6 Unique Challenges Nonprofits Face That Prevent Equitable Workplaces
Occasionally I will watch a home-buying show while paying my bills, and every once in a while a prospective buyer will stop in bewilderment and ask “What is that doing there?” They are responding to some incongruous feature like a kitchen sink in the bedroom and they are truly astonished by this. I laugh and think, “They obviously never worked in a nonprofit.”
This is one of the challenges that nonprofits face — we tend to make do until a clear, and feasible, alternative presents itself. This and other unique challenges can hinder our efforts when we are working to build a more equitable workplace.
1. Role and Person Conflation
While there may literally be an old sink in a nonprofit office, the greater issue is when jobs are built for and around individuals. It is common in the early years for the work to divided among the small number of staff available. Then someone leaves years later and the hiring committee responds like the potential home buyers “What is that doing there?” It might be a case manager who is also the tech guru or the fiscal person who writes grants.
This is symptomatic of an individual being too closely identified with a position. That makes it difficult for the hiring committee to see people who look different filling the job and therefore opens the door to implicit bias strongly influencing hiring decisions.
Review job descriptions on a regular basis to ensure clarity, relevance, consistency and distinction from the person holding the job. What does the organization need from this position is the guiding question – not what does this person want to do or are they good at? (That may be a good professional development conversation, but it should not be the lead question when updating the job description).
2. Dominant Culture Leadership Practices
Nonprofit leadership remains primarily in the hands of white leaders who follow management practices that support the dominant culture. Unless leaders are actively disrupting mainstream practices, they are replicating white supremacy habits that exclude (or limit) a wide swath of diverse staff.
Be thoughtful, intentional and rigorous in updating leadership practices.
3. Role of Staff Input
Staff who work in nonprofits expect to have a voice. And they expect that voice to be heard and considered and responded to when decisions are being made that will impact them and their work. This is especially problematic when leaders try to invite input, but it is performative and not really considered or responded to. That is worse than having no input at all.
Work with staff to develop a realistic and useful method for staff input and determine guidelines for decision-making. Be clear when and how staff input will be considered and respond to all input.
4. HR Alignment With Mission and Values
Nonprofits tend to wait too long to hire a designated HR staff member. The function is either embedded in the executive director or the fiscal director and is limited in scope to discrete tasks like compliance, benefits and compensation. Even when a decision is made, they often look no further than degrees and certifications of a candidate.
Organizations need to rigorously explore the role and purpose of HR in an organization wanting to strength equity. HR can and should be a justice partner, advocate for staff and the vehicle through which equity is operationalized.
5. Lack of Training/Standards for Supervision
Too often nonprofits see supervision as one more line on a job description and give little training, time or guidance to this critical role. The actions of an individual’s supervisor can make or break the job — and the person. When supervision is left to happenstance the door to inequity is wide open. Individual supervisors may be driving strong staff away from the organization.
Train your staff how to be effective supervisors, set clear guidance about the role, monitor for consistent practices and establish standards for the role of supervisor in the organization.
6. Shared Supervision
It is not uncommon in nonprofits that specific staff members have two supervisors. This is problematic for any staff member but particularly for staff of color who are set up to be blamed when responsibilities fall through the cracks. White, straight, able-bodied staff members tend to be heard and believed when they raise a problem about competing priorities and confused directives, whereas staff of color are more likely to be blamed for the problems.
One supervisor per staff member! Another person may be designated a project lead or an oversight role but do not muddy the water with dual supervision. (This is a topic I address in my new book, "Leading for Justice: Supervision, HR and Culture," where I offer a chart to guide the different roles.)
Addressing these challenges will not eliminate inequity, but they will remove some obstacles as we move forward.
Rita Sever brings a unified approach to human resources and organizational development. Rita offers training, consulting and coaching through her business, Supervision Matters. She works with individuals, teams, leaders and the entire agency to improve the culture and practice of supervision, helping individuals and organizations thrive and fulfill their mission.
Rita has an Master's of Arts in organizational psychology. She has worked in and with nonprofits for more than 30 years and has taught “HR in Nonprofits” at the University of San Francisco and Sonoma State University in California.
Rita’s newest book is entitled "Leading for Justice: Supervision, HR and Culture."