Earlier this week, I got an email from a friend who works at a small foundation. Her message was simple: “you are not going to believe what they did to me; my time here is going to be hellacious and depressing; they have gone so corporate.” I didn’t have to ask; I knew exactly what she meant, as I’ve been hearing this too much lately, and no longer a phenomenon reserved for the mega nonprofits.
What made this message more poignant was how I had spent my Saturday working with a nonprofit board and the executive director on the organization’s mission and core values. Increasingly, to help folks understand exactly what core values are, I talk about the mission being the what you do and the core values being the principles by which you abide in doing the what.
One of the core values this group identified is one that 95% of the groups I have dealt with over the decades identified as one of their core values: human dignity. It may not always get expressed in those exact words, but it is, ultimately, what everyone means: we value each individual, meeting each where s/he is, and treating each and every human being with the respect and dignity deserved. That used to be far closer to the nonprofit reality than it is today.
One of the things about core values that too few either a) understand and/or b) want to understand, is that core values aren’t just about how we will treat clients or donors, but how we will treat everyone affiliated with the organization—including staff. Historically, the nonprofit sector did a good job of respecting human dignity—almost to a fault. We walked that walk. Increasingly, though, it appears that more and more are just talking the talk—and not just when it comes to staff.
So, when my friend said her organization had gone “corporate,” I knew exactly what she meant, and it deeply saddened me, not just for her, but for our sector as a whole. Those who are regular readers of this blog know, as do all of my poor students, that I am constantly admonishing the nonprofit sector to understand that as the mission-driven business sector there are, indeed, many lessons that we can and must learn from the money-driven business sector, but that we absolutely must not become like the money-driven business sector.
We must understand that we, the nonprofit sector, do some things far better than the for-profit sector, and we must do everything in our power to hang on to those elements, and as we take from the for-profit sector practices and ideas, so should the for-profit sector acknowledge what we do better and take from us. But it would seem that our inferiority complex is so strongly entrenched that we see no value in our own ways and run to embrace the ways of the for-profit world, without assessing their value, while jettisoning our own ways. (Funny what we take, though, like the insignificant title of CEO, all the while ignoring the philosophy that hard work should be rewarded by a good salary.)
Rapidly being thrown out with the bath water is our sector’s historical respect for—no, cherishing of—human dignity. It is being forsaken for the bottom line. Not only does it not have to be that way, it cannot be that way if we want to retain that which makes the nonprofit sector special. A successful bottom line and respect are not mutually exclusive; we can, and absolutely must, have both. Any leader who trades one for the other—respect over bottom line or bottom line over respect—should not be in that position of leadership.
Nonprofits must make profits; they must have structure and policies and goals and metrics and on and on; they must evaluate performance and keep those who perform well and let go those who don’t. But absolutely none of this warrants the defacement of human dignity. Shame on each and every one of us who acts otherwise, as you are contributing to the death knell of what has made our sector great.