How Nonprofit Leaders Can Ensure Every Part of Their Organization Advances Social Change

(Reprinted with Permission of The Chronicle of Philanthropy)

We have achieved a landmark shift in our culture — corporations are joining nonprofits in the effort to create positive social change. What started with conscious capitalism and Benefit Corporations has now rippled into full-blown philanthropic efforts by Fortune 500 companies. To ensure that we in the social sector are keeping pace, I partnered with my good friend and colleague, Joanna St. Angelo of the Sammons Center for the Arts, to co-author an article for The Chronicle of Philanthropy entitled “How Nonprofit Leaders Can Ensure Every Part of Their Organization Advances Social Change.” In it, we challenge ourselves to look beyond our own missions so that we can collectively create greater social change. We encourage you to use our checklist as a litmus test at your next board or executive team meeting to ensure that your nonprofit is maximizing its influence and ability to create a better world.

Last month’s announcement from the Business Roundtable that chief executives had declared it was time to advance the interests of their employees, the environment, and other social causes ­ — rather than simply putting shareholders first — was a watershed moment for all of us who care about advancing the social good. But it should also force all nonprofit leaders to ask whether we are doing enough to ensure our organizations are doing enough.

After all, nonprofits account for more than 10 percent of the labor market, with 12.3 million jobs. Nonprofits provide immense public benefit, but as individual organizations, it’s easy to simply focus on a single cause, such as providing education or cultural performances. Too often we don’t think about our role in ensuring that everybody is paid a living wage and that we are reducing our carbon footprints — unless our organizations work on those causes.

To ensure we are all thinking about what we can do to create a better world, here are key questions for leaders, their boards, and others to consider:

Employees, Consultants, and Others

Does your organization pay a living wage? Review the compensation of your employees, contractors, and service providers. Do you pay at reasonable levels? Do you try to support women and minority-owned local businesses when possible? What is the multiplier between the top paid and the lowest paid employee? Do you compensate equitably based on gender, age, and ethnicity? Are you in line with statewide or regional compensation surveys?

Do you provide benefits and professional development that support employees and their families? Assess your benefit structure for possible improvements. Do you have an appropriate level of sick leave, paid lunch breaks, maternity and paternity leave, and vacation time? Do you offer health insurance and retirement benefits? Do you provide a private place for nursing mothers? Do you conduct performance reviews and assist employees with professional development to improve their skills?

Do you ensure a safe workplace free of harassment, retaliation, and fear? Evaluate your policies by looking at nationally agreed-upon guidelines. Do you have a zero-tolerance policy and culture that makes sure no one faces harassment or worse? Do you have appropriate and confidential ways of allowing employees, contractors and volunteers to report and remedy issues — no matter who reports or who violates the policy? Do you have an inclusive and affirming environment for LGBTQI+ individuals?

Ethical and Legal Behavior

Do you embrace transparency, promote equity, and protect privacy at all levels? Examine your policies and practices to maintain an ethical culture by treating everyone fairly and presenting information in an open and transparent way. Work to ensure that your technology and filing practices protect the identities of your clients.

Are you known as an ethical organization because you follow and train employees on legal best practices? Evaluate your policies to ensure you are following the latest best practices. Do you have the board and staff sign conflict-of-interest agreements annually? Do you have a whistle-blower policy? Do you follow legal and equitable hiring practices and adhere to the Fair Labor Standards Act? What steps do you take to make sure your policies are followed 100 percent of the time? Are these policies just in writing or are they well-known by employees and a vital part of your organization’s culture?

Your Mission and Impact

Is the mission and work of your organization still relevant? Reflect on this important statement. Impact is the bottom line of the nonprofit world. We must be relentless in pursuing our mission, but we must rethink our strategy if conditions change. Do you have a recent strategic plan that clearly outlines your organization’s direction and encourages action? Can all board and staff members recite the organization’s mission? Do you chase the mission or chase the money? Do you ask clients about their needs and make sure your solutions are relevant? Does the organization regularly track what it achieves and share it with the public, such as in an annual report?

Are you competitive or cooperative? Ask yourself this tough question. Do you know what your organization does that is essential, and do you work to help others understand where you excel? Do you collaborate with other nonprofits that might be stronger in particular services or programs to encourage efficiency, amplify impact, and provide a better continuum of services for clients?

Advancing Social and Environmental Goals

Do you do everything possible to reduce your environmental footprint? Assess your organization’s consumption. Do you recycle everything possible? Do you strive for energy efficiency and conserve water? Do you look for carbon offsets and avoid any projects that could lead to pollution? Do you encourage employees and clients to do the same in their own homes?

Do you join with other organizations to fight for social justice, arts education, environmental change, and other matters even if they don’t affect your organization directly? Consider if you are doing enough to fight for what matters. Advocacy can be hard for an individual organization, but collectively organizations can join forces and help policy makers understand how changes can help or harm everyone who lives in your community — especially those who are most vulnerable.

At first glance, this list can be overwhelming, but success starts with taking the first step. If every nonprofit made its mission to resolve one item on the checklist each year, this would have enormous impact. If enough nonprofits commit to making better use of shared resources, it could even create a new class of “benefit nonprofits.” Much like the certification of benefit corporations, a designation like this would be a magnet for talent, funding, and resources, while also helping nonprofits save money and effort in the long run.

As the business world talks about doing more, why not ask ourselves: What more can we be doing to lead the way?

We hope you find this article useful as you strengthen your organization’s commitment to social change. If you have made strides in implementing these ideas across your organization, we’d love to hear what strategies worked best for you.​

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