Stimulate Your Brain

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on March 20th, 2020 in Thoughts & Commentary

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There is a part of the brain that we who work in the nonprofit sector should understand: the right temporoparietal junction, or rTPJ. This part of the brain, which sits a bit above and back from the top of the right ear, controls a number of things important to nonprofit work — empathy, morality, selflessness, and self-control.  Scientists have been studying this part of the brain years and here are some of what we know about it?

  • Those with a bigger rTPJ make people behave more altruistically; 
  • If electric currents are applied to the rTPJ, thereby stimulating it, people are  better able to understand another’s position, even taking it on; 
  • If the rTPJ is impeded (by using magnetic fields, for example), so is a person’s ability to think clearly about morality and, thus, they make decisions that are less moral. 
  • The most recent study found that when the back part of the rTPJ — the part that’s all about empathy — was impeded, people became less empathetic, wanting smaller immediate gratification over delaying gratification for a bigger return. 

While I’m not suggesting you measure job applicant’s rTPJ, empathy is an important quality for a nonprofit employee or volunteer, so long as it doesn’t control them.  The ability to understand another’s position is yet also an important characteristic for nonprofit employees — any person, for that matter.  And the need to have employees and board members with strong moral compasses is crucial. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about people’s (and our society’s) moral compass as I’ve made students wrestle with the discrepancies that are too often found in the salaries between the tiers of a business’ organizational chart.  Sadly, large discrepancies between the top of that chart and the bottom are not unique to for-profit companies, but also exist within the nonprofit sector.

I am equally bothered by another common practice in the nonprofit sector that existed long before the term “gig economy” was created.  That practice is hiring what would be employees as 1099 subcontractors.  I can think of any number of nonprofits whose executive director is an “independent consultant” despite having been in the position for years. Intellectually, I understand a board’s argument for arranging that position and others that way, but morally, I cannot countenance it. 

Many nonprofits in California have been fighting the 2019 law (AB5), that makes it more difficult for any position to be classified as a contractor as opposed to an employee.  Yes, nonprofits find it cheaper and easier to hire contract workers.  They can pay lower wages, don’t have to pay benefits, don’t have to consider bonuses, they’re easier to fire, and don’t require performance reviews. 

But this is where 4TPJ comes into play:  is this the moral thing to do?  Is it moral, or even empathetic, to make the individual worker sacrifice for the greater good of the organization?  Or, should the organization sacrifice for the betterment of what is so often described as “our most important resource?”  Though so often put out there in language that suggests a sacrifice, it absolutely isn’t an organization sacrifice.  It is, instead, a failure to plan better, to do a better job of raising and earning funds, to live its core values, and more.   And it is a failure to build a culture that states loudly and clearly that we value our people. 

As a sector, we are expected to improve the quality of life for all, not just our clients and the communities we serve.  That “all” includes those who push out our mission promises, who are the front, and so often, the first line of our organization.  That includes our internal community, as well.  Instead of serving pizza and beverages at board meetings, it might be time to provide some electric stimuli. 

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.

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