A resounding mission often creates a culture of silence within organizations who believe that mission-driven work means sacrifice -- not necessarily for senior leadership or the board, but for the middle management folks and those hired on a contractual basis or as volunteers and interns. I've watched iterations of this dynamic play out in many kinds of organizations of various sizes and many of the same issues surface: low pay, lack of health insurance, too many hours, lack of opportunity for growth, lack of recognition for emotional labor, inadequate diversity, equity and inclusion, and few opportunities for professional development. The assumption is always that the mission should be strong enough to buoy you to your next paycheck. And the silenced subtext: You don't like it? Leave.
This is why I am so intrigued by the case of StoryCorps -- an organization that prides itself on 'listening' and makes 'stories' its bread & butter --yet is now embroiled in an aggressive anti-union campaign and won't really listen at all to frustrated staff. Founder Dave Issay makes over 166,000 per year and the organization operates on a nearly one million USD budget per year.
The staff decided to form a union last May to fight for higher pay along with clearer "protocols around hiring, firing, and performance evaluations, transparent job descriptions, formal mechanisms to increase diversity and inclusion, as well as more professional development, cultural competency training, and self-care resources."
“We thought, like many progressive organizations, they would understand that the same values we communicate through our work we would ask for in-house,” said Justin Williams, who worked as a facilitator.
"The pushback from management created an 'adversarial atmosphere' that permeated the all-staff retreat, according to Williams. “People were cornered, intimidated.”
I have long admired StoryCorps since its humble beginnings in 2003. I remember visiting their 'listening booth' in Union Station with one of my best college friends, taking turns interviewing each other about faith and god. Inside that booth I felt the intimacy and power of active listening elevated to an art-form and left thinking that this kind of work was revelatory and revolutionary -- and it is -- it can be.
But not if it comes at the expense of abused and overworked staff, where only a small percentage of the leadership really benefits in the fullest sense.
When Issay won the 2015 TED Prize, he set out to scale up his non-profit model to "help spark a global movement to record and preserve meaningful conversations with one another that results in an ever-growing digital archive of the collective wisdom of humanity." He and his team created the StoryCorps app designed to empower individuals with the tools necessary to tell and record their own stories. A noble mission, expanded.
Ironically, StoryCorps has been deaf to the labor stories of their own staff, many of whom are "inspired in large part by the work of Studs Terkel, who documented histories of common Americans and advocated for labor unions from the 1960s through the ’90s."
Mission-driven non-profit organizations often hide behind the 'greater good' curtain, believe wholeheartedly in the 'sacrifice narrative,' yet suffer from a revolving door "of enthusiastic, socially conscious young people who are hired to perform demanding work for little pay and quickly burn out."
What really happens behind the curtain is often exhausting, abusive, and unproductive, and in the story of StoryCorps, staff felt it was time to organize not because they are angry with the organization but because they love it and believe in its justice-centered mission. "In cash-strapped organizations that see themselves as protectors of the public good, union efforts can be stigmatized, seen as an unnecessary burden on already strained resources," and yet StoryCorps staff persist, eager to be heard and for StoryCorps to really listen.