I work with many organizations that successfully use their limited resources to achieve significant impact. They manage to deliver on goals and take on more work with minimal staff and minimal capacity.
One could say these organizations are successful – they are highly efficient, effective, and growing. Surely donors and funders would remark upon how these organizations are able to achieve so much given they have so little. Heck, I’m amazed at what they can do despite so few staff.
But the question is: at what cost?
I end up working with these organizations because they need help, and usually that help is behind the curtain, so to speak. Sure, the organizations are running programs with some success, but they are also struggling. Struggling to crank out the work, struggling to cultivate and maintain relationships with donors and funders, struggling to communicate with their audiences, struggling to get everyone on the same page, struggling to keep the organization moving forward. On the surface, everything may seem fine and dandy, but look within and there may be a lot of stress, anxiety, and tension.
This isn’t to say every organization is like this, but in my experience, even in the best-run organizations, I’ve found there is always at least a little discontent among staff with some aspect of how the organization is managed, whether it be in their individual role or at the organizational level.
Nonprofit organizations are notorious for overworking and underpaying their staff, all in an effort to appear efficient to donors and funders. They focus all their efforts on delivering on programs at the expense of strengthening the business behind their program work. As a result, they often suffer from management issues, lack of strategic planning and focus, lack of clear messaging, and lack of the human capacity to do all the work. This in turn causes stress, dissatisfaction, disengagement, a reduction in organizational commitment, and oftentimes a higher turnover in staff.
Perhaps the most dangerous part is that organizations accept this is as the status quo – that struggling and being stressed is just the nature of the job and how things are done. But should it be?
In my high school science class, the teacher had posted a banner with a well-known expression: “What is popular is not always right, and what is right is not always popular.” I think the same could be said of this stressful state of organizations. Just because doing things that way is getting you results does not mean that it is right, sustainable, or even acceptable.
We often measure success in terms of dollars earned and results produced, but not in how those things get done. In evaluation terms, we focus on performance metrics – achievement of set goals and objectives – but not on process metrics – measures of how well those goals and objectives were achieved. It is great to achieve your goals and objectives, but if staff are unhappy, stressed, overworked, and disconnected from each other and the organization, how sustainable is your success?
At the end of the day, organizations are groups of people, and if those people are not doing well, the organization will suffer as a result. When we value the organization not just for what it can produce but also for how it produces it, we begin to take better care of the organization and its staff. We invest in better leadership and management. We take time for thoughtful planning that clarifies and unites staff behind a common goal and imbues them with a sense of purpose. We step back to articulate the work in ways that energize staff and excite your audiences. We make sure that staff are taken care of, supported, and valued for the amazing contributions they make to achieving our goals and objectives.
Many organizations are merely surviving when they could be living and even thriving. It is a matter of how we define success and how we value the people who drive the organization’s success. If we invest in them, we can achieve programmatic success while ensuring our organizations are more resilient and sustainable.