Nonprofits and Professionals – Why Can’t We Just Get Along?

I am a member of a lively mailing list populated by people who work in the nonprofit sector in the San Francisco Bay Area. The online community is a project of the regional chapter of the national Young Non Profit Professionals association. The organization aims to improve the sector inside and out, to help it be more effective in our communities and societies and a better place to work. Among list participants, two complaints come up often: limited advancement opportunities and low pay. Both issues are affected negatively by a cultural matter, a conflict between the usual role of “professionals” in society and the nonprofit world’s conception of the relationship between cause, organization, and employee.

In for-profit companies and independent business, a professional may be defined as such:

“An autonomous member of a self-regulating occupation comprising a theoretical body of knowledge and standard tools and techniques, and bound by a code of ethics.”

The gold standard examples are doctors and lawyers. To practice at all, people in these professions must be recognized by a board composed of members of the profession. Although a “public relations professional” doesn’t need a license, people in the field advance certain standards, often through certification programs, and encourage employers to evaluate workers by those standards. As experts in a domain, professional workers commit to “using its powers for good.” Within institutions, professionals protect broad societal interests from being trampled by organizational interests. Unfortunately mission-driven entities sometimes immunize themselves against challenges by professionals by simply “de-professionalizing” the jobs.

An example from my own experience: A volunteer coordinator with whom I worked asked for my help in producing an online volunteer survey. In the past, surveys had been administered via paper, which made delivery, collection, and data analysis cumbersome. Having worked in several tech companies, I was eager to use some skills that were underutilized in my day-to-day job with the nonprofit. The software tool provided a number of option for ensuring the validity of the data, including things like giving out a link that could be activated only once and only from within the email address of the invitee. There was also a choice either to retain the data matching an email address to each individual’s survey (and its responses to each item) or to “lose” that data, enabling people to answer anonymously.

The volunteer coordinator’s plan: Imply to people that we were collecting information anonymously while keeping their data on the back end. From the position of “helper” rather than a professional technology advisor, I could only suggest how this should be handled. I could not determine policies or procedures. Neither could the IT Manager. The volunteer coordinator had the discretion to make the call.

As you read this, you may or may not agree with the morality of her approach. I would argue that this question should not be left to morality of each organization or worker. What does this have to do with professionalism? The shift from mores to professional discipline is central to the question.

“Is it the usual or standard technique to reveal that a survey is not anonymous? Is it typical to use non-anonymous surveys in this context?” Junior-level professionals can answer these questions, even if they don’t know why the standard practices exist.

“What kind of privacy expectations do people have when they fill out such surveys? How do people currently perceive the trust relationship in this organization? How would they feel if they knew the organization was doing this?” Degree programs, professional associations, and mentors engage practitioners in inquiry and learning around these concerns.

“If information technology is used to deceive people (even for ‘a good cause’), how will this affect society? What is the spirit of our organizational policy on communication, and what course of action fits the culture we are trying to create?” A senior professional technologist should be cognizant of the first question; a senior HR professional should be focused on the second.

All-too-often, nonprofit organizations embrace a world view in which the Good of the Cause automatically makes the organization and its bureaucratic leaders Good. Dissenters to organizational policy or procedures and those who would impose limiting conditions on policy-making are seen as traitors. Moving up, in many nonprofits means taking on a management position – accepting more responsibility for representing the agency as an entity. Professionalism is viewed as being in opposition to unity around the cause.

Managerial authority unyoked from expert authority can hurt clients, workers, and society as a whole. It hurts workers via the problems named at the beginning of this email. As compared to other white-collar workers, professionals learn more, earn more, experience more challenge in their daily jobs, and earn an increasing amount of discretion and freedom. Because professional occupations are defined by hard skills, the path up is typically somewhat more objective; there are clear steps in the ladder, and there are distinct ladders even within a single broad area like “marketing” or “training”. Even the profession of management calls its members to measure a particular employer’s behaviors against an outside standard.

When I made the transition from for-profit employment to non-profit employment, I was prepared for a reduced earning potential. I considered that a reasonable price to pay for what I might have described as “meaning”, the chance to make a difference. I was not prepared for the frequent crises of integrity that came from being stripped of the ability to “question authority”, an entitlement which the disciplinary parameters of the professions help to provide.

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