To Grow A Strong Movement, Feed Its Leaders Well

August 17, 2006

Who are the sharpest young nonprofit leaders and activists you know? What do you hope they and their organizations will be doing 15 years from now? If you’re a donor, board member or nonprofit executive, are you making it easier or more difficult for organizations to mature and for people to stay in public interest work for their entire careers?

Quixote Foundation recently spent some time with a bunch of brilliant, ambitious, thoughtful, funny, kind, passionate, progressive young leaders. Many have founded new organizations. Among them, there’s enough creative energy to stand this country on its head until the blood rushes back to its thirsty brain.

There’s a hitch though: at 25 or 30 years old, they’re already smart enough about life to observe a starvation mentality in the nonprofit world, where bragging rights often go to whoever is most overworked and underpaid. They see unrealistically low budgets weakening their organizations. They’ve begun to wonder if this type of work is sustainable for themselves, personally. They realize some aspects of nonprofit culture are impeding, instead of building, a healthy and lasting progressive movement.

Making a choice between public service and the pursuit of wealth is nothing new for young leaders. But in many of the freshest, most innovative organizations, money is so tight people are forced to choose between activism and survival. Nonprofit employees are doing our society’s work in fields like economic justice when they can’t afford to pay their own student debt, buy a home or start having children. Many of them don’t have health insurance, paid vacation or a retirement plan. They’re carrying credit cards in lieu of an emergency savings account.

People new to the nonprofit world may tolerate long hours and low pay for a short time, but how do we expect to grow a movement if that movement’s leaders are starved out of public interest careers just when they’re hitting their stride? How can organizations mature if they’re always on the verge of expiring from exhaustion?

At Quixote Foundation we’ve started looking for an alternative model. Here are a few ideas we’re considering to help nonprofit leaders and their organizations grow strong:

  • Turn the long-term value lens on our own expectations. Grantmakers ask nonprofit groups to justify the long-term impact of a requested sum and to say how a program will be sustained once the immediate funding cycle is over. It’s time to ask ourselves similar questions about the grants we make: What will our grant’s lasting impact be on the movement it’s meant to build? How might we improve the overall life of the organization receiving it? Under the conditions of our grant, can the people who perform the work sustain themselves over the long term?
  • Encourage grantseekers to ask for more money. Many nonprofit groups request the minimum they need instead of an amount that would optimize their work. They’re timid, in part, because they assume donors will think smaller budgets are better. We can help by asking if more funding would result in more effective or efficient work, and then saying “Yes” to proposed budgets that are big enough to support the impact we seek.
  • Make multi-year commitments of general operating support. Nonprofit organizations need the flexibility and the stability these commitments provide. Accountability is important but, at some point, we have to realize the people doing front-line work are better placed to decide how their organization’s money should be spent than those of us who write checks at a distance. If we can’t trust the fiscal judgment of a nonprofit organization’s staff and board, it’s possible we shouldn’t be funding them at all.
  • Pay invited organizations to create grant proposals. As donors we ask for well-crafted proposals and then we turn to the budget and scrutinize fundraising costs. We need to recognize the legitimate high cost of researching, planning and articulating each grant request. What if we set up a screening system of request summaries and then paid a few finalists to develop full proposals for ideas that are genuinely interesting? What if we required only a brief update from organizations we’ve funded before?
  • Start talking about real vs. false economy, especially when it comes to personnel. When nonprofit staff members work 40 hours per week for living wages they can stay long term and build leadership equity for their organizations. Everyone gets a better deal than when people are so burned out by poverty and 60-hour work weeks they constantly quit and have to be replaced. We should be willing to fund nonprofit work environments where we’d be happy for ourselves, our children, parents, spouses or friends to spend a career. Let’s start telling nonprofit leaders and other donors we think this standard should be met, and then follow up our little speeches with enough funding to improve working conditions.
  • Give money for unstructured, creative time. If we expect innovation and resource-sharing, nonprofit leaders need the opportunity to brainstorm and connect with one another. Consider funding a relaxing staff retreat or paying to convene activists who share similar ideals. Just let them talk. At Quixote Foundation we’ve been amazed at the collaborative work such investments have begun.

As the folks hanging onto various purse strings, it’s up to us to start refusing the sweatshop model. Please join Quixote Foundation in supporting reasonable budgets and well fed, well rested people who are able to stay with an organization 5-10 years and to stay with their movements forever. And please email us with your own ideas about how we can make our expectations more sustainable.

—written by Keneta Anderson for Quixote Foundation