Updating the Nonprofit Work Ethic

Posted by the Stanford Social International Review, Sep. 22, 2016, written by Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman: 


Those of us who work in the nonprofit sector often distort our view of what “good work” means, because we think the nature of our work is about sacrifice. The fact that nonprofits are often financially strained—under constant pressure to do more with less—amplifies this feeling. As a result, we push through our to-do lists at the expense of taking care of ourselves. Our organizational leaders, boards, and fellow workers reinforce the idea that everything about our work is important—everything is a level 10. And together, we create a culture of overwork and overwhelm.

But being a nonprofit professional should not translate to being a martyr; it should not mean—figuratively or literally—giving up your life for a cause. We should not view dysfunctional work habits or work conditions as necessary burdens of the nonprofit world.

Instead, we should ask: Does this attitude actually lead to more social impact? Does working long hours at the expense of home life and health really help our nonprofit achieve better results?

The answer is usually “no.” Studies show that after about 50 hours of work during a week, productivity decreases. A study by Jon Percavel of Stanford University shows a drastic dip occurring after 55 hours or more of work, with output after 70 hours barely greater than output after 56—meaning 14 hours of mostly wasted work time.

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