At some point, each of us joined the nonprofit sector as a starry-eyed idealist. Take a second now and channel that spirit: you were ready for a change, you were ready for action and you were determined, resourceful and optimistic. And why shouldn’t you have been? You were going to change the world. In fact, you have. But somewhere along the way came that moment of disillusionment when you realized that wonderful intentions don’t always equal harmony, much less success. In fact, nonprofit organizations can be just as political (if not more so!) than their for-profit counterparts. But just like their for-profit counterparts, a toxic workplace can cost time, money and hurt service delivery.
How can that be? How can a group of talented and well-intentioned people, grouped together for a positive purpose, create an environment of discord, frustration or inefficiency? And once that environment is created how can you turn it around?
Before we launch into the cast of characters behind common workplace ills, let’s get one thing out of the way. We realize it’s just not possible to please everyone all the time. Sometimes workplace unhappiness is going to happen, and it doesn’t even always signal trouble. Nonprofits are complicated organizations with much at stake, so it would be unreasonable to expect complete harmony all of the time. That being said, widespread and prolonged workplace tension, low morale and high turnover are serious issues, and they merit serious consideration and action.
The good news is that the same culprits usually cause workplace tension again and again, and some of these issues are universal across any industry. The bad news is that the nature of the nonprofit sector can amplify some of the more personal aspects of the workplace. Here are some characters you might find in an unhappy environment, along with a decoding of the underlying trouble and tips for working through them.
They might say: “We’re just a little overworked right now.”
If there’s a Peacemaker in the office, underlying causes may include a lack of training and resources or ambiguity over job descriptions and organizational structure.
When staff chronically complain about being overworked, it can signal more than just the demands of the job. What it suggests is a lack of understanding about the job itself or the resources that are needed to make the job manageable. To fix the problem, take stock of current job descriptions and compare them to what jobs actually involve. Take into consideration leadership structure and reporting requirements.
The Power Hoarder
They might say: “Front line staff don’t need to know or understand the details.”
If there’s a Power Hoarder in the office, underlying causes may include a lack of transparency and communication.
Executives love to use the term “open-door policy,” but it doesn’t always materialize. If the staff is complaining about its concerns not being addressed, some further investigation needs to take place about how and whether staff feel safe communicating issues, as well as common resolution tactics to improve how issues get addressed.
They might say: “Everyone is afraid of getting fired.”
If there’s a Whistleblower in the office, underlying causes may include hostile leadership, a lack of transparency and communication, and chronic budget constraints.
This is a big one, and it’s pretty common in the nonprofit sector. Between management turnover, closed-door meetings and constant talk about “the budget,” nonprofits can feel unstable for staff who aren’t in the know. That’s an uncomfortable position, to say the least, and it doesn’t exactly inspire passion or performance. Consider staff retreats, open meetings on the budget and even bringing in Board motions in staff meetings. The staff doesn’t need to be bothered with every minute challenge that management is working with, but they should feel like management is working for them, not against them.
They might say: “Joe does more than Jane, why doesn’t Joe have Jane’s job?”
If there’s a Fire Starter in the office, underlying causes may include a lack of accountability and transparency.
Be wary of this person causing distrust in your organization. A few things can be going on when staff start measuring each other’s performance. There may be a lack of understanding about everyone’s job, some overlap in the organizational structure, or an overall failure to hold people accountable for their duties. Try going through everyone’s job descriptions yearly and asking staff to self-report on how they spend their time. It’s also worth a conversation with staff: How does it affect morale, productivity or office culture when individuals are seen as non-contributors. Also, is this feeling creating a culture of gossip and distrust?
They might say: “We never have any money for anything because the mission is more important.”
If there’s a Martyr in the office, underlying causes may include leadership that needs to focus more on operations and providing adequate resources for their staff.
We’re in the nonprofit sector, and every penny that’s saved is another penny that goes to the program, right? But when you’re cutting corners on things like working computer hardware, phones, or office essentials, you’re hurting your program performance. Not only does old equipment hinder efficiency, it also hurts morale. If the perception is that you are so tight on funds that you cannot afford a working keyboard, it’s not exactly inspiring hope for increased salaries or reduced furloughs.
They might say: “This is my program — If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
If there’s an Obstacle in the office, underlying causes might include leadership who can’t or won’t keep staff in check.
Ownership is good, usually. When staff feel ownership in the program or project they are likely to be more passionate, more innovative and more committed to the program and the agency. But there’s another side to ownership, and it can mean that staff is resistant to outcome measures, trainings or improvements to the program. Having autonomous staff is a wonderful advantage for leadership, but it can also put the organization lurch if what’s really needed are program improvements or if staff decide to move on. Even if everything is going perfectly, it’s good to have continual management monitoring and outside input on the program.
The Peacemaker, the Power Hoarder, the Whistleblower, the Firestarter, the Martyr, and the Obstacle — six characters who can cast discord when things aren’t going quite right. But remember to look for the underlying problems to work through them and get back to changing the world. After all, is that why we’re here?
Allison Fuller has worked in the nonprofit world for ten years and brings a wealth of experiences and knowledge to the nonprofit arena. She is co-founder of Envision Consulting.
Sue Stack says
We also have the “dreamer” who, when everyone is already working at their best ability, will decide we ought to start an entirely new program from scratch because it would just be “perfect” for us
Thank you for sharing your experience and thoughts on this topic.
Retired Now says
So much of this is true. I worked in the corporate world most of my life and ended up in a non-profit after being unemployed for 3 years. The pay was way below what I had been making, but I could justify it because the job was easy, the surroundings pleasant and the cause was noble. But after a merger with another agency the honeymoon ended. Utterly incompetent management, political manueverings (what you say is more important than what you do), a lot more work for no more pay, NO appreciation but plenty of grief for what you did not accomplish – I came SOOOOO close to walking out the door one night (and had my husband not been unemployed I probably would have), I even packed up my office. My ‘can-do’ attitude changed that night to I’ll just do what I need to do to stay employed. I didn’t care anymore. I longed to go back to the corporate world where expectations were clear and you were held accountable. At the non-profit, you often didn’t know what expectations were until you got in trouble for not meeting them. But at my age, jobs were not to be had so I stuck it out another 3 years until I could retire. Maybe other non-profits are different, but the experience really soured me on the non-profit world as an employer.
Thank you for sharing your experience and thoughts on this topic.