As two longtime nonprofit practitioners, we have experienced our fair share of neglect and abuse within advocacy organizations. Between us both, we have suffered traumatic workplace brain injuries, been placed on probation for asking leaders for help, and have had leaders throw objects at us in meetings—all in progressive institutions that hide behind the velveteen curtains of their justice-oriented missions.
Until very recently, workers like us with marginalized identities were made to feel as if we had to roll with workplace punches, knowing that our ability to cover life’s basic needs was tied to whether we stayed silent. But due to a confluence of forces—slowed wages, increasing inflation, lack of certainty about the future, the climate crisis, a global pandemic, and unaffordable housing—workers are standing their ground and demanding more from workplace leaders.
While complaints can be a critical tool for change, not all complaints are the same. Some maintain harmful power differentials that muzzle dissent.
Take, for example, a piece published in June by The Intercept’s Ryan Grim. The reporting, which prioritized complaints from bosses and omitted key details about recent union efforts at the progressive organizations featured, purported to detail how so-called internal “meltdowns” are bringing progressive organizations to a standstill.
Grim—and the leaders he chose to elevate—blamed workers for seeking accountability from the unaccountable and unskilled leaders who create harmful workplaces. The reporting also faulted workers for airing “grievances” and treated serious complaints as a distraction to movement building. The article’s framing was jarring. If our movements are catalyzed through people power, wouldn’t it be prudent to ensure workers have safe and healthy environments to operationalize said movements best?
We formed The Melanin Collective as an antidote to the harassment we and others faced working in a reproductive health nonprofit. At the time, there were few spaces like ours that centered and organized collective power around the experiences of women of color in progressive institutions. We knew our experiences were not unique, and this was reflected in the number of stories we heard from women of color trying to survive the toxic workplaces created by leaders of powerful and reputable organizations like the ones in Grim’s piece.
Since our inception in 2017, we have grown used to the disconnect between progressive organizations’ external talk and internal action, and we know it reveals a lot about who and what is valued or devalued at work. We can brazenly say no organization is beyond reproach.
The most notable thing about Grim’s reporting was his decision not to speak to workers themselves. If he’d taken the time to do this, workers could have explained how serious workplace issues are often labeled as “distractions” by movement organizations, including leaders punishing disabled workers for asking for accommodations; leaders hiring family and friends who are permitted to wreak havoc on workers’ physical, emotional, and mental health; leaders revoking raises when workers request medical leave; and organizations making staff sign non-disclosure agreements to prevent workers from speaking out about their experiences. It should come as no surprise that based on what we have witnessed, it is overwhelmingly disabled Black, Indigenous, and women of color who are targeted by these practices.
These experiences should not be mistaken as rare. The Society for Human Resource Management’s latest culture report, for example, found that “53% of working Americans who have left a job due to workplace culture report leaving because of their relationship with their manager.” In our experience, most organizations do not have a human resources department or clear pathways for workers to ask for help. Even if an HR department exists, its role is to protect the institution, not the people. A 2016 survey by GuideStar and Nonprofit HR reports that the total turnover rate for nonprofit organizations was 13%. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found the industry average for voluntary turnover in the overall labor market was 25% in 2016.
On top of rising inflation, lack of affordable housing, global health crises, and more, asking workers in progressive nonprofits to suppress complaints nullifies the credibility of do-good missions. For movements that define and uphold themselves on progressive values, the data clearly shows we have an internalized hypocrisy problem that no one wants to face. These kinds of infractions regularly pile up at nonprofit organizations, and over time, the behavior becomes normalized. While workplace culture is everyone’s responsibility, leadership sets the tone—and is often directly responsible for perpetuating the harm.
For all of the Grim’s talk of stalled movements, it should be made clear that leaders who harbor hostile environments are not, in fact, being held hostage by workers. They are still able to exist with their dignity and livelihood intact. Nonprofit presidents and senior leaders are still able to make six-figure salaries (Guttmacher’s president made nearly $350,000 in 2020). Their organizations are still able to receive funding (Guttmacher received $15 million in funding from MacKenzie Scott—two months after Prism published its piece about worker mistreatment at the organization. Meanwhile, at The Melanin Collective, we regularly hear from women of color who are seriously considering abandoning their hard-won careers—and forgoing their economic security—because experiencing the brunt of workplace violence inside nonprofit institutions is too much to bear. There is scant data to analyze the toxic workplace-to-resignation pipeline of women of color workers, but we know from plenty of anecdotal evidence that it is women of color, not leaders, who are discarded by institutional movements.
All of this gets us to a central point: if progressive advocacy organizations can campaign and fundraise around human rights issues like reproductive justice, police violence against Black communities, refugees, health care for veterans, anti-Asian hate, and much more while leaders mistreat workers, is that organization even credible?
Heather Boonstra, a member of Guttmacher’s senior team, encapsulated so much of the problem when she expressed frustration for having to address workplace abuses.
“I’m here to talk about George Floyd and the other African American men who have been beaten up by society,” she said in a meeting reported by Prism, not “workplace problems.”
It is a red flag that leaders do not see the inseparable connection between the “work” and the people they employ who make that work possible. We know that movements are about people—about workers, about communities—and it is troubling to see the lengths that leaders will go to malign real workplace abuses as a diversion. Houses built on weak, rotten foundations cannot be sustained; addressing workplace “problems” is integral to ensuring our movements can last and make an impact.
At the end of the day, the real threat to progressive movements is leaders who cannot see how the work their organizations do is directly connected to how they treat their workers. The people Grim chose to interview appear to be unaware that the very issues staff encounter in the workplace are related to the complaints marginalized communities raise about pervasive inequities that disrupt their lives. Why should staff complaints—about acts of aggression, small and large—be treated so differently? As long as leaders co-opt progressive missions to hide their bad behavior and refuse to extend their own guiding principles to workers, our movements will fail.