From The Great Resignation to the Great Awakening

Jan 10, 2022 | Features, Resources

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Vicki Pozzebon

The last 20 months have put us all on edge, lifted our awareness antennae, and shown us that different opportunities and ways of working are out there and crucial to finding an equitable path forward. While seeking new employment with another organization may be a solution to recovering from a toxic nonprofit culture, the wider problem here is that the problem doesn’t go away in the organization after you exit and it certainly can happen again in the one you move to. It’s a sector-wide problem that has proliferated into mainstream consciousness. Policies and behavior need to change. Not only from the board, the executive leadership to the staff and volunteers, but also from the community at large – the funders and supporters of this work.

Let’s Make the Great Resignation the Great Awakening

By now you’ve heard about the massive worker shortage and “The Great Resignation” that is currently sweeping across the country and in many sectors. People are making work moves like never before, and the nonprofit sector is not immune to this massive turnover. In fact, the nonprofit sector is experiencing both burnout of its employees and an influx of newcomers to the field.

In a recent study conducted between July 2 to 8, the Society for Human Resource Management found that over 40% of U.S. workers are actively searching for a new job.  Corporate and private sector workers are looking for more meaningful work that connects them to a greater good while nonprofit employees are burning out at rapid rates and looking for more stable, less demanding work, and higher paying salaries. The two are colliding in the nonprofit sector where a culture of burnout has existed for far too long.

In July, Prospera Partners hosted a workshop for anyone seeking or exploring what meaningful work might look like in this new pandemic landscape. What we heard was telling – people want better communication from their employers; they want to feel more connected to work that has an impact in their communities on social issues; they want to maintain the work/life balance they found through remote work in the pandemic. And, they want to feel valued for the work they do.

So with a clash happening in the nonprofit sector, what is the sector to do? We think it’s better to ask what are we as individuals to do?

What we need is deep systems change work and that starts within us all as individuals. In our work, we apply the “I, We, It“ transformational leadership framework to systems change. It asks individuals, (“I”) to examine themselves, their own needs, their own work, and what they need to move forward. It then asks how “we” as a group can make a difference, what we share in values, and in common, to move toward the goal; and it asks what we need to make that work happen. Then we focus on the work itself – the “it” – asking what is the work we are doing and what is the impact we intend to have in systems change. What we have found is that when an individual begins down this path of system change, working first on themselves and their levels of understanding, they will begin to see the system around them change.

What we have found working with this framework is a deepening of individual accountability and systems change impact. Too often we ask our employers to do the work of attraction and retention with higher wages, flexible work schedules, and good benefits. Yes, all of those things are important, but individuals also need to consider their own needs, desire for meaningful work in communities and what that really means for themselves. When, as individuals, we begin to consider our own impact and start to implement change, the systems around us begin to change. It may sound simple, but if we all begin to make these changes then perhaps we’ll begin to feel the system changing all around us, and the whole sector itself will begin to change.

Let’s start with individuals. If you are seeking meaningful nonprofit employment ask yourself some questions:

  • What impact do I want to have? Listing your values and thinking about how you want to align them with your work can be a helpful starting point.
    Why do I want to have this impact? Ask yourself if your passion for a social issue needs you and your efforts.
  • What do I want my work to look like? This is a great way to map out how to align your values with your skills. Maybe you are a board member and envision a diverse board that thrives long after your tenure.  Consider making room for a new generation of leaders who bring fresh perspectives and the equity lens.
  • What do I need to do my work effectively and for the most impact? Think about the infrastructure you need around you to feel good about your work and get it done effectively. For example, your answer could be, “I need an office with natural light to feel productive. I also need to be around people I can check in with for a quick five minutes of personal connection.”
  • How can I truly balance my work and personal life for a more meaningful, impactful engagement in my work? Perhaps during the pandemic you’ve reaped the rewards of working from home, taking dog walk breaks and you want to keep that momentum and productivity going.  List it here!

Take the time to sit with these answers and revisit them often. Consider the answers to be part of a personal career strategic plan. Just like a business or strategic plan that needs constant care and consideration, you can do the same with a personal career plan.

Everette W. Hill, MCMFCT, is the Principal & Managing Director of Social Innovation Strategies Group, a consultancy that focuses on organization and management development for the nonprofit and government sectors. Hill believes that, “right now, the most important thing for a nonprofit is to create intentional, accessible, safe and ongoing spaces for shared dialogue and decision-making about issues of equity, power, privilege and oppression. Verbal commitments to being and doing better have to be supported with meaningful investments in the organization’s programming, planning and policies. These are complex issues, so they should be met with comprehensive solutions and strategies.” This we do believe and support.

Creating the opportunities for employees to take personal stock in their own impact in the work alongside the organization’s examination of its mission, vision, and values is a powerful way to create new policies and behavioral changes.

In team meetings, consider allowing for conversation about the “we” aspect of the work together:

  • What do you need as a team to make impactful changes? Allow for the hard answers to come up when posing this question. Take space as needed.
  • What are your shared values? Where is the alignment among the team? How can that alignment be leveraged for the deepest impact?
  • What are our collective resources?

And now, let’s focus on the work:

  • What is the work you are doing? Literally, what is the line from you, in your individual role to the desired cumulative impact.
  • What  impact do you want to have? Often, nonprofits imagine the world that exists if their work is completed and their missions fulfilled. Instead, we are reminded that the work is never over. Think about the long term impact and all the ripples and connections that can be created from those connections.
  • What processes do you have that need to be changed to make the work most impactful? Examine internal policies, question project tasks, interrogate all your systems.
  • Are you having the impact you intended? Come back to this question often, revise and refresh as needed.

Foundations Are Nonprofits, Too

Funders, focusing on these questions, and providing “intentional, accessible, safe and ongoing spaces for shared dialogue and decision-making about issues of equity, power, privilege and oppression” as Mr. Hill suggests would be a powerful move to a more equitable system from the philanthropy side.  Grantors and funders have played a large role in creating the systems of oppression we have put up with for too long in the nonprofit sector.  Indeed, foundations have seen themselves as separate from the service-providing nonprofits, instead of as part of the entire sector.  Foundations, afterall, are nonprofits.

Dismantling the systems of oppression in the sector requires those with the privilege, power, and deep pockets to acknowledge their role in it and implementing ways to change it.  Recently, my company was involved in a conversation with a major national foundation in which a senior program officer literally said, “you’ll have to get through a number of gates but we’re excited to work with you.”  What this officer was saying was “I am a gatekeeper of millions of dollars and you need to do what I ask in order to access it.”  I’m sure this person doesn’t actually think of themselves as a gatekeeper but the system of the foundation itself has created this role for the program officers.  With a simple reflective process of applying “I, We, It” this officer might have been better equipped to answer, “we can’t wait to help fund your project, and I look forward to guiding this process with you. What can I do to make it as smooth as possible so that money is used in the way you need to spend it?” Some might say this is not how foundations work. And to them I would ask, “who decided that?” Who decided and made up the policies and procedures? Someone did. And someone with an equitable lens can undo them and remake them into more equitable ones.

It is the rare foundation that is working hard to spend down its portfolio as quickly as possible to have the most impact.  Most are stuck in the 5% rule, giving away just a small percentage of their wealth.  A major tidal wave shift toward spending down foundation and private wealth to support deep and long term systems change would be a game changer for the entire sector.

If we all begin to change our behaviors in the nonprofit culture with an equitable lens, we can indeed change the system itself.


Vicki Pozzebon is the owner and principal consultant of Prospera Partners, a consulting firm that designs local economy networks, systems change, and social enterprise developmental plans that put our communities first.

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