As any seasoned employee of a nonprofit knows, doing good can be hard work. Because nonprofits are, by their nature, not profitable, many good causes operate on shoestring budgets and are criminally understaffed. Unlike a for-profit business, which has no problem hiring new people before an expansion or when sales are up, charitable organizations need to weigh each new team member against the always-scarce pool of donations and grants. This austerity often creates situations where nonprofit staffers are prone to overwork, stress and declining morale. Sometimes it seems that the only thing that can keep the team together is the shared sense of purpose that only working for a nonprofit and doing some good in the world brings.
What’s Hurting Morale at Your Nonprofit?
Nonprofit staff burnout happens for many reasons, but they’re all so closely linked that they can be addressed together. The tight budget at the heart of a nonprofit director’s worst migraines create a lot of challenges downstream, as the nonprofit entity struggles to get its work done and keep the lights on in the office. Payroll, in particular, is a common whipping boy for budget crunches. When funding sources dry up or become unreliable, the inevitable hiring freeze and natural attrition leave most nonprofits short staffed and pushing workers to do a job and a half, which is probably the leading cause of workplace grumbling and, eventually, burnout. Long hours are a part of this, especially when salaried employees are asked to work evenings and weekends without overtime pay.
That pay probably wasn’t that great to begin with. Canada’s Sector Council Program, which oversees the HR Council for the Nonprofit Sector, released a 2013 report that found regular staff wages at small charities hovered around $41,000, a figure that includes non-salary benefits. A full 64 percent of employees at the nonprofits the study looked at earned less than $40,000. In this atmosphere of general need, it isn’t surprising that morale often drops as low as it does.
What You Can Do About This
If you ask most of the people earning less than $40,000 a year for 50-hour weeks and no overtime what would lift their morale, most would say higher pay and more staff. If you asked most nonprofit directors the same question, they might give the same answer, but for reasons stated above, that usually isn’t possible. That makes finding a non-cash approach to lifting morale much more important for a nonprofit than it is for a profit-driven enterprise.
One approach is to refocus your team on the nonprofit’s mission in the world. Most charitable organizations directly work to make human lives better, whether it’s through direct aid to the needy, education for those who need it or wildlife preservation for future generations. Unlike employees at novelty hand buzzer factories, nonprofit workers can often see the improvement they’re making in the world. Little things like putting up pictures of the people you help or the animals you’re working to save can be daily reminders that your staff’s work, though long and underpaid, is really important.
Another approach to low morale and early burnout is to cultivate a team spirit among employees. It’s a lot easier to encourage a “we’re all in this together” attitude at a charity for the blind, for example, than at a large bank, and this mentality can be a powerful hedge against burnout. Foster the team mentality among your staff by pulling them together and letting everybody argue over pizza toppings during one of your long evenings together. Get on the PA and announce a spontaneous Frisbee game in the parking lot with humorously dire threats to employees who don’t drop what they’re doing and join in. The sky’s the limit here, and — if you do it right — that’s also the limit to where your nonprofit workers’ morale can reach.