One of the most powerful TED videos I ever saw is the one where Daniel Pink explains what motivates people at work. He highlights three main elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose, that together ensure people’s fulfillment at work.


In nonprofits, purpose is almost automatically present for people. It is the main reason why someone starts a nonprofit or applies for a job in one.


So let’s look at autonomy. To what extent can people in nonprofits experience autonomy in their work? Can nonprofit staff and volunteers feel in control at all?

Autonomy in the face of external circumstances

A lot of the time, we feel the work in nonprofits depends on external circumstances. On other people. This is one of the main reasons people tell me they cannot plan their work or budget. Because who knows what will happen. And who knows when a donor will come along with financial support?

As a nonprofit operations strategist I don’t agree with this view. Even though I understand the feeling. And I know it’s true that for some nonprofits, external circumstances and people have much more impact on what they can or cannot do. And on when they can or cannot do their activities.

But at the same time, I feel that seeing this as a reason to not make a plan or budget for anything makes your nonprofit way too powerless. Way too out of control.

And that’s doing you and your team a disservice.

Especially because it makes it impossible for your team to experience autonomy on a high level. And that creates stress and anxiety for what’s going to happen, for the future. To the point that your team may be wondering (and worrying) whether there is a future for your organisation. (And from this follows the fear of losing a beloved job of course,also). This kind of existential stress makes it very hard for people to feel safe in their work.



Autonomy within the organisation

At a more practical level, autonomy is related to being in charge of your tasks and your day. And to having a mandate or authority to take decisions on how to execute your tasks. To not have someone else step in and take over or veto your actions and decisions.

This is also something that’s hard to achieve for many nonprofit teams. Especially if the founders hold the executive director or president of the board position. Founders often feel the nonprofit is theirs, their company, their baby, their thing. And it can be hard for them to let this baby go to school so to speak, to learn things outside the scope of the safe home. This feeling of ownership can also plague executive directors who are not founders. In that case it often comes from the immense responsibility they feel for achieving the mission properly. And the responsibility they feel for keeping the organisation safe and financially healthy.

What happens is that very often the leader feels a need to be involved in every little thing, and to control everything in some way or other. By questioning everything before they sign off. Or by simply not delegating power of decision making at all.

And that can make the leader feel safe, because they feel in control and able to avoid any wrong decisions that way.

By contrast, this makes the team members feel very unsafe. Because they know that all of the things they plan or agree on with others can be rescinded. They will focus in their work on what they think the leader could think about it, and this takes away their own agency to do their own job. Thus reinforcing the idea of the leader that the team isn’t mature enough to take on these responsibilities.

It’s key to break that cycle because if someone cannot feel responsible for a task, they can also not feel pride when the task is completed. And that joy of having completed a task successfully is an important part of why autonomy is an important part of fulfilment in the work.

What should a nonprofit leader do?

In short, to give your team a chance to experience autonomy, you need to give them a chance to feel in control and in charge.

That means, you need to let your team members make plans and budgets so they can feel as much as possible in control of the external circumstances. And feel they are truly working in a meaningful way towards achieving your nonprofit’s objectives.

And it also means you need to give your team members their own responsibility for designing and executing tasks so they can feel in charge of their own success, as part of your organisation’s mission and vision.

How I can help

Grab my free resource Build a Solid Base for your nonprofit:

In August 2023, I will host a few sessions talking about so-called soft skills nonprofit leaders need. Like how to have hard conversation, keep your team motivated, get through a crisis and take care of yourself. If you’re interested in joining, make sure you’re subscribed to my weekly Monday Motivations. That way you’ll be the first to know when they happen and how you can join!

If you want to learn about setting up and maintaining a good HR system for your nonprofit, join my course Practical Labour Law & HR for nonprofits.

Want to know more and ask questions?

If you want to discuss this more – jump into my nonprofit support community and get input from a wide range of peers and from myself!

Here is how you can join my free nonprofit support community

You can join my free nonprofit support community on the Heartbeat platform here. This group is a safe space for open exchange and discussion on potentially sensitive topics like boards, nonprofit management, fundraising, etc.

You can visit the community via a browser or via an app. Here is the link to download the Heartbeat chat app in the Google Play store.

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