The Future of (Nonprofit) Work

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By Sara Veltkamp, Account Manager, Minerva Strategies —

“Automation, robotics and AI are advancing quickly, dramatically changing the nature and number of jobs available. Technology has the power to improve our lives, raising productivity, living standards and average life span, and free people to focus on personal fulfillment. But it also brings the threat of social unrest and political upheaval if economic advantages are not shared equitably.”


This quote is pulled from PwC’s Workforce of the Future: the competing forces shaping 2030” report, just one example of the numerous recent reports and articles covering the “future of work.” While the reports do not always agree, all argue that a lot is going to change rapidly in the coming years, and no business or organization will be spared from feeling the impact. The good news is that organizations and businesses have the potential to be much more prepared if leaders begin to consider the implications of a changing world now.


PwC’s report is an entertaining and informative read. It provides a top-level summary of the forces driving change, tips for leaders on what to do, and then goes into the fun – and sometimes terrifying – thought experiment of predicting social outcomes. They creatively describe four possible worlds by extrapolating trends to describe the challenges and benefits of each world, like science fiction. I’m a big fan of sci-fi and this style of analysis appeals to me.


Many of the topics brought up in the report are interesting and worth delving into if you’re a nonprofit or business leader, especially those trying to understand how to attract and keep top talent. The findings are also relevant if you’re a person looking to remain competitive in the workforce in the next 5-10 years – which covers nearly everyone.


Here are a few points that stood out to me as being important for nonprofit work. This is not an exhaustive list.


Robots are going to steal your job.

This is the scare tactic of choice for headlines everywhere. But nonprofit workers’ responses should be less fearful and more relieved, “Great! Which of my jobs do you want?” As the tools for automating processes become more pervasive and much cheaper, we can anticipate a decreased workload for people in our sector. This, of course, rests on the condition that nonprofit leaders stay up-to-date on what tech tools their employees can use to streamline work and provide the funding to get the tools and the training needed to use them. Reducing staff workload can drastically improve quality of life – a notorious problem in our sector as demonstrated by the work-life balance section on the popular Washington State blog Nonprofit AF.


Alarm clocks are optional, but weekends are too.

Our work future is asynchronous; remote or virtual workplaces in multiple time zones are increasingly the norm. Most nonprofits that we work with in the US keep nine to five hours. Beside driving you crazy if you let it,” working 9-to-5 doesn’t make sense in this asynchronous work environment. As Seth Godin, entrepreneur, best-selling author, and speaker writes in a blog post:

Time zones are a recent invention. It used to be that local time was different everywhere. Each village had its own high noon.

Factories required synchronization so that workers would all show up at the same time (which probably led to the alarm clock’s invention as well).

Today, of course, two things have happened:

1. Everyone knows what time it is, all the time. Precisely the same time, to the second.

2. It matters less. More work is asynchronous. The work itself now tells you when to start working on it, as the project is passed from desk to desk, from account to account.

Work is no longer time-based. It’s now project based. Act accordingly.


The steps to “act accordingly” will be determined by each nonprofit’s mission and structure. Project-based work will bring up new challenges. While employees may find the freedom of a flexible schedule appealing, the idea that you can work from nine to five then leave your work behind and go home on the weekend will also change. Project-based work requires self-discipline and self-awareness to ensure that people are not working past their capacity for months on end. Leaders will need to help employees balance getting work done with their own health and well-being. An “always-on” mode of working risks being even more demoralizing than nine-to-five routine can be.


Project-based work, irregular hours, and remote workers bring additional challenges for nonprofit communicators. Telling the story of an organization, ensuring brand discipline as an organization evolves, and strengthening the company culture is much more difficult when employees live in different places, don’t share in office conversations, and don’t hit the lunch lines or happy hour spots together.


Good nonprofit leaders of the future will take the time they save on AI-automated processes and put it to good use developing stronger human relationships with team members – keeping all lines of communication open. Nonprofit team leaders will need to think like communicators to foster online communities among employees using tools like Slack as “virtual water coolers” – informal places where people not only talk through the next steps from a team meeting, but also catch up with colleagues on how their new puppy is doing, what they did that weekend, and how their kids are liking their college classes.


