Nonprofit Employees: When Passion for the Mission isn’t Enough

I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot lately, especially working on my book about nonprofit employee and volunteer engagement. Despite their well-intentioned commitment, sometimes staff members (and volunteers) get frustrated with a nonprofit organization and reach the point where passion for the mission and meaningful connection are no longer enough to convince them to stay. In other words, once engaged doesn’t mean always engaged.

Why People Become Disengaged

People don’t stay committed to an organization when they:

1. Feel overwhelmed with too many or conflicting management directives

2. Don’t understand what the organization is all about and what is expected of them

3. Are afraid that their work isn’t valued

4. Don’t see how the various parts of the organization connect in the “big picture”

5. Don’t share a sense of ownership in the organization, including being involved in solving problems and offering ideas. [Source: The Art of Engagement]

High turnover and low morale are signs of a disconnected, disengaged workplace run by complacent management or the clueless-in-charge. And the damage isn’t confined to the internal organization – customers, donors, volunteers and other external stakeholders are aware of, and possibly affected by, employees who disengage at work.

Can you hear me now?

A nonprofit professional and her colleagues were increasingly frustrated, discouraged, and disheartened about their work situation which they described as “toxic.” Managers issued frequent conflicting directives and set unrealistic expectations while providing little guidance and insufficient resources to enable staff members to achieve their goals. Management also paid scant attention to staff concerns until a consultant was hired to address the issue of high turnover. At the consultant’s recommendation, management set up a “suggestion box” system to solicit employee feedback and ideas. More than 135 suggestions were turned in the first week, and there were only 30 employees on staff!

If you’re thinking about a “quick fix,” think again

Disengagement and burnout don’t suddenly happen. Most people start off engaged and excited about their work; the erosion occurs gradually based on one or more of the reasons mentioned above. According to Dr. Judith M. Bardwick: “When people are perceived as a cost and not a resource, when they are treated as a liability and not an asset, when no one seems to know or care that they are there, they don’t work well, and they don’t stay.”


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