Advancing civil society by investing in our workforce


Rusty Stahl


Civil society looks very different around the world. But there is one common-sense common denominator: civil society people are civil society programmes.

Service and solidarity are not easily outsourced, and social work and social justice work cannot be automated. Our work takes real people on the ground, day after day, building relationships of trust, understanding, and respect.

Our staff and volunteers are not only central to the work of our organizations; we are an enormous economic and social engine around the globe, outdistancing other major industries in scale.

As Lester Salamon and his colleagues document in Explaining Civil Society Development, there are an estimated 54 million full-time paid and volunteer workers in 41 studied countries, engaging 5.7 per cent of the working population in these countries.

In fact, civil society organizations employ eight times more workers than the utilities industry and 17 per cent more than the transportation and communications industries in these nations.

Aside from its scale in the larger society, our workforce is the bedrock of organizational capacity. All other capabilities (strategy, technology, finance, governance, etc.) are things that people create, use or do. These are secondary and tertiary capacities that cannot be realized or sustained without the primary capacity: the nonprofit workforce.

While people are the bedrock of organizational capacity, paradoxically, people are impermanent. Since many organizations do not offer vast opportunities for upward mobility, professionals move across the field to gain skills and advance their careers.

As Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, discusses in his book The Alliance, professionals are moving more – and more quickly – as the nature of the economy, work, and careers changes. For this reason, Hoffman argues that employers need to develop a new social contract with employees, in which we acknowledge the transitory nature of work by using a ‘tour of duty’ mentality instead of the old ‘company man’ approach.

If civil society employers are to manage effectively in the current reality, we must invest in current staff, and develop systems that can support current and future employees. For example, not only should the current executive who is burning out have access to a sabbatical; there should be a sabbatical policy, practice, and budget so that all eligible staff earn and take sabbaticals.

Despite the critical role of people in civil society, in North America there is a culture that undermines the importance of investing in our professionals. Our sector places great value on maintaining low ‘overhead‘ – a conjured concept that is defined differently by every funder and nonprofit – supposedly for the sake of efficiency.

In reality, this approach only dampens performance, impact, and sustainability. While the deep suspicion of generous nonprofit compensation may have evolved from the values of charity and voluntarism, it is out-of-date, patronizing, exploitative of nonprofit professionals, and inadequate for an era in which nonprofit workers deliver government services, bolster the economy, and serve as the bulwark of our democracy.

In contrast, an affirmative culture would be one in which we increase robust investment in our workforce, and empower organizations to recruit and retain diverse leaders; advance organizational performance; deliver great results for the communities we serve; and sustain our leaders, institutions, and movements over time. This is the mindset behind talent-investing.

Talent-investing places newfound priority on the nonprofit workforce by baking staff development into governance, management, and fundraising. To make this viable, donors and philanthropies integrate talent-investing into their strategy, program design, and grantmaking practices.

The more philanthropic capital flows to support the nonprofit workforce, the more nonprofit boards and executives will have the incentives and resources to invest in their teams.

Put another way: we must move civil society’s people from the margin to the very center of how we fund and accomplish our missions.

To help catalyze this change, we recently launched Fund the People Toolkit, an online resource that helps funders and nonprofits make the case for and integrate talent-investing into their organizational strategy, grantmaking, fundraising, and other practices.

Regardless of where you sit or which approach you employ, if we are to increase our global impact, we – philanthropy and civil society – must deliberately and strategically fund the people.

Rusty Stahl is president and CEO of Fund the People.

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