Something has changed and it’s making us nervous. We didn’t expect it, we can’t quite explain it, and yet here it is: nonprofits are bleeding employees. And this is a problem. Not a trivial problem we can work through with a few tactical shifts in how we recruit, but an existential problem that threatens the way we do our work. And so it should be. Because we’ve been getting away with something for a very long time that we’re not getting away with anymore. What do you think that thing is? It has something to do with how we value our employees, but if you said compensation, you might be looking for too easy a scapegoat.
To deliver our missions, nonprofits have relied on so-called passion power: the devoted commitment of paid and unpaid staff (yes, I’m including volunteers here). We count on the deep devotion of our people to put in the time and effort to produce our social impact, usually in adverse conditions that involve emotionally challenging work. This tests our resilience as individuals and as organizations (see here for more on resilience). It’s an unwritten social contract that has long been a key success factor in the nonprofit business model. But that contract is breaking down. While we can attribute the changes we are seeing now to the “Great Resignation”, using that as a reason to avoid investigating further could prove a fatal flaw. The delicate balance of this agreement with employees has been overturned, and a reckoning is due. Nonprofit employers must now, perhaps for the first time, turn their attention seriously to the well-researched topic of employee commitment and implement the changes it points towards.
Ultimately, the qualities of an employee’s commitment to their organization drive their decision to stay in or leave a job. Organizational psychologists Natalie Alan and John Meyer innovated a three-component model of employee commitment (TCM) that has stood as the definitive concept to explain what keeps an employee in their job. TCM posits that employees may experience dimensions of affective commitment driven by emotional attachment, normative commitment driven by obligation, or continuance commitment driven by an aversion to the costs of leaving. When Meyer and colleagues analyzed data from other published studies, they consistently found that affectively committed employees had the lowest turnover, absenteeism, stress, health complaints, and the strongest work engagement, performance and organizational citizenship behaviour [2,3].
Because of the personally meaningful relationship that employees in nonprofit and other caring professions have with their work, we assume they hold an intrinsic motivation that creates a strong affective commitment to their organizations. However, this affective commitment that has sustained the workforce in not-for-profits and other caring professions for so long has been eroding for some time, with many employees “sticking around” out of their sense of duty or out of not knowing what other work they are qualified for. The current environment has loosened even these bonds and people are letting go.
To understand this shifting dynamic, we need to consider the reality of nonprofit work. Management guru Peter Drucker hinted as early as 1990 that the very commitment that drives NPO employees’ contributions is what puts them at risk of burnout, or emotional exhaustion. A well-documented problem among employees of NPOs and public health care professionals, emotional exhaustion is antecedent to negative outcomes such as absenteeism, turnover intention, and actual turnover[6,7,8]. Role stress, lack of autonomy and low social support have been identified as predisposing factors to turnover intention and actual turnover among employees in these kinds of emotionally demanding roles. The strong intrinsic motivation not-for-profit employees have for their work is proving insufficient to protect them from the cumulative effects of this demanding work.
Given their strong emotional attachment to their work, NPO employees would be expected to have resilience and experience benefits consistent with those found for private-sector employees with similar affective commitment, such as fewer health complaints, higher positive affect, and better well-being. In fact, NPO employees who view their work as their calling in life have been shown at higher risk for burnout and leaving their job than those who viewed their work more pragmatically (as simply a job or career)6.
Allan and Meyer’s work points to an effect that seems to have gone unaddressed by nonprofit employers in recent years, even before the pandemic. The affective commitment of their employees has begun to erode as their basic psychological needs to cope and thrive in their work are not being met. Affective commitment naturally wanes without fulfilment of everyone’s psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness, as described by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan in their self-determination theory. Numerous studies have confirmed that employees are more committed when they are provided greater autonomy, have opportunities to grow their competence, and experience relatedness with coworkers. By contrast, nonprofit employees who perceive greater procedural constraints on their work (i.e. bureaucracy) report lower commitment to their organization.
Employees experiencing burnout simply do not have their psychological needs met. Addressing psychological needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness has been shown to improve both well-being (lower anxiety-depression) and job performance. Employees who view their work as a calling have a strong need for autonomy as they see their work as an extension of themselves. It is, after all, their self-defined purpose in life. They value their competence as they are motivated to do better work to learn more about their passion and make a greater impact. In fact, calling-oriented employees who take a competence-oriented learning mindset are more resilient to burnout6. As part of a social movement, calling-oriented employees are motivated to work with people who share their values and beliefs. Employees who are given the ability to create greater relatedness with others in their work environment report lower burnout.
Nonprofit organizations can turn the tides, but it will take a decisive cultural change to keep their people from slipping further away. Fortunately, organizational psychologists have examined management styles and structures extensively. Much of their work points to a style of leadership that can bridge the gap towards helping employees fulfil their psychological needs and restoring their affective commitment to their work. This dynamic leadership style is the focus of Part II in this series: the Motivator Manager.