Is it Time for a Nonprofit Workers Union?

(Image: SEIU Local 1, Creative Commons)

Many nonprofit employees have experienced it before: management justifies cutting overhead costs—including a host of employee benefits—in order to free up resources for programmatic spending.

Organizational leadership often perceives their workers as mission-driven as opposed to profit-driven, an exact corollary to the economic model behind nonprofits. In reality, this mentality contradicts the very purpose of nonprofits to promote and cultivate the social good. How can any nonprofit truly pursue its mission to improve the world if it requires implementing anti-social practices to do so?

Exploited YMCA workers in Chicago fought back in early March against such labor abuses. Unionized childcare workers represented by SEIU went on a one-day strike to protest poverty-level wages, extreme salary stratification, and unreasonable work expectations due to chronic staffing shortages.

The workers’ various complaints are fundamentally intertwined. Low wages and strenuous work hours create high turnover rates (a problem that affects the entire nonprofit sector), which consequently raises the workloads and expectations of the workers who remain on staff.

The strike shut down 10 early childhood sites run by the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago, interfering with the organization’s mission to provide for its marginalized constituents. There are no easy answers to the economic plight that many nonprofits like the YMCA face. Treating nonprofit employees unfairly, however, is certainly not a solution.

Millennials—who have become the largest share of the U.S. workforce—are significantly more pro-labor than the preceding generations. This has given hope to unions, which have struggled in recent decades due to a number of factors ranging from deindustrialization to union-busting laws around the nation. The events in Chicago may point toward more labor militancy among nonprofit workers.

Pro-union sentiment, however, is far from universal. An informal poll conducted by Key Elements Group LLC of 71 industry professionals of all ages found that 68% of respondents did not want to join a union dedicated to nonprofit workers.

As millennials’ share of the workforce grows and Generation Z begins their careers, the barometer may shift in the opposite direction. Nonprofit leadership needs to prepare for this possibility. What happened in Chicago could happen with greater frequency, especially if organizations fail to adapt to the expectations of rising generations.

The Chicago Community Trust Follows Ford’s Lead

(The Chicago Community Trust President Terry Mazany)

The Ford Foundation appears to have struck a nerve.

Following the grant-making giant’s announcement in June to provide more funding for nonprofit operations support, other groups are following suit. Terry Mazany – president of The Chicago Community Trust – announced that his organization will begin offering grants from between $35,000 to $300,000 to Chicago’s “anchor organizations.” The grants are designed to explicitly fund operations budgets.

Mazany acknowledged the shortcomings of hitherto applied grant-making criteria in a speech at his foundation’s “State of the Community” event:

As foundations, we have been rightfully accused of creating too much administrative work that takes nonprofit resources away from their mission and establishing grant requirements that distort a nonprofit’s mission in order to satisfy funder priorities. Some of the things we do actually undermine your ability to be successful.

It may take years before this new framework proves its worth, but the logic behind it is predicated on basic business concepts. When invested with unrestricted capital, businesses can grow dynamically. Nonprofits, however, have long been bogged down by onerous requirements attached to their funding. The results-based, programmatic approach that demands concrete reporting on the progress of carefully delineated line items does not typically give nonprofits flexibility.

No-strings-attached funding provides nonprofits with breathing room, allowing them to accrue staff, make technology improvements, and increase overhead with the goal of improving overall efficacy as opposed to supporting individual projects.

Mazany also announced that, like the Ford Foundation, the Chicago Community Trust will begin focusing inequality and social justice causes. In strong words, he remarked: “We must stop kicking the can of racism down the road for the next generation to resolve.”

Key Elements Group LLC will continue reporting on this trend in grant-making.

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