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When More Is Less: Contradictions of Nonprofit Work



This study uses an employee-centric approach to investigate working conditions in nonprofit social service organizations in Memphis, Tennessee. Many entities exert control over the nonprofit labor process, muddling decision making and contributing to the overall opacity of governance. Oftentimes, nonprofits' structures appoint executive directors as the gatekeeper between employees and boards of directors, complicating paths to expressing grievances. Nonprofits' reliance on external funding to operate also imbues funders with enormous influence over daily operations. In turn, many granting agencies impose fiscal accountability systems that force nonprofits to quantify the qualitative work that they do. This relationship pits categories of employees against one another: high-ranking “administrative” staff must track and report program information to funders; “programming” staff are responsible for implementing these systems. This dynamic widens the communication gap between the former, who are removed from direct contact with the clients and are low ranking, and the latter, who are responsible for and possess the greatest knowledge of front-line service delivery. Furthermore, programming employees and clients often forge deep caring relationships, which collapse their options for self-advocacy. Yet individual employees, especially at lower levels, strive daily to provide high-quality care and bring about social change within the confines of a hierarchical and increasingly corporatized structure. In addition to these structural conditions, the nonprofit labor process co-opts broader ideologies about gender and race that reinforce this hierarchy of power, pay, and prestige. By privileging the perspectives of employees at all levels, this study shows that program outcomes are linked to donor satisfaction rather than to client satisfaction, suggesting that nonprofits have many “uses” besides their stated missions and that striving to meet the “needs” of outside groups often comes at the cost of service delivery to clients and employee satisfaction.

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