Maytree Foundation has for some time now been running a series
of two-hour seminars titled Five Good Ideas on topics of
interest to nonprofit executives, then posting a summary of the
presentations on its web site. Following is the summary of the
presentation on managing union relations with Frances Lankin,
President and Chief Executive Officer, United Way of Greater
The necessity for
community-based agencies to operate on a shoestring often
collides with trade unions seeking increased compensation for
their members whose salaries are lower than similar jobs in
other sectors. The long-term answer is for both parties to
convince funders that core, sustainable funding is required. In
the short term, the interests of community-based agencies are
served by having knowledgeable, skilled negotiators on both
sides of the table.
Know the funding environment, and tell the story
All nonprofit organizations are dependent on external
funders. Some of these funders are wise, patient and
understanding. Other funders will enter into contractual
arrangements with an organization to deliver defined services
with specific outputs. These funders may or may not have a
mandate to worry about the organization’s core capacity, and
they may or may not be sympathetic to the pleas that a
sustainable organization needs a stable, reliable and
professional staff complement.
In any relationship, the ability to communicate effectively
depends on a common, shared base of information. Employees need
to know and understand the funding environment – particularly
the leaders of the union. And they need to hear about it from
Employees need to understand the challenges in managing an
organization based on the disparate priorities, timetables and
approaches of multiple funders. They need to know that the
ability to invest in the organization’s biggest resource – the
staff – can be compromised by funding arrangements. An
understanding of the organization’s budget-setting process is
essential. If staff is engaged in this process, it is a step
towards understanding the larger strategic planning and/or
Communications is not just about the financial circumstances of
the organization. Good employee and union relations requires
investment in relationship-building. Depending on the size of
the organization and bargaining units, this will mean different
things: For example, an employee relations committee, a joint
health and safety committee, a well-being committee and a
recognition committee. It also includes inclusive practices and
developing a shared commitment to the organization’s mission.
Remember that a benevolent
social mission never – or at least, rarely – compensates for
poor human resources or union relations practices
Workers in the nonprofit
sector are generally proud to be working in an agency that is
committed to the public good. But a mismanaged payroll or poor
labour relations will strain the goodwill of even the most
angelic of employees.
The people who work in the nonprofit sector must balance the
social purpose of the organization against the bread and butter
concerns of themselves and their families. Rarely do people
working in the sector expect that compensation will equal
opportunities that may exist in some parts of the private
sector, but neither should one expect the individuals who
deliver public services to subsidize the cost of their delivery.
There are other rewards to working in the sector. It is
therefore important that these are shared with employees at
every level, as they can affect morale. The stories of
organizational accomplishments, lives turned around, and
grateful families and communities should be shared.
Recognition and genuine thanks do not replace adequate
compensation, but providing them is a strategy for building a
strong team. Management is often very good at recognizing the
contribution of volunteers. However, recognizing employees is
One caution – beware of generational differences. Many leaders
of community agencies, both management and board members, were
involved in founding organizations, and helping them grow; they
may have a stronger emotional connection to the cause than their
employees. A young poorly paid employee, with a huge student
debt, might simply resent the poor pay and benefits.
When bargaining your contract, choose negotiators very, very
One may be tempted to use community board members, or if
large enough of an organization, to hire an external negotiator.
However, negotiators with a strong personal relationship with
employees can smooth many inevitable bumps on the road to
negotiating a collective agreement. It is important to have a
negotiator who is experienced, understands the process and the
laws and is committed to finding win/win solutions.
Collective bargaining is only part of the relationship with
unionized employees. The relationship will continue after the
contract is resolved. Ensuring that the negotiator understands
that context is extremely important. Be very careful about
choosing a negotiator who does not have an ongoing stake in the
smooth resolution of employee disputes and the effective
implementation of the collective agreement.
One may think that the union is bringing in an outsider. But
chances are that person is a union employee who will have some
relationship with the local, and may even be back at the table
next time. Do not assume that the union’s outside negotiator has
to be matched by an outsider on management’s side.
Be prepared for external solidarity with your workers, and do
not take it personally
Many trade unionists see the nonprofit sector as the next
frontier in seeking justice for low-paid, vulnerable workers.
Remember that the nonprofit sector is performing some functions
that were formerly carried out by the public sector. Generally
it has translated into lower pay and benefits for the same work.
The argument for moving certain services out into the public may
be about community control, but if it comes with lower wages it
is obvious that there will be a negative reaction. This makes
the nonprofit sector a natural target for trade unionists and
others who worry about the erosion of decent-paying,
Management’s job is to overcome the financial vulnerability of
the organization in order to provide a public benefit;
management do not see themselves as the greedy top-hatted
millionaires from the Monopoly game. However, it may come as a
surprise to hear them being characterized as a “management
scumbag”. But the worst thing they can do is take this
The reaction of well-meaning management to such taunts have
sometimes been so bitter that it has made bad situations worse,
and led to public and private statements that are extremely
unhelpful to resolving disputes and rebuilding a strong
relationship between management and labour. Bite your tongue, as
everyone must live with each other afterwards.
Adopt a corporate social responsibility model for looking at
The tightening of the labour market is changing the way that
large private sector employers view their labour force.
Increasingly, employees are identified as a key constituency for
private sector communications and responsibility.
In the nonprofit sector, there are not as many resources to
invest in the development, productivity, health and wellbeing of
the employees. Therefore lessons of corporate social
responsibility – CSR – cannot be directly transferred. But it
remains a very sound business practice.
CSR, broadly speaking, describes a corporation’s performance in
areas such as community philanthropy, environmental stewardship,
and employee relations. Obviously the nonprofit sector is doing
quite well in community philanthropy and reasonably well in the
eco-friendly area. But the nonprofit sector can do a better job
of connecting good employee practices to overall organizational
CSR, it must be remembered, is a business tool. The philosophy
is that doing the right thing can also be a profitable strategy.
In the area of employee relations, the research supports this. A
federal government study found a direct link between improved
labour productivity and good employment practices among private
The nonprofit sector has work to do in developing the most
important resource: a more stable, effective and healthy paid
workforce. Good employee relations and good relations with the
unions that often represent workers in the sector are crucial
elements of this work.
summary and others, each published subsequent to the seminar to
which it refers, can be found at