Why Your Nonprofit’s Success is In Your People




Jonathan Becker is a consultant with Great Place to Work, which develops the annual FORTUNE 100 Best Companies to Work For® list. Jonathan worked in the nonprofit sector with Public Citizen, earned his MBA, and now works with for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations to build cultures that help them achieve their goals.

Nonprofits are inherently mission driven. No doubt you’re intimately familiar with your organization’s mission.

But all successful organizations and leaders need a second mission: to help your people (employees, board members, and volunteers) reach their full potential in contributing to your organization’s success.

Lessons from the Enemy

While working for Public Citizen, I saw our work as a fight: us against the nuclear power industry. I believe every nonprofit is committed to enriching people’s lives. In that respect, service, advocacy, policy, arts, and all nonprofits are similar.

When I left Public Citizen, rather than the typical path of law school, I went to business school. On hearing this, the head of the organization (who was an outstanding advocate) said, “Well, I guess it’s good to know the enemy.”

Indeed, I got to know “the enemy,” in business school and in my career since. What I’ve learned is that successful companies, even those with little or no sense of social purpose, care deeply about helping their people reach their full potential. Yes, some care because it’s the right thing to do. But many care because their success depends entirely upon their people.

So, I submit an essential role of a nonprofit leader: to help people reach their potential. But how?

The Five Culture Levers

For close to three decades, Great Place to Work has helped organizations develop strong cultures to maximize their human potential. From our work we’ve identified five key “culture levers.”

The first three have to do with how your people feel about the people they work for:

  • Credibility – keeping people informed, answering questions honestly, trusting in people, knowing where the organization is going and how to get there, and having basic integrity.
  • Respect – supporting people’s success, recognizing good work, listening to good ideas, helping people live balanced lives, and showing a sincere interest in people.
  • Fairness – paying people fairly, giving people equal opportunities for recognition, promoting people on merit, and treating people fairly.

The two other factors are:

  • Camaraderie – how people feel about the people they work with, how authentic people can be, how much they care about each other, how cooperative they are, and how fun the workplace is.
  • Pride – how people feel about the mission, contribution, and quality of the organization.

How do nonprofits score?

Many of the nonprofits we assess excel at camaraderie and pride but vary on credibility, respect, and fairness. These three culture levers tend to be the opportunity areas.

The simple notion that “energy follows attention” explains why. In my experience, most nonprofit leaders focus on external factors: mission, funders, populations they are serving, or positions they are advocating. Sometimes that translates to less attention given to employees.

In contrast, pride is almost a given for nonprofits: people come for the mission. Same for camaraderie – the people feel they are with “their people” – they have shared values, sense of purpose, and the commitment to succeed.

Credibility, respect, fairness – these areas deserve more attention. Not just from a moral perspective, but because strengthening them will help all organizations fulfill their mission.

Want to hear more? Join us at Mission Driven, our 2017 Human Capital Summit, to learn from Jonathan how you can develop a high-trust culture in your organization. Register today!

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