• July 25, 2014

Nonprofits Will Lose Workers to Business Unless They Feel a Sense of Purpose

Hurst Exit Sign

Like many nonprofits, my organization is overwhelmed by lawyers, doctors, marketing chiefs, and other business professionals seeking opportunities to volunteer. They email and call every day to offer to help. In some cases, they want to work full-time.

A similar deluge of interest came when I was running the Taproot Foundation, an organization that links professionals with nonprofits in need of their expertise and skills as volunteers. But the shocking thing is that my new organization, Imperative, is for-profit. People are calling me because they want to volunteer for a company.

Think about that for a second: Why would professionals want to donate their time to help me make money?

The answers to what motivates this behavior is important for nonprofits to understand if they expect to continue to attract the most talented employees and volunteers in America—and ensure that these workers are doing their best every day to serve the common good.

We are in the midst of a major shift in our economy—brought about in part by the millennials—in which everyone wants to find purpose in their professional lives. And no longer do people see nonprofit work or government service as the way to fulfill their desire to help others.

Researchers have found that the best ways to ensure that employees feel a sense of purpose boils down to three simple things: They need to have opportunities to grow; to build relationships with employees and others involved in the work; and to create something greater than themselves.

Start-up companies and nonprofits alike offer this kind of engagement for workers.

When Wendy Kopp founded Teach for America, she said she wanted to “suspend the laws of the universe.” She didn’t start small, either. As a senior at Princeton, she decided she needed to create a national teaching corps and set out to raise $2.5-million.

She had a huge idea, and it needed huge resources. It was this audacity that earned her meetings with executives from AT&T, IBM, MetLife, Xerox, and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Ms. Kopp faced plenty of challenges along the way, but the size of her vision propelled her past them and rallied people and resources to build the organization she knew was needed to achieve her vision.

Sadly, that motivating vision and purpose aren’t always in high supply at long-established nonprofits.

When the Taproot Foundation opened an office in Washington, we were surprised to find many employees of large nonprofits like the American Red Cross applying to do pro bono work for us. We had expected to hear mostly from people in business, government, law offices, and elsewhere—people whose everyday work life might be missing an essential feeling of purpose.

But all of us who have worked at nonprofits know what happens after an organization has been operating for a long time. That sense of purpose that comes from inventing and innovating every day at a start-up nonprofit or company isn’t something that older nonprofits offer.

For instance, people who work in accounting or development at a large nonprofit may not get sufficient opportunities to feel like their day-to-day work is part of a bigger movement. Or they may not have sufficient opportunities to grow professionally and build bonds with a diverse range of people. That’s what causes them to burn out and quit nonprofit work.

Elaine Mason is a great example of what can happen when a nonprofit doesn’t offer enough of a sense of purpose to employees. She is now the vice president for organizational development at American Express but started her career at Planned Parenthood.

She didn’t leave because she was paid less at a nonprofit than she would be in business. Instead, Ms. Mason, and many other people I have met over the years, found that working at an organization whose cause she cared about made her frustration with her day-to-day work worse. She felt she had little ability to influence family-planning policy and women’s health. That made her feel like her talents were being squandered.

It’s not just people who start in the nonprofit world who feel this way.

People who leave the business world to start work at nonprofits often experience frustrations similar to those of Ms. Mason.

They expect to be bathed in purpose every day but come to find their day-to-day activities very similar to those of the corporate career they escaped.

In the corporate world, some leaders realize they need to think about purpose and work hard to keep employees engaged. They don’t have the illusion that their mission provides adequate purpose, so they invest in ways to give workers that sense of purpose.

But nonprofits are often in denial that they, too, need to focus more on purpose and less on passion for the cause.

After working with hundreds of organizations over the past decade, I have found that the ways to instill purpose boil down to three mantras:

Continue to fight Goliaths. Supersizing the ambitions for a project or organization is a powerful draw; it pulls in employees to join your efforts and propels them forward with you as a team. Dreams for how your work will change lives also act as a purpose fountain for employees. It is much easier to generate purpose around an audacious idea than a modest one.

Too often, older and more mature organizations stop supersizing their ambitions and focus more on being reliable and predictable. There is a place for this conservative approach, but it is generally at odds with meeting the need for employees to gain purpose.

Figure out what drives employees. Advances in psychology are helping us all understand the science behind what motivates people.

Find new tools than can help employees understand what makes their work meaningful to them. Then use the findings to help managers arrange assignments and tasks to maximize the activities that allow workers to grow and do what matters to them.

Train managers and human-resource executives to be community organizers. Community organizing is the art of motivating and leading people to decide for themselves what to do. It is leadership in its purest form. Or, as the Harvard scholar Marshall Ganz more eloquently defines it, community organizing is “the act of accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve purpose in the face of uncertainty.”

Nonprofits often have experience with community organizing, but too often it is used only in their advocacy work and not back at the office. To maximize purpose for employees, nonprofit leaders should replace traditional rules of management and human resources with the practices of community organizing.

Perhaps just as important as these steps would be to stop calling our organizations nonprofits and emphasizing the financial part of our work.

Let’s declare what charitable institutions truly are: purpose organizations. And then let’s make living up to this name a priority so that organizations that serve the common good avoid becoming talent wastelands.

Aaron Hurst, chief executive of Imperative and founder of the Taproot Foundation, is author of “The Purpose Economy: How Your Desire for Impact, Personal Growth and Community Is Changing the World,” a book published last week by Elevate.

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