The Journey of Restorative Nonprofit Work

Published by on January 30, 2024

The year was 2021, my colleague and I were enjoying a delightful, outdoor morning coffee, discussing the long-awaited “return-to-office.” As the global health crisis began to wind down, the myriad departments were figuring out how, where, and when all of us would come together, in person. Most everyone we knew was doing it and people were feeling a way about it.

Together we mused about a survey that noted nearly 40 percent of workers would consider an exit if flexible (remote or hybrid) work arrangements weren’t possible. My colleague and I agreed the number probably wasn’t that high—maybe 10-15 percent might actually quit, which is still notable. But then we had an alarming thought:

What about the people who stay?

What happens to the 25-30 percent with heavy feelings about being thrust back into a workspace for which they weren’t ready or interested? Let’s call them The Stayers. (Perhaps Stephen King’s next thriller.)

Would The Stayers get over it? How long would that take? If they didn’t, would it fester? If it did, would their feelings permeate throughout the organization? If so, would their quiet grumbles have seismic consequences months (or years) later? It’s like Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire forewarned in his 1968 treatise, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “The oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors.”

Davey was a Stayer I knew at the time. He’d been with the organization more than two decades. His work was fine but he dipped his toe in gossip and office politics. Someone should’ve “released” Davey back into the workforce to pursue other opportunities, but that conversation never happened. When the return-to-office came, the gossiping and politicking intensified, yet the powers that be still did nothing.

What Chips Away at Us

For many people (not just Davey) the return-to-office was but one stopping point on a relatively long journey of organizational challenges, the likes of which have existed since humans began grouping themselves together to accomplish tasks—and which ail for- and not-for-profit organizations alike.

And in being human, our experiences are unique. No two things will settle the same for two different colleagues. I can handle a boss raising his voice in my direction. My skin is outwardly thick and a bit of shouting is no big thing. But if that same boss lowers his voice to a whisper and displays a sense of disappointment? Well, then I’m decimated.

What chips away at you? Perhaps it’s a donor’s passive-aggressive Saturday night emails, or a ludicrous expense reimbursement policy, or an inherent lack of organizational diversity? These stress points are different for every single one of us and they cut differently. We can sometimes brush them off and get back up quickly. Other times they knock you down and you stay down. If you’ve had these experiences, you have my sympathy and empathy.

Perhaps there is some catharsis in knowing over three-quarters of workers report having toxic managers. Or that 49 percent left a job because of bad bosses. Or that a wide majority* (74.2 percent) suggest they are looking for a new job or will be this year. I think again about The Stayers. What happens to them? What happens because of them? Do they become the oppressed… or the oppressors?

The Restorative Journey is About Us

One of my favorite professors in grad school framed the challenges of work-life in fascinating ways, like looking through the lens of Buddha’s four noble truths. The first two truths are: 1, Life is suffering, and 2, The cause of life’s suffering is selfish craving. He reframed them around work:: 1, The organization is out-of-sync or dislocated, and 2, The cause of this dislocation is self-embeddedness

We are, many of us, self-embedded—selfish. In this way, the woes of work-life often get us down and keep us there. You can’t change a passive-aggressive donor’s emails. Not really. But you can change how you respond. And if you respond as such, repeatedly, it will become a practice, a sort of restorative muscle memory.

This is where the restorative journey begins, a journey we sometimes measure in inches. And if the journey of organizational happiness spans zero to 10, ask yourself where you are on that scale.

Perhaps you have a job you like, your colleagues are mostly good, and the work is pretty meaningful. All things considered, maybe that’s a seven or an eight. But then your employer demanded you back in the office as the pandemic slowed down and that gave you feelings. Your eight might’ve sunk to a five. Your goal is to be at 10, but remember, organizations are dislocated, and right then you were feeling very self-embedded.

Real growth and restoration are slow, and it helps to know that your five may only grow to a six. And you know what? That may seem minuscule, but it can make a world of difference. “[W]e have a lot more control over… our own mindset than we think we do,” says work-happiness guru Annie McKee. And you have to put in the effort.

But what does that look like? Of course, I have some ideas.

Limit engagement with bad apples. You know who those people are. If not, look for the ones who talk openly about disparities and differences in values, the ones who seem intent on over- or under-sharing information—the “gossips” or the “politicians.” They’re not worth your time, and more often than not, listening to their commentary will at best be a distraction; at worst they will drag you down with them.

Find more purpose, not more work. In restoring your five to a six, a few extra spreadsheets won’t get you there. What will? Deepening your understanding of how your work connects to the larger, more substantial organizational vision. Systems thinking master Peter Senge suggested, “Purpose is being the best I can be.”

Find some small, routine action to get you unstuck. Again, we’re only talking about moving from five to six. Your situation (currently) isn’t bad enough to quit but you need something. Give yourself some space to pause and be human. Rituals expert Erica Keswin notes, “I’m more convinced than ever that it’s the ordinary, everyday things that help us feel connected.” Don’t know where to begin? Try really signing off on the weekends. For several months I’ve been posting weekly weekend reminders for nonprofiteers to take a break from work. (Most of them comical but hugely representative of how powerful it can be to “wait until Monday” especially for menial tasks.)

How are you feeling right now? If you’re at a five, are you seeing your glass half-full or half-empty? I want you to feel as good as possible while acknowledging that a six—if that’s your goal—is pretty darn good.

Taoism founder Lao Tzu purportedly mused that a long journey begins with a single step.

Think about how perfectly “Taoist” it would be for us to consider the ways in which the restorative road to our own nonprofit harmony might, in fact, begin by moving one inch, or one point.

* From a recent survey on nonprofit employee engagement led by Michelle Flores Vryn and myself.

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Evan Wildstein is a Hiver and nonprofiteer with twenty years of experience in fundraising, strategy, and operations.
In addition to his work in social impact, Wildstein has coached organizations on board development and talent growth, commissioned operas, and produced learning initiatives. He is the author of recently released book, The Nonprofiteer’s Fundraising Field Guide: 30 Practical Ways to Boost Philanthropy Through Servant-Leadership.

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