October 10, 2002

Nonprofit Employees Are More Satisfied Than Other Workers With Their Jobs, Says New Brookings Survey -- but Problems Loom


By Heather Joslyn

Gina L. Brooks is proud of the work done by Second Helpings, the Indianapolis anti-hunger charity she heads. But her employees, she says, may be even prouder.

Take, for example, her

food-production manager. Second Helpings trains individuals in food-service skills using donated food, and supplies the city's emergency-food organizations with the prepared meals. Each day, Ms. Brooks says, the manager shows up in the charity's kitchen, unaware of which donated foods she will have to help make up to 1,300 meals. What's more, she works with a constantly changing set of volunteers to prepare those meals.

"It sounds pretty stressful to most people," says Ms. Brooks. "But she says it's the easiest job she's ever had. She loves it."

The manager, she notes, signed on as a kitchen assistant three years ago, coming to Second Helpings from a for-profit catering business where she logged up to 80 hours a week -- and took what Ms. Brooks believes was a big pay cut to do so.

Another employee, she says, frequently brings to work a young deaf and autistic adult with whom she works as a volunteer "life coach" through another charity, with her employer's full support. The worker holds a master's degree, Ms. Brooks says, and recently told her boss, "If I were somewhere else, I would certainly make an excellent wage, but it wouldn't be as rewarding as what I do here."

Ms. Brooks's proud, dedicated colleagues are typical of the estimated 11 million employees who fill the nonprofit world, according to a new survey of the charity work force overseen by the Brookings Institution, a public-policy think tank in Washington. The telephone survey of 1,140 randomly selected nonprofit workers was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates from late October 2001 to early January 2002 and, researchers claim, sampled a representative variety of charity employees. Atlantic Philanthropies and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation shared the survey's $335,000 cost.

The survey results illuminate what charities have long known about their workers: They are driven by mission, not money.

A 'Parallel Universe'

Nonprofit employees are much more likely than for-profit or government workers to say they took their jobs for the chance to help people and make a difference, according to the Brookings survey and parallel studies completed this year of workers in business and the federal government. Only 16 percent of nonprofit employees reported that they come to work for the paycheck, compared with 31 percent of federal employees and 47 percent of for-profit workers.

More nonprofit employees surveyed said they were proud of their employers than did other workers, and nonprofit respondents also held their co-workers in higher regard than did workers in other fields. Charity employees also believed their organizations to be more helpful, fair, and trusted than did workers in other fields. Ninety-seven percent of nonprofit workers surveyed said they feel they accomplish something worthwhile through their jobs.

In short, says Paul C. Light, director of Brookings' Center for Public Service, "Nonprofit employees were the most satisfied of all three sectors."

"I hear everybody talking about the talent war, except in the nonprofit sector," Mr. Light says. "It's like the nonprofit field is in some kind of parallel universe, where labor is plentiful and no one minds that they don't have benefits and resources and don't get paid well."

Sixty-eight percent of survey respondents were female, and nearly half said they have worked in the nonprofit field for 10 years or less. Seventy-nine percent of the respondents said they worked for organizations that were local in scope, with the largest group, 39 percent, working for educational organizations. Almost half said they worked for organizations with 150 or more employees.

Among the survey's key findings:

  • Most nonprofit workers surveyed said they were content with their pay: Seventy-seven percent of respondents reported that they are at least "somewhat satisfied" with their salaries and 83 percent said the same about their benefits.
  • Overwork is a hazard for many charity workers: Seventy-three percent surveyed strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement that it is easy to burn out in their jobs, and the same percentage strongly or somewhat agreed that they always have too much work to do.
  • Many nonprofit employees feel that weak co-workers are not dealt with effectively: Forty-four percent of nonprofit workers in the Brookings survey said their organizations do not do a good job of disciplining poor performers, although this finding compared favorably with the 53 percent of for-profit workers and 67 percent of government workers who told researchers the same thing.

