Four Ways Nonprofits Can Address the Classism Within

People meeting to discuss workplace classismSeveral years ago, I was sitting in a diversity training of a nonprofit I helped manage. We’d spent the morning talking about inequality within the organization around the issues of race, sexual orientation, gender and even political leanings. All of a sudden tears began to roll down one woman’s face. Despite obviously trying to hold back the tears, the woman cried harder. With a look of utter embarrassment, she jumped up and ran to the bathroom.

When she came back and a couple of us quietly asked her what was wrong, she said she’d rather not talk about it. At lunch, however, the facilitator took her aside. And after lunch, the woman found the courage to explain her distress. She had worked in nonprofits all of her life, and, as a working-class staffer, she had always felt “less than.” Until the diversity training, she had never really understood why. And even in the training, the topic of class never came up until her distress brought it up. That was a crystallizing moment for me – if not yet for the organization.

Organizational Classism in Nonprofits

I’ve been a nonprofit staff member, manager and member of multiple boards of directors over the years. I have been a trainer for Class Action for at least five. My work with the latter has helped me better serve the nonprofits I now work with. But my work with the latter also makes me frustrated that so few nonprofits acknowledge the inherent class prejudice that exists within them and even fewer are willing to learn how to combat this “elephant in the room.” It is as if doing good work makes it okay to ignore class divisions.

Thanks to the courageous working-class staffer at my former nonprofit, the organization held another training that specifically explored class and classism. It eventually devoted an entire year to work on the issues and, while not perfect, became a better place for people of class levels to work. Just as important, the class/classism focus helped the organization better serve its constituents. What did it do? It tackled organizational classism in the four areas delineated in research done by activist Linda Stout. Your nonprofit will function more effectively when you work across class differences to more fully engage staff of all class backgrounds.

Nonprofits can make changes to address and reduce classism by first acknowledging that class biases exist – and then actively working to move toward greater inclusiveness of people from all class backgrounds.”

Classism Obstacles – and Solutions – for Nonprofits

Eliminate Barriers

Does your nonprofit ensure that people living in poverty or from working-class backgrounds feel welcome and can participate in and contribute fully to the life of the organization? If not, address items like these.

  • Hidden Costs: I worked in a nonprofit that rotated who brought in food for monthly all-staff meetings. The thought was that people bonded better over food. This did not account for the fact that some staff had a hard enough time buying food for themselves and their families. Another nonprofit expected senior managers to attend quarterly team-building dinners at expensive restaurants. This put a heavy burden on managers with limited resources.Think of ways to build your teams that do not cost much or any money. You are not always aware of people’s financial situation. You are not building your team effectively when you ask those with limited means to spend money that they do not have.
  • Flexibility: One nonprofit CEO expected staff to stay at work into the evening if a big proposal was due. She was notorious for waiting until the last minute to finalize the grant. She also expected people to come to regular staff retreats in locations far from the office. Staff members with children were burdened with the expense of childcare. Those without cars were stuck with spotty late-night public transportation or struggled to get to the retreat centers via public transit.Make sure your nonprofit provides flexibility to allow for people with complicated non-work schedules. What if they don’t have a car? What if they can’t afford childcare?

Acknowledge and Rethink Unspoken Class-Based Rules

Most groups have cultural norms that are never stated or explained. Does your nonprofit make staff with class backgrounds different from the majority feel that they belong?

  • Visual Cues: One well-known Boston nonprofit had spacious offices for upper management. Everyone else was in “cubbies.” When the office was revamped, the enlightened CEO had his office turned into a meeting room and took a smaller space. He also added large photos of constituents to the pictures of top donors on the walls of the nonprofit This provided a subtle cue to line staff about how they should expect to engage with upper management, board members and donors.Make sure your nonprofit is class-inclusive in its optics. Is the office space as egalitarian as the mission statement? Who is represented in pictures and how in your materials, etc.? What styles of dress are considered the norm or frowned upon?
  • Language and Vocabulary: I remember a manager at one nonprofit writing a memo riddled with jargon. When I suggested (politely) that she might want to use easier to understand terms for staff memos, she argued that we needed to use recognized human rights language instead of terms that “just anyone in middle-America” used. I countered that a note that few of our staff understood without a dictionary by their side was intimidating, and we would not engage them.To address classism in your organization, think about the language levels at which information is shared. Avoid $10 words. Foster an environment that avoids jargon, is not dismissive of slang or occasional spoken grammar misuse, and is accepting of all accents.
  • Acceptable Behavior: One former coworker left her five-year-old at home alone during a quarterly mandatory meeting, because she could not afford childcare. My coworker, of course, worried all day about the child’s safety. After bringing her daughter to the office once, she had been told that she could never again bring her daughter to work. The child had played quietly in her mom’s cubicle, but the mom had shown poor judgment, according to her supervisor. On the other hand, one manager brought his dog to work some days.Talk about classism! Address it in your nonprofit by looking at what behaviors are acceptable and who is allowed to act in certain nonstandard ways on occasion. What aspects of people’s experiences are you expected not to talk about and why? Why is it okay for some people to have more flexibility in their schedules and others cannot? 

Classist Policies and Practices

The way your nonprofit operates often reveals unconscious classism.

  • Leadership, Management and Advancement: When I recommended that my secretary be promoted to an administrative assistant, the deputy director of the organization responded that she “lacked the class” of his college-educated assistant. He denied the promotion. There was nothing in either job description that called for a college degree. My staffer left and today is a mid-level manager at another nonprofit.Address classist policies in your organization by looking at who has more (or less) power and how you handle advancement. Insist that human resources provide direction in these matters. Also insist on written evaluations and a process for advancement.
  • Decision-making: The above example also speaks to classist decision-making. Why did the deputy get to make the decisions about a department-level promotion?Make sure your organization has a well-defined decision-making protocol that includes the voices of those most affected by the decision. Ask those making the final decision to provide a logical explanation for it. Have written policies that counter arbitrary and capricious decision-making.

Class-based Rewards and Acknowledgements

Class biases may be involved in whose contributions and efforts are most recognized and valued within your organization.

  • Public Recognition: I remember sitting in a meeting early in my nonprofit career and being shocked when the executive director laughed derisively after I suggested that a low-income staff member should speak at our annual meeting about his organizing work. The director said that he would never put a “low-level” staffer on the stage with “high-level” people.When trying to eliminate classism in your nonprofit, ensure that the work of so-called “low-level” staff members is acknowledged publicly.
  • Rewards: One nonprofit changed its practice of giving end-of-year bonuses (a well-heeled nonprofit!) to giving everyone a small gift card. It realized that the bonuses had been going to those staffers with jobs that required degrees and specialization. Staff members without those class indicators rarely had received bonuses. This new reward system leveled the playing field and acknowledged that everyone played a key role in the organization’s success.

Every nonprofit organization has practices and policies that reflect the classism of the society. But yours can make changes to address and reduce classism by first acknowledging that class biases exist – and then actively working to move toward greater inclusiveness of people from all class backgrounds.

1 Response

  1. Bob Ruane

    I have volunteered at many nonprofits through the years and have encountered subtle classism–such as the scheduling of meetings nowhere near the bus line–as well as holiday parties where people are expected to make large donations to raffles. Because of a chronic disability (Asperger’s Syndrome), I can only handle volunteer work. Fortunately, at the organization I currently volunteer at, my work is valued.

Leave a Reply