In episode 78 of Mission: Impact, Carol Hamilton celebrates Mission: Impact’s 3rd anniversary and goes solo to talk about:
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Carol Hamilton: When I work with a client on strategic planning, one of the steps that I take the group through is a brainstorm on the wider trends that are impacting their organization and the field that they work within. I sometimes get the question of – why did we bother doing this if the results do not get into the final product – and sometimes what is lifted up in that wider environmental scan is reflected in the final product and sometimes it is not. Yet I still think it is important for a group to think out beyond their organization and consider what is going on more broadly that could impact their future.
Welcome to the three year podiversary of Mission: Impact. I released the first few episodes of the podcast in August of 2020 and a lot has happened in the wider world during that period. On this 3 year pod-iversary episode, I will explore a couple big trends I am observing in the sector.
Mission: Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategy consultant. Mission: Impact is brought to you by Grace Social Sector Consulting. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers. All of this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact.
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I have been thinking a lot recently about the shifts that I have observed over the course of my career. One of the big trends that I am noticing and experiencing myself – is the reconsideration of the role of work in our lives. Over the course of my career starting in the late 80s/early 90s, the idea of finding your dream job that fully matched your skills, talents and interests became more and more pronounced. I remember my older sister recommending the book What Color is Your Parachute, early on in my career. I dutifully did all the exercises to hone in on what was going to be more fulfilling in work. Countless other career related books with the general theme of – love your job and you will never work a day in your life – came out over the years – and I read way too many of them. With each job change, I was looking for greater optimization. More of this, less of that. Luckily I did always keep in mind – that as one boss had told me along the way – there is a reason they call it work – and there is a reason you are paid. There are always aspects of every job that are not fun.
As we have been encouraged to follow our passions and center that as we think about our careers – more recently people are examining the dark side of that pursuit. How jobs that are about your passion are ripe for exploitation. For example, When there are many people waiting for their chance to get into a career, it is easy for employers to pay very little because the people in the coveted roles are just “lucky to be there” – in fields such as publishing or the arts.
In the nonprofit sector, we have wages of fulfillment of feeling like we are contributing to the greater social good or fighting for a good cause. And hopefully we are – and that is one aspect that has certainly been a motivating factor for me over the years in the sector. And yet there is a downside to this.
It can also lead to workers being used and abused. With the notion that if you are doing nonprofit work, you should be ok with lower wages and a broken desk chair and that slow computer and outdated software. I have talked before on this podcast about the concept of “vocational awe”, a term coined by Fobazi Michelle Ettarh which really crystallized it for me.
As Ettarh, a librarian by profession, writes – vocational awe ”is the idea that libraries as institutions are inherently good. It assumes that some or all core aspects of the profession are beyond critique, and it, in turn, underpins many librarians’ sense of identity and emotional investment in the profession.”
This concept does not just apply to librarians – it applies to much of nonprofit work – most helping professions. If you love your job and you fully identify with the job, you don’t really need to be paid well or have healthy work conditions – you should feel lucky to always be asked to go above and beyond.
And then we wonder why the sector is afflicted with a huge case of burn out. Burn out is certainly showing up all over our economy – and the conditions in our sector make it even more likely – where the need so often outstripping demand for our services, the constant struggle for funding and support and rarely being fully staffed – make burn out rife.
And more broadly, it is not really surprising given how our economic life has been consistently unraveled over the last 40+ years. Several books I have read over the past couple years have helped me understand how we got here. One was “Your job will not love you back” by Sarah Jaffee. It examines how a labor of love – in a variety of contexts including the nonprofit sector – can lead to that exploitation that I have been talking about
One that I read more recently was the Good Enough Job by Simone Stolzoff. It really looks how wrapped up our identities have become in what we do – and how that “love what you do” has meant that people are looking for their careers to fulfill way more than is really possible in our lives. Somewhat in the same way that our romantic relationships – looking for “the one” has created expectations of one person fulfilling all our needs in a way that is really not possible.
One of his remedies is cultivating a hobby. Finding flow and fulfillment is doing something outside of work – and not with the idea that you are pursuing it to create a side hustle. Just doing the thing for the thing.
Two more books that put these trends in context for me include The Sum of Us: How Racism Hurts Everyone by Heather McGhee and Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation By Anne Helen Petersen.
Both examine the historical, economic and sociological background of how we got to where we are today. And together they helped me understand the trends I have experienced since starting to work in the Reagan era.
McGhee’s book explains why we can’t have nice things in the US – the example she opens with is very illustrative. Apparently public pools were common in the early 20th century in the US. But when there was a push to integrate pools – white people decided to close them and pave them over rather than share them with people of color. Instead private swimming clubs popped up all over the suburbs. This dynamic has played out over and over and undermined many attempts to bring the type of social safety net that many European countries enjoy – white people in the US would apparently rather go without – without affordable housing, universal health care, decent wages supported by unionization – than share these public goods with people of color.
In Can’t Even – which really in some ways has a misleading title – Petersen examines the historical, economic and sociological trends that led to the high level of economic precarity that our increasingly gig based economy brings. She argues that the anxiety that that brings, drives a lot of the behavior that we observe within our work and broader lives today. One interesting thread that she describes is how the workaholic ethic of the tech, finance, consulting and legal professions with staying at the office late into the evening, has spread throughout the economy – and become so commonplace that actually working 9-5 is now called quiet quitting.
For me, this has been part of my attempt to dismantle my internalized protestant work ethic and disentangle my sense of worth being derived from my productivity. It is an ongoing and emerging pursuit and I can still feel guilty when I prioritize rest over work.
What does any of this mean for you as you work in the sector? I would invite you to consider what assumptions and “givens” you have accepted as ‘just the way it is’ over your career in terms of how your work is structured and what you are expected to give the organization you work for or support? To what extent is your identity wrapped up in what you do and who you do it for? How might you begin or expand pursuits that you do just for the sake and pleasure of doing them?
How might your organization better focus its attention and initiatives so that it works well within its constraints instead of just pretending they don’t exist? What guardrails can the organization agree to, to prioritize worker well being – such as striking the phrase “fast paced environment” from job descriptions (that is one that I read as code for we are all workaholics here or our workplace is chaotic and disorganized!), or considering the possibility of a 4 day work week – or closing the office for a period of time, not just at the winter holidays, to give everyone a break.
And how can the structures that support organizations help make all these things possible? By funding general support, streamlining reporting requirements and for government grants – fully funding the true cost of providing services?
I invite you to consider how we could create a sector together where everyone thrives and no one has to be a martyr to the cause.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me. thank you for helping me celebrate this three year milestone for the podcast. You can find the full transcript of the episode, as well as links to the books I mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as Cindy Rivera Grazer of 100 Ninjas for her production support.
Mission: Impact is brought to you by Grace Social Sector Consulting. Grace Social Sector brings you whole-brain strategic planning, mapping, & audits for nonprofits and associations. I hope you enjoyed the episode. Please take a minute to share it with a colleague or friend. We appreciate you helping us get the word out. And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
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