Mr. Light says that he was most surprised by the survey's finding that nonprofit employees are relatively content with their salaries and benefits. Although the survey found that nearly half of all charity workers believe they could make more money elsewhere, he says, many appear to have made peace with the trade-off: "In their heads, they discount salary and benefits. They feel that this is what you get for doing the work that you love."

Satisfaction with salary can vary, though, depending on a charity's location, says Sarah Boxx, who once led a children's charity and is currently client-services manager at Social Entrepreneurs, a management-consulting company in Reno, Nev., that works with nonprofit groups. (Ms. Boxx says money did not play a role in her decision to leave her charity, but says that her successor demanded and got a much higher salary than she had had.) A region's cost of living can create a demand for higher pay, she says, and even in inexpensive areas, charity workers may find themselves financially pinched compared with other employees. "A lot of nonprofit employees," she says, "could actually qualify for the services they offer."

Mission and Collaboration

But charity managers and consultants generally agree that no one chooses charity work for the money.

Mission, as the Brookings survey indicates, remains the attraction for nonprofit workers. Among the other factors that enhance employees' job satisfaction are flexibility, collaborative decision making, and acknowledgment of employees as well-rounded human beings as opposed to simply workers, say charity leaders.

At Girls Inc. of Greater Atlanta, an affiliate of the national youth-development charity, the executive director, Janet J. Street, says that last winter she sought ideas from her entire staff to deal with a downturn in donations.

"We came together and did a round robin to decide what to do to help stay afloat," she says. This inclusive approach, she says, helps employees feel valued and makes even tough choices -- such as the group's recent layoffs, the first in its 26-year history -- more understandable to them. "It's not just a top-down, it's a bottom-up organization," she says. "It flows both ways."

At Project Hope, in Dorchester, Mass., a Catholic charity that aids low-income families with housing, education, and child care, staff members were asked to help hammer out a code of ethics that would govern workplace behavior, says Sister Margaret A. Leonard, the group's executive director. The code prohibited such behavior as engaging in negative gossip. "People honor that," she says. "and if someone steps out of bounds, someone else reminds them."

The organization also looks to provide flexibility and care for the specific needs of its work force. Many of its 45 employees, says Sister Margaret, come from the neighborhood the charity serves, and many do not have college degrees.

The charity has provided time off for workers in its child-care center to take classes on-site to help them reach their personal and professional goals, a program made possible by Massachusetts' policy of allowing social-services workers to take some college courses for free. Project Hope's effort is working so well, says the group's leader, that it will soon be expanded to all of the charity's employees.

Not all benefits that help keep nonprofit workers on the job come from employers, says Sister Margaret. Having one's efforts affirmed by clients, she says, can be a powerful incentive to keep working. At Project Hope, she says, "most of these women are so valued by the families that are struggling. They're appreciated for who they are, not just what they do."

Scant Resources and Burnout

Although the Brookings survey suggests that charity employees appear to be an upbeat, motivated work force, signs point to problems inherent in their field. "They love their jobs," says Mr. Light, "but it's not entirely clear that society and their organizations always love them back."

The survey confirms what has been a notorious equation in the field: Overwork minus resources equals burnout. At least one in five respondents reported that they only rarely or sometimes have access to the training, technology, labor, and other resources needed to do their jobs well.

Part of the problem, says Ms. Street, is the societal expectation that a charity should operate on a shoestring.

"Regrettably," she says, "there's a mentality in our country that people in nonprofits aren't supposed to make money, that they're not supposed to have all the resources necessary, and if you do, then people even begin to frown on that." This expectation of poverty can lead to self-sabotage for nonprofit organizations, she says. Ms. Street recalls a conflict she had in the early '80s with her group's board: The board had demanded that the charity's correspondence appear neater and more professional -- yet initially resisted her requests to buy a new typewriter equipped with a correction ribbon.

