I gave at the office

At SmallAgency we specialize in working with progressive non-profits. Since I’ve spent the bulk of my professional web communications career working for various progressive non-profit organizations it’s a pretty good fit in terms of knowing the problems an organization might have getting its message across to potential audiences and in combating internal obstacles in the ways they communicate with supporters. That decade’s worth of experience also puts me in a unique position to understand when and why an organization makes a mistake.

We use a mostly waterfall-based approach to project management at SmallAgency. This means that we generally organize a project into six (mostly) discrete phases:

  1. Discovery
  2. Functional Requirements
  3. Sitemap
  4. Wireframes
  5. Design
  6. Development

Right now we’re in the sitemap stage with an organization that does really good work in the sex education and reproductive rights issue space. Mostly they work with college students with some lobbying of state legislatures and Congress on specific bills, and they suffer from the same basic problem every progressive non-profit I’ve worked for also suffers.

When I did their original sitemap two of the major sections looked like this:

  • About Us
    • Mission & Values
    • History
    • Staff & Board
    • Alumni
    • Be an Intern
    • Work at [Organization Name]
  • Get Involved
    • Take Action
    • Find a Chapter
    • Events & Trainings
    • Donate
    • Email Subscribe

When they were done with the sitemap these two sections looked like this:

  • About Us
    • Mission & Values
    • History
    • Staff & Board
    • Alumni
  • Get Involved
    • Take Action
    • Find a Chapter
    • Events & Trainings
    • Donate
    • Email Subscribe
    • Be an Intern
    • Work at [Organization Name]

This illustrates exactly what’s wrong with virtually every progressive non-profit in the U.S.: working for the organization is not a valid way for a supporter to “get involved.”

Viewing employment as a charitable contribution proponents of this theory of staff recruitment will tell you creates a committed staff dedicated to “the cause.” The reality is while it will recruit people who are interested in the organization’s mission over the long term it only leads to massive employee burnout and to staff who have been with the organization for so long they refuse to change anything even if the way they are doing something is manifestly no longer the best course of action. After all, if given a choice of working to pay their bills or not needing to work and still being able to pay the bills only the most fanatical would choose to spend 40 hours a week working on a cause.

I have no idea if conservative organizations try to pull the same bull shit on their employees or if they are smart enough to pay market prices to attract top talent. I suspect most of them pursue the same misguided strategy in recruiting for the same ridiculous reasons.

Until non-profits treat their staff as professionals worthy of respect in their fields they will continue to be less effective than the could be, which is a crying shame given the importance of some of the issues on which they work.

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