Building a

Just Culture

For All of Us

A Just Culture is one where all nonprofit workers (staff, board, volunteers, and contractors) have access to fair compensation and benefits, opportunities for shared decision making, support to grow professionally, and the ability to work in a safe, welcoming, and healthy environment.

About This Report

Late in 2019, we, the Franciscan Sisters of Mary (FSM), began a study in partnership with JVasi Consulting, LLC. We wanted to understand how we and other funders can better support frontline community, environmental justice, and environmental nonprofits in maintaining healthy and supportive workplace environments. While we began to refer to this concept as Just Culture, others doing similar work use terms such as culture of care or promoting healing justice.

At the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, we believe the health and wellbeing of individuals should be at the center of all mission-driven work.

Over the course of this study, nonprofit staff, volunteers, and board members shared with us the heavy cost of their work, the motivations that kept them going, and what is needed to better support them. Learn more about the methodology of this study here. Alongside our study, FSM began to explore how we and other funders can better prioritize the health and wellbeing of our colleagues. We believe there is a role for all of us in this work, and we are eager to continue our learning process with you.

We invite you, whether as a nonprofit professional, board member, volunteer, or funder, to consider with us the ways we can promote Just Culture together.

The Heavy Cost of Leadership

Environmental and climate justice leaders sacrifice their personal health and wealth to make a difference for people and the planet.


Nearly half of respondents reported their workload as heavy or unsustainable.

What we asked:

How would you describe your average workload?

What we heard:

“I work a regular 6 to 7 day week and on average about 8 to 12 hours per day.”

“Manageable, if I can get over the guilt of not getting everything done.”

Leaders and staff sacrifice to fill funding gaps. They also often rely on other sources of income to allow them to work at their organizations.

Health & Safety

Nonprofit work can cause or exacerbate emotional distress.

Those working within frontline communities are more likely to report health issues related to their work.

Examples of health issues include:

“We are poisoned residents fighting for our lives and the lives of our community.”

“I experience depression and climate and culture grief. While I cannot say it’s extreme and unmanageable, I do spend a lot of time and energy managing the emotions around my work.”

Environmental and climate justice leaders expressed varying levels of trauma from their personal or professional experiences.

This stress and trauma can be transmitted internally and through networks, creating unhealthy cultures and interpersonal challenges.

Employee Benefits

Not all organizations can provide healthcare or other crucial benefits and would like to offer more support to staff and volunteers.

“I saw a story of an activist that had to put out a GoFundMe page when an unexpected health issue emerged and she couldn’t work… I don’t want that to happen to us.”

Harassment & Discrimination

Almost one-fourth of respondents reported witnessing or experiencing harassment or discrimination at work, and most did not feel that appropriate action was taken.

“My supervisor was supportive in trying to find solutions. But at the top, I was upset that there wasn’t a stronger response to a donor who sexually harassed a number of women on staff.”

Workplace Safety

More than half of environmental leaders say their workplace is only somewhat, or not at all, safe and accessible to all.

Many respondents noted their spaces are inaccessible for wheelchairs due to stairs or internal configurations. 


What Motivates Environmental & Climate Leaders

Environmental and climate justice leaders—who mostly identified as female in our study—come to this work for deeply personal reasons and find fulfillment based on their internal values and sense of community.

Our survey found that 87% of respondents are happy or very happy at work.

Leaders are most motivated by the opportunity to work with colleagues and community residents.

“As an affected community member, I am able to help educate and empower my fellow affected community members.”

Nonprofit leaders and staff struggle most with funding shortages and the resulting strain on workload.

Supporting Environmental & Climate Leaders

Under increasingly difficult circumstances, frontline and mainstream organizations are looking for new ways to protect the health and wellbeing of their staff.

What we asked:

What additional benefits would significantly improve your quality of life?

For volunteers or contractors, is there anything more your organization could do to support you?

What we heard:

  • Increased pay for staff and stipends for volunteers and interns
  • More paid time off, including holidays, parental leave, and sabbaticals
  • Healthcare benefits (many said their current plans were inadequate)

“Most of the trainings in the conservation field are around telling your story, fundraising, [etc.]..but I’ve never been to a conference related to HR or establishing your management system. It is a big hole in the conservation world — inequitable. This favors large NGOs who have that in place.”

What Funders Can Do

In order to support frontline communities, funders need to think about resourcing nonprofit groups in a different way.

Traditional philanthropic practices do not align with Just Culture values. As a whole, funding patterns and requirements do not give nonprofits the stability or the means to fully support the long-term health and well-being of their people.

Funders can reimagine their relationships with grantees and grant processes to prioritize the health and wellbeing of staff and volunteers in addition to the health of the organization.

Funders should:

  • Provide flexible funding that supports healthy salaries and necessary benefits such as mental health counseling and retirement
  • Ensure that everyone who commits significant time to an organization or initiative is compensated for their time such as offering stipends or other supports to volunteers, board, and interns
  • Make timely, as-needed support easily available during specific moments in time where groups need targeted help (e.g., forming a 501c3, during funding crises, employee complaints or lawsuits)
  • Make human resource support available to grantees of all sizes
  • Ask grantees questions about internal practices so they can have space from their daily workload to think about these issues. Questions asked from a punitive standpoint are not helpful.
  • Invest in grantees to test new revenue-generating opportunities so frontline communities can avoid becoming dependent on philanthropy


How We Move Forward Together

Together, we can reimagine our collective work to protect people and planet, centering the health and wellbeing of leaders vital to this movement. Growing the strength of environmental and climate justice organizations should not come at the price of burning out the leaders who make up these organizations. Funders, executive directors, staff, and volunteers all have an important role to play in caring for each other in this moment.

To find more ideas about ways you can implement Just Culture practices in your work, please visit our Resources page.

Our Methodology

Research Goals

  • Define all the ways a Just Culture can be practiced within grassroots and other environmental nonprofit organizations.

  • Develop a baseline understanding of FSM grantees’ current status across a range of issues.

  • Assess Midwestern nonprofit needs related to individual and organizational health and wellbeing.

Who took the survey?

104 Responses

35% from Frontline Groups

56% from Mainstream Groups

4% from groups who identify with a religious community

82% work in 501c3 organizations

8% from fiscally-sponsored projects,

10% are not sure, identify as 501c4, or other

80% responded to demographic questions:

71% identify as female

54% are under the age of 40

50% identify as white

15% identify as LGBTQA+

8% have mobility constraints or a disability

8% identify as another under-represented group

5% identify as trans or gender non-binary

How do constituencies differ?

This presentation uses the following short-hand categories: Faith, Frontline, and Mainstream.

What are the focus areas?

Mainstream and Frontline groups differ the most in more often considering the issues of Environmental/Climate Policy and Environmental Justice, respectively, their primary focus areas.