Why do some organisations stay strong through funding cuts, deadline stress, and political challenges, while others lose momentum and turn to infighting and mistrust?
I recently had a conversation with a friend about our experiences in non-profit organisations. We agreed that people often enter into this kind of work because they care about a cause, and have a desire to make change, but eventually end up depleted, stressed, and unable to manage problems that come up. In volunteer-based groups, this often means the loss of members and capacity. In organisations with paid staff, many people stick around for the salary, but the emotional and interpersonal toll is huge, and people’s motivation to make change often suffers. What causes these massive losses of motivation and morale?
Over the years, I’ve asked many people (including the participants in my MA research) what they need to stay motivated and engaged in social change work when things get hard. You might be surprised at the most common response most people have given.
The majority of the people I have asked are motivated by the quality of the relationships they have with people they work with, and the extent to which they feel welcome, included, and valued in the group. Belief in the cause is important, but in moments when the cause feels impossible, it is relationships and inclusion that sustain them.
This means that the most important conflict resolution work happens right from the beginning, and continues throughout the work of the organisation.
Imagine your organisation or group is a tree. It’s important to grow strong roots in good times, so that the organisation can survive in years of drought and strife. It is actually most important to do this work when things are going well, and it feels unnecessary.
Here are five organisational roots you can nurture when conditions are good, to help you build the capacity to handle difficult times with strength.
Root One: Building relationships
Most groups and organisations don’t prioritize building relationships, and may even see it as taking time away from “more important” priorities. However, when people feel connected to people they work with, the time it takes to build those relationships is more than made up for by the time that is not needed for resolving conflict and boosting morale. Relationship-building takes effort, but can happen in a number of small ways that make the day to day work much more enjoyable. Make time to connect, even in small ways. Take a few minutes out of the meeting agenda to chat and relax. Plan social time.
Root Two: Creating and renewing a collective vision
Make a point of reviewing what you’re all doing together and why. A clear shared purpose, and an awareness of what inspires each person to do the work can help build mutual respect and a sense of being “in it together.” What are the values that drive your work? Which values are shared? Which values drive people on an individual level? Values are really important motivators to resolve issues and keep things working well. The time spent on strengthening common values will be worth it.
Root Three: Celebrating successes
Non-profit and social justice organisations and groups are often working in a situation of scarcity. Budgets are cut, and groups have to work with less. Everyone is overworked, and there are never enough people to cover all the things that need to be done. Often, when we talk about our work, we talk about how stressful it is, how much money we need to find, and how terrible the conditions are. These are all true, but by only focusing on the problems we face, we miss the many small things that go well, or that bring us joy in our work. Maybe a client or member wrote a thank you note. Maybe a community group you run has found a creative way of addressing an issue with a landlord. It’s these small successes that give us the motivation and strength to carry on even when we feel helpless. Find ways to notice and celebrate the good things as a team.
Root Four: Supporting people to take care of themselves
Create a culture in which it is OK for people to take care of themselves when they are dealing with stress or personal crisis. This might mean encouraging people to take breaks or sick leave, and avoiding judgment when people have to miss meetings or events for personal reasons. Try not to bite off more than your group can chew, so that if someone needs to step back at the last minute, there are other people available to pick up the slack. Support people to take care of themselves before they get to the point of burnout. It’s much easier to be optimistic and willing to work together when people feel that others in the group care about their wellbeing, and are willing to support them when they need it.
Root Five: Nurturing different opinions and ideas
Creativity and positive change happen when people feel safe to express different opinions and ideas, and are not worried they will be punished or excluded for not agreeing with the majority. Cultivate an environment that appreciates disagreement, and sees its creative potential. When people feel their ideas aren’t respected or taken seriously, or worse, when they fear they will be sanctioned for speaking out or for not knowing something, this is often the basis of more serious and entrenched conflict that can destroy a group. Find ways to actively recognize the contributions and ideas of everyone in the group. This will not only decrease conflict, but it will also lead to creative ideas that people feel excited about.
These are just a few of the many preventative things you can do to help your group or organisation work better together, and be able to deal with conflicts or rough patches that come up. The stronger your roots, the less likely you are to be blown over in a windstorm.
I will be expanding on some of these five roots in upcoming blog posts. Stay tuned for concrete suggestions to build a stronger and more motivated organisation.