Opinion: The next generation of nonprofit workers are demanding more for themselves, and we should support them

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Opinion: The next generation of nonprofit workers are demanding more for themselves, and we should support them

They should be set up to do meaningful work that helps repair the world, while still living whole, happy, joyful lives.
May 1, 2022

I hate stories about initiation rites – incidents where fraternities, sports teams, secret societies, gangs, law schools – put newcomers through physical or psychological trials to make sure they deserve entry to the institution. The justification that current and past members went through initiation, so new members should too, never really worked for me. Why glorify the hardships of the past and bring them into the future if you don’t have to?

And yet, I have found myself having judgemental conversations about the next generation of non-profit workers more than once this season. They won’t have meetings before 10 a.m. They want a four day work week.They need to have almond milk in the staff kitchen. Today I heard myself say, “I thought I was lucky when I went to work for an organization that had enough pens! Who are these kids?”

But why do I begrudge a next generation of workers advocating for a starting time that makes sense in their lives, a sustainable work-life balance, coffee that has less environmental impact (let alone enough writing implements)? I am for each of these things in theory, and yet I have been known to call the people who ask for them ‘entitled.’

So what are we entitled to in a job? And what is our work entitled to from us?

We are contemplating post-pandemic work life with an exhausted, stressed, psychologically changed work force facing the deep needs of a chaotic and ever-changing city. And in so doing, we find ourselves with multiple and often conflicting perspectives on the question of how to take care of each other within our organizations while still meeting our external missions. The conflicting parties look different across organizations: management versus line workers; unionizers versus hold outs; millennials versus Gen X’ers; Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) versus white employees; board of directors versus staff; family caretakers versus those without family responsibilities – with every combination of those identities mixed in together. There are no easy answers, and no clear mandates about how much of your well-being your work is responsible for, or about how much you owe your job. In the Apple TV show, “Severance,” characters cope by severing the connection between people’s work lives and home lives, so that you do not remember what you do when you are home, and you know nothing of the rest of your life when you are at work – but that seems like a pretty severe solution, and one with some serious drawbacks.

So then how do we figure this out? There are no easy answers, and there are a few good examples. As I struggle with it, I try to think about what I would want for and ask of my kids and their friends, when and if they enter the nonprofit workforce. I want them to do the difficult, meaningful work that helps repair the world. And I want them to have whole, happy, joyful lives. I want workplaces for them that ask for a lot and offer a lot. I don’t think their offices need to serve as therapy or a spa – but I do think they need to be places where they can show up in their full identities, can feel both comfortable and challenged and can leave at the end of the day with enough energy to cook dinner, go to the movies, or take care of their kids (or aging mothers!). They need to work towards a clear mission that makes a difference in the city and the world and they need health insurance, vacation time, strong supervision, connection to co-workers. And they need clear and equitable systems that work for them and their colleagues.

This is not a place where I have solutions to offer – only questions and wishes. I would like working in our organizations and our sector to feel like living in the world that I am working towards: one that offers each of us justice, wholeness, freedom and the chance to thrive. I want us to live in a city and world where we provide the same for each other that we want for ourselves and our children.

Lisa Pilar Cowan
is the vice president of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation and in this capacity she helps with strategy, development and oversight of foundation programs and grantmaking. Lisa has been working with community-based organizations for the last 25 years, first as a community health educator and program director at several youth-serving agencies, then as a senior consultant at Community Resource Exchange. Lisa was the co-founder of College Access: Research and Action, where she continues to act as an advisor. Most recently, Lisa was the principal consultant at Hummingbird Consulting from 2013-2016.