Making the Case
Most organizers and other nonprofit staff understand that there are financial and political constraints on their labor conditions, and can put up with a lot as long as they have opportunities to share their perspectives, air their grievances, and influence decisions affecting their jobs.
“One of the biggest things that increased job satisfaction was more channels for feedback. Listening to those closest to the work is valuable, because their perspectives are gifts that lead to better solutions.”— Case Study Interview
“I’ve had jobs before where the campaign plan was handed to me and then I was just told to implement it. And I was like, I have a lot of ideas… it was just like ‘no, you just have to do what I say’. I like jobs where my leadership is trusted.”— Case Study Interview
Voting in a union is one route for staff to choose (see more on the unionization page). But in non-unionized nonprofit workplaces, it is common to have no system for employee voice. Not only does this lead to burnout and turnover, but it also means that the insights of organizers, as the people closest to the base, are lost from strategy discussions.
One organizer shared a recent experience where their knowledge, expertise and feedback were not valued and taken into account by their organization’s leadership in planning an event… “I’m like, I don’t want you to think I’m not doing my job, but… I knew that it wouldn’t be successful, but that wasn’t heard.”— Case Study Interview
“We have a staff committee that reviews all aspects of our organizational practice concerning issues of equity and transparency… Using interactive methods has proven to be extremely helpful in keeping lines of communication open and personal relationships healthy. When we had to lay off 25% of our staff in 2008 we did it in a transparent way that included every one’s voice and maintained positive relationships.”— Case Study Interview
“Our budgeting process is open to all leaders in the organization: staff, board and member leadership team.”— Case Study Interview
There are two major structural ways to create institutional channels for non-management input:
Many nonprofit staff are satisfied with the greater voice they gained from one or the other. However, for many nonprofits, neither of them may be feasible and/or desirable. Below are some methods for employee voice in non-unionized, management-led organizations.show less
Questions to consider to foster employee voice
- Do all staff and contractors have channels to be heard by decision-makers?
- If not, what channels could be created?
How to address employee voice in the workplace
Sustainable and aspirational solutions to problematic practices
Managers sometimes make major decisions having gotten zero input from affected staff; or managers have no alternative to seeking out informal input from employees one by one.
Every nonprofit needs built-in channels for communication from employees to decision-makers. In non-union workplaces, there are several ways to structure this:
- Non-management staff can elect representatives to slots on the board and/or management team;
- Regular confidential surveys by all staff on job satisfaction;
- 360 evaluations of managers by all supervisees and team members.
Strategic planning processes should include input from all ongoing staff and contractors, placing extra value on input from the organizers with the most contact with the constituency.
In management or board meetings, when a topic comes up that affects certain jobs, invite the relevant staff to join the discussion or give input before making decisions, as well as later at the implementation and evaluation stages.
Employee complaints and conflicts with management are ignored—or worse, retaliated against.
Establish a conflict mediation process, whistleblower protection, a staff ombudsperson and/or a grievance process in personnel policies, including conditions for outside mediation.
Normalize internal conflict not as failure, but as a critical opportunity to learn, lead and build trust. Welcome differences of perspective and principled debate over opinions and ideas (as long as there is no berating or harassment of individuals).
Use external, paid professional mediators when internal conflicts become too emotionally heated to resolve internally.
Consider outsourcing employee relations in general to a specialist (such as this one), a more affordable option than an HR position.