profession.

So while this is on non-profit organizations to carry out, society plays an important role in not enabling the bad behavior. Rather, society should be a force for accountability and encouraging the change in behavior. This is the time for action.

Stop allowing dirt to be swept under the rug.

So where does change start? It all starts with visioning, a core function of leadership (regardless of sector or industry), and leadership doesn’t have to start from the top (although that’s important). This leadership should transcend the borders of the non-profit organization, touching others in the broader network. This includes donors, volunteers and the public at large. Why? Because this is where the external support to make internal changes will come from.

Without outside support of donated money, in-kind gifts and time, those seeking change will have a harder time making strides to clean up their backyard. This mean foundations, corporations and government grant makers being willing to fund costs associated with making this change. Does this mean funders will have to be okay funding administrative or “overhead” costs? Yes, most certainly. While that’s a necessary change, the funding of administrative and overhead costs is an entirely different discussion altogether.

Now, it’s not lost on me this post will draw sharp criticism, and that’s okay, I think it’s time to have the debate about non-profit social responsibility. If you work for a non-profit and are already incorporating some practices internally around sustainability, diversity and inclusion and employee wellness (separate from your mission), please share your practices. If this idea of non-profit social responsibility resonates with you, share your thoughts. Or if you vehemently disagree on the concept, shoot me an email or leave me a comment, I’d love to hear why, I may just learn something new.

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