It may sound burdensome to those who already feel stretched thin in terms of keeping up with digital platforms, but the tools become easier to use with each iteration and more integrated into our lives as a result. Becoming familiar with them and starting to integrate them into office culture as soon as possible will be a critical piece in our ability to adjust to these changes intentionally. We cannot afford to lose years trying to catch up. We’ve got too much to do to create a just world.


Resting on our laurels is history.

The future will reward adaptability. With the current pace of change, no one can be an expert in one topic. By the time you “master” a topic, so much has already shifted, and your knowledge is likely outdated. This doesn’t mean that one cannot specialize. According to Workforce of the Future, specializing in a certain field may be the best way to ensure that people stay competitive – gaining knowledge only understood by a relative few will be valuable. But the need to keep deepening knowledge in that topic is key. We all need to be mastering our curiosity and constantly flexing our learning muscles. And more importantly, learning with an open mind.


This is true everywhere. People in the US and global workforce will need to be retrained. The Trump 2016 campaign recognized the deep-seated fear of this change and capitalized on it to the detriment of those who have a real reason to fear. The administration has since reassured those in the coal industry, for example, that their jobs will remain, which is manipulation and does not prepare these workers for a future in which they can’t find meaningful work with their existing skillset.


Not only will nonprofit and philanthropic organizations have to step up and fill the administration’s gap in retraining the workforce, the increasing value of adaptability will affect nonprofit work as well in ways that are difficult to predict. Staff will need to learn and adjust to increase their value and the value of their organizations.


This need to be open to adaptation includes leaders above all. Some nonprofit and philanthropic leaders dismiss technology and the new trends that are shaping the world rather than being curious about them. I believe this dismissal is a direct result of the very human fear of becoming irrelevant. But the fastest way to irrelevance is to stop learning.


Nonprofit leaders – especially those who consider themselves less technologically savvy – need to get over their fears. Learning requires recognizing vulnerability and admitting that you do not know it all. If this is difficult for you as a leader, look at it this way: Decisions around technology and the related social norm changes are the ones that will chart the course of your organization for years to come. We need your leadership and deep organizational experience to inform these decisions. These decisions are too important to be passed off to summer interns, or new hires – no matter how smart they are – just because they are “digital natives” or people who grew up with Facebook, Google, and a smartphone in their hands.


The good news is that the topics are not beyond anyone’s grasp and learning has never been easier. Free and low-cost resources abound in a variety of fields, from Computer Science 101 to understanding algorithms to distributed ledger technology.


Before I close, here’s the fine print:


1. I am unapologetically optimistic about the human potential to manage our technology and create an increasingly better world for everyone – I’m a humanist. I also believe that through increased compassion and empathy, fewer traumatized and sad little men like Donald Trump will be grasping for power. While we’ll always have to contend with people who do not agree with us, I see the world moving toward a shared philosophy: We’re all better off when we’re all better off.


2. I offer no solutions. I’m not qualified to do so, and any solution will be highly contextual. That’s what organizational leaders are for, and why they need to be willing to learn and engage. I’d love to hear if something is working for you and your organization.


3. I do not have a degree or specialty in future studies, forecasting, or risk management, as is probably obvious to those who do and are reading this blog. I haven’t looked at trend lines, nor did I spend my last few years researching this topic full-time. I’m just “walking the walk” and looking to learn as much as possible.


My opinion, while strong, is loosely held. If you read this blog and think, “that’s not at all how I see this playing out,” I would love to hear what you think. I’m working on my ability to be wrong with grace. Send your thoughts to sara[at]minervastrategies[dot]com.


About The Author

Sara Veltkamp

Sara Veltkamp

Vice President

Sara lives in Chicago, Illinois and is Minerva's vice president. She takes a lead role in all aspects of Minerva Strategies’ smart communication strategies and implementation. She loves a challenge and is obsessed with learning new things, from how to use new platforms and tools for storytelling to languages like Amharic, French, or Farsi to mastering a difficult yoga pose. She applies this energy and curiosity to all clients’ communication challenges. Learn more about Sara.