What Psychological Safety?? The Power of ‘Stranger Talk’ in Transforming Nonprofit Culture


Published by on January 26, 2024

The DM’s come in daily.

Nonprofiteers I “know” of through the power of LinkedIn connections.

They’ve read my post about a lack of boundaries at work, or the challenges of getting paid what you are worth, or the general mistrust of nonprofits out there in the general public.


But they don’t feel comfortable posting a comment, or heck, sometimes they won’t even LIKE my post, for fear that someone will notice they engaged with my “controversial” content.

For an industry built on passion, on making the world a better place, it can be wild to know that passionate changemakers are not afforded the psychological safety in their workplace to question and change their own world. In the last 3 months of running Hive Chats at The Nonprofit Hive we have noticed an interesting phenomenon. We add 2 passionate nonprofit professionals to a 30 minute video chat and they frequently dive right into questioning the status quo of nonprofit work.


They commiserate, they ideate, and they provide peer support in the comfort of “strangers who know your industry.”

So how, as an industry, have we ended up here, where nonprofit employees feel safer talking to strangers than their own teams?


What can we do to create psychological safety in the nonprofit workplace?

 The Heart of Psychological Safety

Nonprofiteers are a special type of employee. They generally come into this work with the heart of a helper; they know that nonprofit work is challenging, underpaid and that your mission may forever be out of reach.

“Psychological safety is the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with idea, questions, concerns or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” Amy Edmondson

Psychological safety in the workplace is not just a concept; it’s the foundation of collaborative team spirit. It’s about creating an environment where taking risks and expressing oneself without fear of negativity becomes the norm, not the exception.

But let’s face it – this isn’t always the reality in our world of non-profits. We operate in a realm where resources are tight, stakes are high, and often, the pressure to perform overshadows the need for empathetic communication. I’ve heard stories, heart-wrenching ones, about passionate professionals feeling stifled, unable to express their concerns or share innovative ideas for fear of dismissal or judgement. Such an atmosphere silences individuals and can suffocate the innovative spirit that drives our mission.

We all know someone, maybe even ourselves, who has felt this way. Take Sarah, a dedicated program manager who once confided in me that she felt more like a number than a team member. Or John, a fundraiser with brilliant ideas but kept them to himself, fearing they wouldn’t align with the ‘way things have always been done’. (Names have been changed for privacy) Their stories are not isolated incidents; they reflect a larger narrative that needs rewriting in our sector.

Psychological safety is about turning these narratives around. It’s about ensuring that voices like Sarah’s and John’s are not just heard but celebrated for their unique perspectives. It’s about shaping a nonprofit culture where every idea is valued, where every concern is addressed with empathy, and where every individual feels they belong.

 The Power of External Connections

In the cozy corners of our nonprofit world, there’s a stark contrast that often goes unnoticed – the difference between internal and external dialogues. Internally, conversations can sometimes feel like walking through a minefield, tiptoeing around sensitive topics, and navigating hierarchical constraints. We tread carefully, often too carefully, stifling the very creativity and honesty we need to thrive.

But then, there’s the world outside.

There are spicy Facebook groups full of nonprofit professionals sharing horror stories (hello Nonprofit Happy Hour!), or LinkedIn thought leaders like Michelle Flores-Vryn and Evan Wildstein questioning the status quo, or new platforms like ours here at The Nonprofit Hive to facilitate nonprofit connection.

Here, the conversations take on a different hue. It’s like stepping into a welcoming café, where the air is filled with the aroma of open and honest exchanges. On The Nonprofit Hive platform, professionals from across the globe, many of whom have never met, engage in discussions with a remarkable level of candor and vulnerability.

This external openness, a stark contrast to the often-guarded internal dialogues, is not just refreshing; it’s transformative. It creates a space where ideas blossom, challenges are shared, and solutions are collectively crafted. The Nonprofit Hive, in essence, has become a melting pot of insights and inspiration, showcasing the incredible power of connections in driving positive change and strengthening our nonprofit fabric.

From Challenges to Opportunities

Every thread of open dialogue between nonprofit professionals weaves a stronger, more resilient future fabric of nonprofit work. The magic of open conversations extends beyond mere words; it breathes life into our personal and professional well-being. When we speak and are heard, when our ideas find respect and acceptance, there’s an undeniable uplift in our spirit. 

What kind of transformative impact can happen at an organization when its members are thriving?  In such an environment, innovation isn’t just a buzzword; it’s a daily reality. Organizations grow not just in size but in impact, as ideas from vibrant, open dialogues translate into actions that resonate through communities. A single shared story on a platform like The Nonprofit Hive can spark a solution that reaches far beyond its original context, igniting change in corners of the world we never thought we could touch.

Charting a Path Forward

In our quest for a brighter, more connected nonprofit sector, individual action is key. Here are some practical strategies every professional can embrace to foster psychological safety and enrich our community dialogue:

Leadership Training: If you’re in a leadership role, seek out training to understand and nurture psychological safety. This training should focus on skills like empathetic listening, conflict resolution, and creating an inclusive environment. This highly rated course could be a good place to start – Psychological Safety: Clear Blocks to Innovation, Collaboration, and Risk-Taking

Join Community Platforms: Engage in communities like The Nonprofit Hive. These platforms offer a safe space for open, honest dialogue, allowing you to connect, share experiences, and learn from peers globally.

Personal Check-Ins: Regularly check in with yourself. Reflect on your experiences, challenges, and feelings. This self-awareness is crucial in understanding your needs and advocating for a psychologically safe environment.

Seek Constructive Feedback: Actively seek and offer constructive feedback. This practice helps build a culture of continuous improvement and open communication.

Embrace and Advocate for Diversity: Celebrate and advocate for diversity of thought in your organization. Diverse perspectives foster innovation and create a richer, more inclusive community. Council of Nonprofits has put together a comprehensive article here.

By adopting these strategies, we each contribute to building a nonprofit sector that not only values psychological safety but thrives on the collaborative strength it brings. It’s about collective action, where every step towards openness and understanding is a stride towards a more empowered and resilient community.

Conclusion

For me, conversations of change ALWAYS need people at the center of them.

I can see an appetite for meaningful change to happen in nonprofit work – and not the kind where we all bare our souls to leadership and feel like nothing is actually done.


Yes, creating psychological safety in the nonprofit workplace will take time. And guts. And a whole lot of heart and emotions and care.

But the benefits are worth it. Psychological safety for nonprofiteers will bring about more opportunities for innovation, a greater chance that we will solve world-changing societal problems, and address the horrific attrition we see currently in the sector.

So, to all my fellow nonprofit trailblazers who are ready to start talking, I extend an invitation. Here, at The Nonprofit Hive, we are embracing this spirit of openness. And hopefully that will begin to set the tone in our organizations. Together, let’s foster a sector that’s not just strong in its resolve but vibrant in its diversity of thought and richness of collaboration.

Let’s unite, let’s connect, and let’s transform – one honest conversation at a time.

Haven’t joined The Nonprofit Hive yet? You are missing out! Join today 🐝


Tasha Van Vlack is the co-founder of The Nonprofit Hive. Her happy place is building community, talking nonprofit work/marketing/parenting and meeting new people. Being a cheerleader for nonprofiteers is where Tasha has found her niche – she hopes that by providing a space for connection that nonprofit work will become more collaborative and supportive.

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