Nonprofits Learn the Benefits — and Trials — of Ditching the Office
Nonprofits have had to think a lot about how they operate over the past two years. Some have taken a step that might have been considered radical a few years ago: They’ve given up their offices and gone virtual.
For Fair Chance, the decision was easy. A Washington, D.C., organization that works with community-based groups, mostly led by people of color, to help them grow, it was reconfiguring its office space when the pandemic hit. Staff members had already relocated to a smaller set of offices while work was being done. The organization’s lease was up so it asked the landlord if it could just rent the smaller space instead. He said no. So they refused to sign the lease and gave up both spaces. Fair Chance sublets a few office spaces and has access to a conference room, but otherwise all of the 16 employees work from home.
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For Fair Chance, the decision was easy. A Washington, D.C., organization that works with community-based groups, mostly led by people of color, to help them grow, it was reconfiguring its office space when the pandemic hit. Staff members had already relocated to a smaller set of offices while work was being done. The organization’s lease was up, so it asked the landlord if it could just rent the smaller space instead. He said no. So they refused to sign the lease and gave up both spaces. Fair Chance sublets a few office spaces and has access to a conference room, but, otherwise, all of the 16 employees work from home.
CEO Gretchen Van der Veer has had to think creatively about how to maintain the organization’s culture. It has staff meetings on Zoom every other week. There are online contests like one in which staff members made faces out of fruit and vegetables in their homes and sent in photographs. Prizes were given for the assemblages that used the most produce and were the most creative. They also gather for in-person quarterly celebrations. At one, they played mini golf.
Only about 40 percent of all Americans have jobs that can be done remotely, but those who can work from home like it, according to a series of worker surveys across the economy conducted by the Pew Research Center. Three-quarters of those working remotely who were surveyed in January said the reason they work from home was that they preferred it, up from 60 percent in 2020. As workers have gotten more exposure to working remotely, more of them want to continue doing it.
One reason: They are finding more work-life balance. And 78 percent of those currently working from home at least part-time say they want to continue after the pandemic.
“Employers have to be responsive to these new desires on the part of their employees if they’re going to retain them,” says Kim Parker, the report’s author and director of social-trends research at the Pew Research Center.
For some people of color, working from home has been a respite from hostile work environments, says Carmen Marshall, chief equity officer at Maryland Nonprofits.
“If you are Black, brown, other, if you’re outside of the power structure, there’s always been a consequence for you to work in an environment where you don’t have any control over your comings and goings, your ability to speak out, the demand for you to keep quiet,” she says. “Remote work allows you to experience less [discrimination] because you are not in the presence of it.”
For some employees of color, remote work is a respite from hostile work environments.
Some organizations are finding unexpected benefits from remote work. The Utah Nonprofits Association gave up its lease in December. The association realized that by providing services online rather than in person, it was doing a better job serving its rural members. The group saw no reason to go back to the way it had worked before.
The Family League of Baltimore, which provides services to other nonprofits, has yet to go back to its office space. It is considering staying remote and subletting the space and perhaps letting some of the groups it works with use it for meetings.
Bigger Pool of Applicants — and Employers
Some nonprofits are hiring people who live far away and may never come into the office. Such permanent remote work is increasing. According to the Pew survey, the share of people who said they worked from home because they relocated nearly doubled to 17 percent from 2020 to 2022.
Chorus America, which provides services to 6,000 choruses, recently hired two people who live too far away to come into the office regularly. Allowing the positions to be remote expanded the applicant pool. “Nobody wants to come back to the office fulltime,” says Catherine Dehoney, the group’s CEO.
But in the same way that nonprofits can now access a larger pool of applicants, job seekers can also now access many more employers.
Fair Chance lost a development staff person to a national nonprofit in Oakland, Calif. He’ll be working remotely from the D.C. area.
So far, Van der Veer’s efforts to replace him have not worked out. The group did not receive what it considered a diverse enough group of applicants to move forward with interviewing people.
“I think our salaries weren’t competitive,” she says. “Our benefits are very competitive: You can work from home. I do think that that is going to be an advantage for us.”