Nonprofit employees are so dedicated to their work of helping others, says Mr. Light, that they may be in danger of being exploited by their organizations. Although she says she has never seen a case of deliberate exploitation, organizations can ask too much of employees in the name of saving sparse resources, says Leyna Bernstein, director of consulting services for the Management Center, a nonprofit consulting organization in San Francisco. Some groups may classify what would usually be hourly-wage workers as salaried employees, and not pay them for overtime. In some cases, she says, employees "are racking up hundreds of hours of quote-unquote comp time that they'll never be able to take."

Personnel Challenges

Charities may need to pay more attention to the ways in which they contend with workers who aren't performing up to standards, according to the Brookings survey. The survey's finding about poor performers may indicate a systemic problem for some needy organizations, says John Manzon-Santos, executive director of the Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center, an AIDS-services charity in San Francisco.

"People feel that if salaries are lower and people are working for the mission of an organization, sometimes it's hard to hold people accountable. The trade-off is, 'Well, you know, they work hard, they're committed, they're here,'" he says. Regardless, he adds, "It's really important to hold ourselves to standards."

Ms. Street, who says she thinks the nonprofit world has no greater share of troublesome employees than does the for-profit world, notes that most charity managers do not, unlike their counterparts in government and businesses, have human-resources departments that they can turn to for guidance and support.

Charity employers often have a difficult time putting together personnel policies, including disciplinary procedures, says Shelley A. Davis, a program officer at the Joyce Foundation, in Chicago, who works on helping her organization's grantees build their organizational structure. "They've risen up through the ranks by working on their issue," she notes. "They don't necessarily know how to manage people." Trustees from the business world should lend a hand to their executive directors in these areas, she says.

Realistic Expectations

Nonprofit employers can take many practical steps to help keep their motivated work force happy and productive, say charity leaders and consultants. They can start by keeping their expectations realistic, says Mr. Manzon-Santos.

"Oftentimes, missions for nonprofits have pretty tall orders, whether it's to cure AIDS or it's to house everybody in a certain area," he says. "These are pretty amazing, beautiful, important, crucial visions. And so, the work is never done, by definition. It is important for employers to acknowledge that. For people to feel like they're making a difference, the employer has to say upfront, 'This is what we're going to do. This is the size of the bite we're going to take.' It's crucial, because if we say, 'We have to change the world and that's the standard of whether we're successful,' it's going to feel unsatisfying to an employee."

Using volunteers to their fullest potential can also help ease staff members' burdens, says Ms. Brooks of Second Helpings. Although her four-year-old group has grown about 25 percent each year in the amount of service it provides, she says it is rare for staff members to work more than 40 hours a week, due to the charity's reliance on its 250 active volunteers. The charity recently hired its first manager of volunteers and uses a database to help match volunteers' skills with tasks it needs done, from data entry to driving the food trucks to helping to write grant proposals. "If we didn't have them," she says of her volunteers, "we'd either have to double our staff or we'd all be keeling over."

Nonprofit employers can also try a variety of low-cost perks to boost workers' satisfaction, from supporting professional development (even just by offering comp time), to letting employees try new tasks, to offering chances to represent the organization in the media, says Ms. Davis.

Chief among the nonprofit field's managerial virtues, says Mr. Manzon-Santos, are those that come from some of its biggest problems: being lean and hungry.

"There is more flexibility in nonprofits to work beyond our four walls," he says. "We have to be scrappier about resources, and we have to work harder at building relationships. And so there is a kind of polygamist nature to how we operate -- we play well with others. So I think that's a lesson: There's got to be more faith that collaboration can create a one-plus-one-equals-three situation."

The mission, though, remains the field's most powerful solution to workplace problems. "There's a high sense of pride," says Ms. Boxx. "And that goes a long way toward sticking it out through some tough times."

In your experience, are nonprofit workers as satisfied with their jobs as the Brookings Insitution survey claims? Share your thoughts in the Job Market online forum.