volunteer engagement

I was talking with a new friend recently, who had stopped working at nonprofits years ago.

When I asked her why, she said, when she and her friends worked at nonprofits, they would all say that they were “dragged through the street” by them.

I asked what that meant. She said:

“That means they would see your passion for the mission, and they would take and take and take and take until there was nothing left. You had no energy left at the end of your day for yourself.”

When we work in nonprofits, it’s assumed we’ll work nights, weekends and holidays. We’ll work until we drop, because we believe in the mission.

Can you relate?

What is Passion Exploitation?

According to 8 different studies with over 2,400 participants, (Understanding Contemporary Forms of Exploitation: Attributions of Passion Serve to Legitimize the Poor Treatment of Workers, forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychologya study by Jay Kim and Aaron Kay), people who are passionate about their work are more easily exploited and less likely to take a break, on a personal level.

In our organizations, this urgency encourages us to make decisions quickly, instead of thinking about the long term consequences.

It precludes being inclusive or collaborative.

What does this lead to?

Well, it can lead to all of us isolating ourselves in silos. You might believe that you are responsible for solving problems alone.

Do you ever feel like if something is going to get done right, “I” have to do it?

Or if I just work harder, my boss would magically see that I deserve a raise?

Accountability goes up and down, not sideways to peers or to those our organization serves. There’s a desire for individual recognition and credit.

According to Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun, (ChangeWork, 2001), competition becomes more highly valued than cooperation, and there seems to be little time or resources devoted to developing skills in how to cooperate.

Jones and Okun suggest that you make a realistic workplan by:

  • Knowing things take longer than we expect they will… automatically.
  • Discuss and plan for what it means to set goals of inclusivity and diversity, particularly in terms of time.
  • Remember from past experience how long things take to get done.
  • Write grant proposals with realistic timelines.
  • Be clear about how you will make good decisions in an atmosphere of urgency. How can you test a decision? Slow it down?

How can you work on overcoming destructive individualism, and passion exploitation? Jones and Okun suggest seven things you can do now:

  1. Include teamwork as a key element in your nonprofit values – then walk that talk by…
  2. Articulating your shared goals and helping people understand how working together will improve performance
  3. Evaluating people’s ability to do teamwork as well as their ability to get the job done!
  4. When it comes time to recognize folks, making sure that credit is given to the team, the volunteers, the board and support staff, not just the leaders.
  5. Working to help staff be accountable as a group rather than individuals.
  6. In staff meetings, allowing folks to bring problems to the group and let everyone brainstorm-or take ownership of some part of the project.
  7. Make staff meetings a place to solve problems, or make decisions, not just a place to report what you’ve done. I never had a staff meeting like that. But I wish I did!

So don’t fall into the spiral of passion exploitation, false urgency and individualism. The dividends you’ll see will take the form of higher staff productivity and retention, which lead to lower fundraising costs and higher revenue!

Mazarine Treyz
Mazarine Treyz is a nationally-recognized strategist for fundraising planning and communications. She is the CEO of Wild Woman Fundraising and the Author of The Wild Woman's Guide to Fundraising, as well as other books. Creator of over 12 e-courses, 3 masterclasses and 3 books, she has coached and taught over 12,000 nonprofit professionals how to be better fundraisers since 2010. Mazarine is the founder of the Fundraising Career Conference and the Nonprofit Leadership Summit.