Blog Future Work Report

5 Reasons Non-profits Should Embrace Distributed Working

Some (but not all) of the organizations pursuing the widest range of innovative working practices seem to be software or web-related firms. Buffer, Automattic, Treehouse and Lullabot spring to mind, but there are many others, and that’s not a huge surprise, since these firms work in a virtual world where their raw materials, and the labour and the delivery of their products all happen digitally. They also have a predominantly younger set of employees, who are comfortable both with the technology of remote working, and also with a philosophy that doesn’t define work as showing up at a physical location and being told what to do.

But many non-profit organizations would also see a great range of benefits from adopting similar approaches, and in many ways non-profits have more to gain from these measures, including helping to attract smarter people and allowing them to do more while spending less money.

Let’s look at some of the key reasons non-profits should be in the vanguard of these future work approaches:

1) Attract and retain better employees

If you can’t pay top dollar, then you need other ways attract talented employees. Offering them a flexible and/or completely distributed working environment can be a great draw, as can self-managing teams. Especially for younger people, the appeal of no commuting, increased autonomy, generous vacation time and other thoughtful benefits can outweigh purely monetary gains, especially if they will also be working on something they consider worthwhile.

For the non-profit, the ability to recruit from a global talent pool rather than one limited by geography can mean they get the best person for the job, not just the least bad candidate in their town.

2) Lower overhead

For better or worse (and it’s often worse), funders look carefully at non-profits’ operating expenses, especially as they compare to the amount they put into their programs. There’s a strong case to be made that this can be very short-sighted: if my expenses are $1,000 and I raise $20,000 for my programs, is that really better than if my expenses are $3,000 and I used that extra expenditure to raise $500,000? That said, there’s no doubt that a commitment to reduce unnecessary overheads can funnel more money towards programs and development. The cost of running an office is increasingly becoming an expensive and unnecessary overhead.

3) Lower carbon footprint

If your non-profit works in the environmental arena (but even it if doesn’t), you should make sure you’re causing as little environmental damage as you can while doing your work. In the same way as investors and consumers are increasingly interested in a company’s corporate social responsibility, so foundations and individual donors are looking to non-profits to do the right thing in all their dealings, not just their core mission.

Making people commute to work increases greenhouse gas emissions from transportation (unless everyone is riding their bikes or driving a solar-charged Tesla), but the biggest source of emissions for most organizations is their building itself. In the US, building operations (which includes heating, lighting, cooling, running the computers) areresponsible for nearly half of all CO2 emissions. And that doesn’t factor in the embodied carbon in the materials used to construct the buildings in the first place.

Some nonprofits take this issue seriously — the Packard Foundation have a great zero-net energy headquarters that generates all the energy it uses — but others would better not to have an office at all. We all need a place to rest our heads, but having a completely separate place to do work that we could do at home is environmentally hard to justify.

4) Flexible working forces better management

It’s harder to run a nonprofit than a commercial organization. This is partly because of the misguided efforts to cut operating expenses explored above, which leave most organizations understaffed and overworked, but also because of the unique challenges that non-profits face. Their goals are often harder to measure, and their teams and boards expect much more consensus-building than more traditional top-down companies have to deal with.

The detailed communication and clear procedures that distributed teams and self-management require can provide a much more solid basis for success in this context than the more usual death-by-a-hundred-meetings management style seen in non-profits.

5) Progressive organizations should work progressively

By their very nature, most non-profits are working to make the world a better place. They see the current situation as flawed, and want to improve it. It’s ironic then that this aspirational approach in many cases doesn’t extend to how they plan to bring about this change. There’s something wrong if you’re aiming towards the future, but doing so in an old-fashioned way. Progressive organizations should be the first to consider new ways of working, rather than not even thinking about how they do things.

If I were a foundation looking to fund a non-profit or one of its programs, I’d be looking for evidence that the non-profit was carefully examining and reflecting on not just what its mission was, but on how it was going to achieve it. Which includes considering how to express its values through the way it works.

And non-profits don’t have to be a distributed team to reap some of these benefits. For example, a recent job advertisement from the MacArthur Foundation for a Director of People and Culture clearly shows they are asking good questions about how they want their organization to succeed.

If other non-profits started addressing their working practices with a similar bravery and imagination, the sector could achieve so much more, which would benefit everyone.

Blog Future Work Report

Dear America, you have cruel and unusual work practices

Dear America, you have cruel and unusual work practices

Dear America, you have cruel and unusual work practices

Dear America,

You know I love you. You’re funny and generous and have a great attitude. You’re pretty and you’ve been really good to me since we first got together in the late 90s. But we need to talk.

You’ve got some destructive habits, especially when it comes to work. And it’s making you look heartless and dumb (or maybe even cruel and unusual).

I know I’m from Europe where we do things a little bit differently, but it’s not just a style problem — what you’re doing is hurting millions of people. Where I’m from we have things like a minimum of four weeks paid holiday (what we call vacation) for full-time salaried workers. That’s the law. We also have more public holidays, which is particularly apposite as I started writing this post on Good Friday while in the office.

As you know, here in your land of the free, there’s no legally required amount of paid vacation time. None. A lot of organizations think they’re going out of their way to give you 10 days, and you know what’s weird? You guys accept it. Just as you accept longer working weeks. At least partly in the name of greater productivity.

