What We’re Learning About Building Healthier Nonprofits

Last week, a small but mighty group of us met at Idealist’s offices in NYC for our second Feminists At Work salon on “Building Healthier Nonprofits.” (Read the original invitation here). It was a lively conversation with many threads, some notes of which are included below.

As hosts, Allison Jones, CV Harquail, and I offered a few questions to the group and then as a group we decided what we’d talk about the rest of the evening. Read on for ideas and questions generated from this evening as well as clear, community-sourced feminist practices folks are using and would offer in the spirit of building healthier nonprofits. We barely scratched the surface of all there was discuss and still came up with helpful insights and useful advice.

Questions we brought to the group:

  1. How can we shift our organizational dynamics so that we have structures and relationships that reflect our diverse and inclusive values?
  2. How can we shift from a “culture of sacrifice” to a culture of caring… caring that includes not only our constituents, but also our colleagues and ourselves?
  3. How can we use a nonprofit’s higher purpose to authorize ourselves and our colleagues to change the world of work itself?

Questions we’re thinking about individually:

  1. How do I ensure that everyone in my organization is getting their needs met?
  2. What is my role as an HR person?
  3. How do I help foster a community in my organization of self-advocates who also advocate for others?
  4. Compassion fatigue. How to address this?
  5. How to avoid burnout?
  6. How do we embolden ourselves while taking care of relationships?
  7. In a position of cheerleading, how do I make sure everyone is getting their needs met?
  8. How to advocate for one’s self? (Remember that people will respect you when you advocate for yourself)?
  9. How do I, when I think about individual needs, also think about how to build better systems/practices in the organization to ensure these needs get met routinely (for myself and others)?
  10. How to manage feelings of resentment because so much of what I/we do is 1) invisible and 2) not compensated, yet critical to success of the organization?
  11. How can I ask for more power in my role within my organization?
  12. How to create communities of care?
  13. How to balance valuing career ambitions with feeling guilty about leaving a job that’s been good to me but is now holding me back?

Questions we’re thinking about in our organizations: 

  1. Risk! What do we risk when we push our organizations to be more just, feminists, caring?
  2. How to speak in the language of our audience/constituents?
  3. Maintaining/building on relationships with the population that we serve.
  4. Finding meaningful (yet simple!) ways to partner with other organizations.
  5. How to deal with issues of ego (when collaborating and or competing with other nonprofit organizations)?
  6. Utilizing/including male allies in our feminist work.
  7. “I’m afraid of the “not invented here/reinventing the wheel” syndrome”
  8. Money
  9. Nonprofit expectations regarding salaries, reinforcing cycles of poverty, unhealthy lifestyles, un-sustainability, lack of valuing the work
  10. How do I make sure I am “doing good” while doing well enough individually?
  11. How to manage and be responsive to employees who aggressively squeak the wheel as well as those who are silent with their nose to the grindstone?
  12. How do we change an organization’s culture to one of support for all of us, versus reinforcing existing social power relationships (where we imagine that one party is better than others or one person is not as important as others)?
  13. How to retain people and maintain diversity?
  14. What are ways to spread the work of sharing best practices?

Practices (Putting ideas into action!)


  1. Be not afraid of the unfamiliar. If you find yourself rejecting someone who’s name is unusual to you, do a double take. Might help you catch an unconscious bias.
  2. Believe in yourself and your mission. Show this by advocating for yourself and your mission.
  3. Step outside of your zone of comfort (and into your zone of safety)
  4. Ask for help, people actually do find it flattering to be asked. They don’t think you’re a loser if you ask
  5. As a burnout fix: Limit email
  6. As a burnout fix:- Schedule to end your work project 15 minutes early with an intentional wrap up of tying up loose ends, deciding next steps.
  7. Put what you want for your job/career/project in writing before you meet with a person to talk about it, and keep these goals explicit in your own awareness
  8. Develop a partnership with a colleague with whom you can collaborate on managing stress, etc. Check in and be honest with each other about your mental state. Listen to each other’s advice about addressing it.
  9. Meet up with coworkers and don’t talk about work per se, and instead aim to create a community of caring for each other (as colleagues and fellow activists).
  10. Set clear expectations about what you can do, what you need from others, what you are asking of your organizations.
  11. Advocate for changes that help you and your organization at the same time. Use your advocacy for yourself to create space for positive organizational change, for new org’l routines and policies, etc.
  12. Advocate for others (other women, feminists, movers & shakers, inside and outside your organization).
  13. Admit fear with sense of humor. Honesty.
  14. Proactively align yourself with your organization’s priorities.
  15. You can always use your direct service work or your role as a way to make change.


  1. Ask organizations what they do well.
  2. Ask organizations what they would do differently looking back.
  3. Look for organizational wisdom about making a nonprofit healthier.
  4. Share knowledge rather than hoarding it or forgetting to even think that it might be useful to others.
  5. Practice sharing knowledge about specifically feminist issues: diversity, flexibility, fairness, gender balance.
  6. Look for organizations that encourage self-advocacy, self-care, other positive/inclusive actions. Learn and share some of their practices.
  7. Be transparent. Share what your organization does. Share what you do that works.
  8. “You can always use your direct service, what you do, to create feminist change, as well as healthier practices.”

Questions for continuing the conversation in 2015 (a bit repetition here):

  1. How do we embolden ourselves as individuals while taking care of relationship with others?
  2. How to know when we need to “be a cheerleader” for ourselves versus trust that “the work will speak for itself?”
  3. “People will never give you more than you asked for.”
  4. Be your own self-advocate (and put what you want/need in writing to hold yourself accountable)
  5. Connect yourself and self-advocacy to change in the organization. “Here are x, y, z ways that BLANK is good for the organization, ways it is good for the community, ways it is good for me”
  6. What work do we value? Does  our organization value? What work do we value as a culture? All of these need to work together when we’re changing nonprofit culture.
  7. “I have a fear of pushing too hard. It’s risky because my place in system is tenuous, especially as a person from an underrepresented/ marginalized group. I don’t have financial resources to fall back on if I lose my job.”
  8. We do have a lot of knowledge and when we share it this sharing makes the difference!
  9. What are our standards in our organizations (policies, pay/living wage, etc.)
  10. For-profit versus nonprofit approaches to salaries
As always, it’s surprising to see just how many questions and issues we can generate in two hours. And, it’s encouraging to see just how many practices we are using — and can try using– to make a difference right where we work. The long list can be daunting, but take heart and take action: Consider just one question. Talk about even one issue with a colleague. Experiment with one new practice of your own. It all matters. We all do and we have the power to create new systems (working in or outside the ones we’ve got).
-Lex and CV
What We’re Learning About Building Healthier Nonprofits

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