Five Ways to Reimagine a Healthy Nonprofit Work Culture

September 2022

Even before weathering the pandemic and economic crises of the 2020s, nonprofits have disproportionately worked to address difficult, emotionally taxing social issues, which has constantly brought nonprofit staff into contact with people and communities experiencing painful, sad circumstances. Working in the context of mental illness, economic deprivation and poor living conditions can take a significant mental and physical toll on employees, in addition to the immense frustration of how little these staff can truly make a difference for members of their communities. These conditions would be challenging enough without considering that nonprofit workers generally possess fewer resources to tackle social problems than those at other organizations, face expectations to toil for low pay and few benefits, and are asked to exude passion and positivity throughout their work.

The impacts wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic have only magnified these and other issues faced by nonprofits: increased demand for human services, ballooning costs from inflation, decreased revenues from canceled events and hiring challenges created by supply chain shocks. Work environments have fragmented across virtual platforms, decreasing the support of social ties at work and further isolating staff members. While many of these factors lay outside of your control as a manager, there are many structural and interpersonal measures you can take to improve your organization's work environment and culture. Here are five areas of your organization's culture to address to maintain and improve employee well-being: 


1. Start by maintaining healthy personal habits to increase your resilience

Even as a manager, you still possess the most control over your own actions and experience within your workplace, so this is the area in which you can create the most immediate impact. By taking strong measures to practice healthier habits in your work style, you can also set a good example for your staff, which is crucial to do before telling others how they should manage their work. 

One experience that nonprofit workers commonly report as a result of working in the midst of negative issues is empathic distress, which describes the significant stress, exhaustion and numbness that people often feel while empathizing with the suffering of clients and beneficiaries. If you regularly work with individuals who struggle with substance use problems, for example, and witness them experiencing withdrawal, physical decline or severe emotional pain, these moments can overwhelm you to the point that your empathy becomes emotionally taxing and harmful to yourself. This experience can be especially common for women as they are expected to possess an infinite capacity of care for others and superhuman tolerance for people's emotional pain. The generalized societal pressure for women to care for everyone in their lives can easily extend to clients, which can further aggravate pervasive burnout. 

To combat the risks of empathic distress and emotional exhaustion, set and maintain strong boundaries about the amount of intense negative emotions and experiences you can manage at one time. Establish and firmly enforce red lines for how much emotional burnout you can tolerate, as well as harmful behavior from clients or community members that you won't tolerate (e.g., harassment, verbal outbursts). 

On the flip side, work to increase the amount of time you spend on activities and tasks that you find fulfilling and that don't require tremendous effort. For example, if you enjoy distributing informational leaflets to unhoused people about shelters and other resources and this doesn't feel as taxing or energy-consuming as other tasks, aim to spend more time doing that. In the bigger picture, this will help you to maximize your utility to your organization by focusing your time and energy on tasks that give you energy and ultimately increase your productivity. Likewise, try to avoid sinking your time and energy into assignments that drain you emotionally and make you less productive. Take steps to offload responsibilities or delegate items, especially those that ultimately drain your energy and make you less effective overall than if you'd been working on some other task. 


2. Build robust, yet measured relationships of care with your co-workers

Chances are that if you're feeling overwhelmed and emotionally burned out by the challenging social conditions inherent to your organization's mission work, others in your organization are too. While you can't personally solve your colleagues' struggles with empathic distress or burnout for them, as a manager you can play a significant role in building a compassionate, authentic work culture to stem the impact of these negative experiences. It may not appear on many formal job descriptions, but a vital aspect of each employee's job is to support and uplift their co-workers, both on a personal basis and with the wider aim of fostering a healthier environment for everyone. 

Make sure to model your healthy work boundaries to give staff informal permission to enforce those boundaries as well. Especially if you manage a large number of employees or serve in the upper ranks of the organization, this modeling can create space for others to maintain healthier habits, even when they might conflict with other imperatives of efficiency or productivity. Also, recognize that people's boundaries can diverge across various identity lines such as age, cultural background, ethnicity and other axes. Certain aspects of an assignment that may feel comfortable to you might make another colleague highly uncomfortable or tax their emotions for reasons you might not even be aware of. Make sure to build your awareness and communicate so that you accommodate your employees as much as possible. 


3. Bridge the Empathy Gap Between Leadership and Staff

While each member of an organization has some exposure to the same emotionally trying issues and underserved populations, disconnects often arise between staff and leadership about the difficult circumstances staff experience. Research has shown that significant gaps can exist between the perceptions of leadership and staff about the compassion and empathy shown by their organizations, as well as the importance of showing care and empathy for maintaining employees' motivation. If staff members don't feel care and support from their organization, they won't be as well able to maintain their emotional health and effectively perform their jobs.

Leaders also should ensure that they are transforming their good intentions and empathy towards their staff into lasting actions and standardized procedures so that tangible changes can be felt throughout the organization. Staff members need to witness real action on the part of their organizations to support them and make difficult changes to longstanding practices if need be; this holds especially for employees from marginalized backgrounds who have often heard promises of systemic change around bias and inclusivity that were not followed up with concrete action. Furthermore, leaders must work to build constantly learning organizations and incorporate lessons learned during the pandemic about mental health and social connection into company policy so that they do not become fleeting. Otherwise, staff will seek out other organizations that provide more supportive leadership on these issues. 