Except it doesn’t work. Those slackers in Scandinavia and the Netherlands work fewer hours per week, and way fewer days per year, and I hate to tell you this, America, but they’re getting almost as much done, while spending more time with their families or on their hobbies. And they are healthier and happier.

A misplaced idea of productivity is part of the reason you do this to yourself, but it’s not just productivity for its own sake. It’s about your sense of self, America. So much of your identity comes from your work, and the presenteeism you espouse is important to how your see yourself, even if it’s damaging. Lots of you don’t even take all the limited holiday time you’re given. Learning to accept that there’s a better way is going take time, and I’m not discounting the power of big businesses who misguidedly think that more hours must mean more work. But as I said, individuals and business owners have a lot of responsibility for accepting this.

Come on America, I thought you were all about fearless experimentation and refusal to accept the status quo, so let’s see a bit of that for the benefit of everyone — workers, families and businesses. Fortunately, there is an increasing number of companies that are showing the way — real American heroes who want to work less, but better.

All the best,


By David Moore on April 10, 2015.

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Exported from Medium on October 17, 2020.

Blog Future Work Report

An Unplanned Corporate Culture is still a Culture

Why it’s crucial to examine values from the start

When I was working as a web content strategist, I had a terrible boss.

There was a clash between what was important to me and how the company was run: I wanted to do creative projects that focused on storytelling and content marketing while the boss would take any web-related job that came along. I wanted to take time off when I wasn‘t busy or at the end of a project, but that never seemed to happen. I wanted to explore innovative ways of working, but there was no system in place to allow that experimentation, so I had to show up to the office and stick to basics like using email for all communication. I never had a real sense of what the organization stood for.

Lots of people have no doubt been in similar situations, but my particular tragedy was that I was working for myself. At least I learned a very valuable lesson: organizations have a culture that effects everything they do, and this is especially true if the organization has never even thought about what that culture should be (and even when there’s only one person working there).

Tony Hsieh of Zappos is clear on the importance of stating values in helping define a company’s culture:

Even though our core values guide us in everything we do today, we didn’t actually have any formal core values for the first six or seven years of the company’s history. . .

I’m just glad that an employee finally convinced me that it was necessary to come up with core values — essentially, a formalized definition of our culture — in order for us to continue to scale and grow.

I only wish we had done it sooner.

This is not to say Zappos didn‘t have a corporate culture or values before they were explored in the open and stated. They certainly did, but they were hidden and assumed, which is the case in most organizations. And in lieu of stated values and a culture that’s considered and worked on, you often get a mess of unstated expectations and assumptions that helps nobody: an unintentional culture.

What Is a Corporate Culture?

Think of it as the company‘s DNA — the code embedded throughout its structure which diatates pretty much everything it does. The jobs it goes for, the prices it sets, how it does the work, treats its employees, what procedures it puts in place. defines it as:

the shared values, attitudes, standards, and beliefs that characterize members of an organization and define its nature. Corporate culture is rooted in an organization’s goals, strategies, structure, and approaches to labor, customers, investors, and the greater community. As such, it is an essential component in any business’s ultimate success or failure

A lot of organizations make a fuss about their mission statements, but how they actually do business is often in stark contrast to that high-flown language. A clear statement of values can be more useful in providing guidance, and in helping to determine the culture of an organization.

No Overt Culture is still a Culture

When there’s no discussion about all this stuff, then as we’ve seen in other areas like having a physical office, inertia often wins out. The hidden and assumed values of the founders and bosses become the de facto culture of the organization, and they’re much harder to change because they are never really discussed. This is particularly true when it comes to progressive work practices and approaches.

If the boss has never even considered the idea of working as a remote team, or adopting a results-only work environment, then you’ve got almost no chance of making progress on these measures.

As Frederic Laloux points out in his book Reinventing Organizations,

‘an organization cannot evolve beyond its leadership’s stage of development’.

With non-profits, for example, there’s often a great mismatch between the progressive nature of their programs and the regressive way they go about them. Often, people who want to bring about important changes in the world never stop to think about how they’re going to do that. This is partly due to the tyranny of the notion of controlling operating expenses (see here for Dan Pallotta’s great takedown of that canard), and partly because of the unspoken idea that non-profit workers should somehow suffer for their good work. As if the work itself — however badly they’re asked to do it — should be motivation enough.

Most people start organizations because they want to make progress on whatever the organization does, whether it’s a non-profit or not — painters gonna paint, bakers gonna bake, if you will. It’s a rare person who is driven both to create an organization from scratch, and to consider how that organization should work.

So if you’re starting a business, time spent early on defining what you will and won’t do, how you want to treat your staff and partners, and what really matters to the organization will make a host of other decisions so much easier later. Who and how you hire, where and how you work, even down to how you handle customer complaints should all be seen chances for the organization to manifest its values.

If you’re looking for a job, then you should be mildly interested in the mission statement of any prospective employer, but pore over the company’s stated values very carefully — and look for signs they were being implemented. Netflix’s famous slidedeck is a great example of this.

You should also spend time working out what your personal values are, especially as they relate to work. Otherwise, you won’t be able to see if there’s a match.

And be careful if there’s no clear set of values — an unplanned culture can be the worst type of culture of all.