4. Critically examine your organization's cultural norms and the ways they get communicated 

While nonprofits perform vital mission work and tend to attract individuals with altruistic aims, they are not immune from developing poor organizational cultures. Organizations can have some pretty awful norms and practices marked by perfectionism, an excessive sense of urgency, fear of conflict and other tendencies that dehumanize staff members and reduce the sense of mutual community. Staff may hold harmful attitudes about overwork, working outside of designated hours and volunteering unpaid time. All of these norms made be bolstered by a dose of toxic positivity that helps to mask the harm and discomfort caused by these habits. 

These norms can be learned so early on in an employee's tenure at an organization, and even before they arrive, from various signals made by employees or others in the sector. Leaders must ensure that they are not sending these messages to new recruits and allowing poor habits to fester, especially since they can be so difficult to reverse once they're formed. Leaders and staff should also avoid giving conflicting messages to new recruits through their actions, which are far more convincing to someone about the true culture and expectations of the organization than any human resources policy statement. 


5. Consider whether your operations promote or impede a sense of meaningful community

Aside from common sense, surveys and studies continue to show that people want to work in the nonprofit sector largely due to the meaning they derive from their work. This perspective is bolstered by recent research suggesting that people who have recently left their jobs in other sectors for the nonprofit sector have done so in the pursuit of more meaningful work. While it is difficult to argue that nonprofits don't generally pursue highly admirable missions and practices, transformations in the sector over the past few decades have changed the character of nonprofit work in ways that can diminish this fulfillment for many employees and dehumanize the people involved in the work. 

Nonprofits have increasingly adopted characteristics of marketized organizations in their operations and rhetoric, increasing their focus on productivity, growth and efficiency. While these goals have undoubtedly made nonprofits more effective and functional operations, they can often downplay the importance of staff relationships and treat workers as malleable and interchangeable cogs in the machine. This climate can demand that employees create poor work/life balances and burn themselves out when they would otherwise possess plentiful energy to devote to their cause. People come into the nonprofit sector to create a meaningful sense of community and fruitful relationships with their colleagues. However, overutilizing the language of organizational processes and structures can easily degrade the importance of these relationships and the value they provide beyond quantifiable organizational goals. Commentators also ask nonprofits to constantly become more agile and adaptable, but often fail to remember that this usually translates to workers being more "flexible." On the ground, this often entails them stretching their physical and mental limits, while increasing expectations of their performance without regard for their well-being. 

Nonprofit leaders must work to engender workplace operations that emphasize and secure the fundamental human relationships at the core of their organizations and communities. Give ample space for people to interact and not just engage with each other as cogs in the machine. Approach each of your employees as an individual first and not merely as a proxy for strategic objectives or a means to achieve performance metrics. 


While employees in the sector face special challenges at the moment, many underlying issues of poor workplace cultures have existed long before the present era of crisis for nonprofits. As a leader you must work to buck these trends and reimagine your workplace as a regenerative, fulfilling environment that can continue to draw people and talent from other sectors. 


Additional Resources

Empathy Isn't Enough by the Stanford Social Innovation Review

Creating a Culture That Cares in Five Nourishing Steps by the National Council of Nonprofits

How (and Why) Nonprofits Are Supporting the Mental Health of Their Employees by the National Council of Nonprofits

The sgENGAGE Podcast Episode 234: Self-Care for Women in Leadership by sgENGAGE

The Hybridization of Meaningful Nonprofit Work- An Exploratory Study of the Effects of Marketization on Nonprofit Managers' Sense of Meaningfulness in Work by the Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly

The Time Is Right for Organizational Learning by the Stanford Social Innovation Review

The Nonprofit Assimilation Process and Work-Life Balance by Sustainability

Toxic Positivity by Medical News Today


Check out some episodes on organizational culture and talent management from my podcast Your Path to Nonprofit Leadership:

147: Creating A People First Environment at Your Nonprofit (Stamie Despo & Tom LaFalce)

129: How to Retain Talent Through a Dynamic Nonprofit Organization (Keith Fishburne)

About PMA Nonprofit Leadership 

As a firm, PMA Nonprofit Leadership is constantly developing content and programs to help you in three distinct ways.  The first way is to help you be a thought leader in the nonprofit sector by producing weekly content through our podcast Your Path to Nonprofit Leadership. The second way is through individual coaching, training and our unique Mastermind Nonprofit Leadership program. The third way is to help your nonprofit organization through support of its strategic planning, board & staff development, and fundraising. Through our exclusive partnership with the Institute for Philanthropic Leadership, we also  guide aspiring nonprofit leaders through the virtual New Development Professionals cohort training program, as well as the annual Leadership Gift School, now entering its 10th cohort season.  Let us know how we can help you! Join our community by signing up for our free resources here, and schedule a call if you'd like to learn more about ways we can help you on your journey to nonprofit leadership.