Voices from the Field: Nonprofit Workplace Culture – Why it Matters so Much to Us

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Editor’s Note: When looking for employment with a nonprofit do you first think about its mission and your attachment to it? We would suggest looking a bit further – to determine if the organization has the “personal politics” to match its stated mission intentions. It is unreasonable to expect any organization to function perfectly but there is an extra measure of unhappy cognitive dissonance involved when there is an essential contradiction between purpose and practice. Here reader, Jinna Halperin discusses the problem as part of NPQ’s Voices from the Field series.


Throughout my nearly 15 years of working as a nonprofit employee and as a consultant for nonprofits, I have landed upon a basic fact: All nonprofits are dysfunctional in some way or another and figuring out where to hang your hat requires one to assess whether the level and type of dysfunction is personally tolerable. Like most of us working in the nonprofit sector, I am motivated by a desire to have an impact, create change and help others. Somewhat surprisingly I have worked in several organizations where the management staff has exhibited behaviors in direct contradiction to the stated mission.

Take for instance the reproductive health organizations that frowned upon any of its staff members having children, because it reduced the individual’s ability to work extended, and frankly unsustainable, hours. Then there was the Africa policy organization that overthrew its executive director in a bloodless coup d’état, and the lawyer at the health and human rights organization who jokingly informed me that they should stop hiring women of reproductive age. I have also encountered an executive director of a service delivery organization who provides services based on clients’ assumed ability to raise money for the organization, either directly or indirectly through a network of wealthy friends and colleagues. In truth, these examples do not begin to scratch the surface of the nonprofit dysfunctions I have seen.

From a personal financial perspective, one enters the field of nonprofits expecting to live on minimal earnings. We often attend graduate school knowing that our earning potential will be no greater when we exit, though perhaps more onerous, thanks to our additional debt burdens. I recall a job panel some years after attending graduate school, where the panelists counseled audience members to accept a position at any level and any salary, if it meant getting a foot in the door at an organization of interest. For a while, these tenets seemed reasonable and feasible. With time and increased experience, as well as additional life expenses like parenthood, indentured servitude no longer seemed acceptable.

This realization dawned on me while working for a human rights organization where it emerged that men, even those less qualified and with fewer degrees, typically earned more than women. The irony was again not lost on me or my colleagues, but the pariah treatment I received for requesting fair wages was still surprising. After being criticized for requesting a higher salary and told that one does not enter the field “simply to earn money,” a friend and I joked that we should start paying our bills in commitment, dedication or service.

During what was supposed to be a morale boosting process, intended to slow or stop the mass exodus, the executive director reported that he had conducted a salary survey of comparable organizations. The official report was that “our salaries are comparable.” No data was offered to confirm his assertion, nor did the pace of departures diminish for quite some time. In fact, shortly thereafter, the executive director was himself transitioned to a new position as a figurehead president. Despite decreasing revenue that led to some staff being forced to take salary cuts, the new president continued to earn approximately $200,000 for several years, according to the 990s, its annual IRS filing.

Upon entering the world of nonprofits, one often hears that the goal of a nonprofit is to put itself out of business. Depending on the issue, such a goal is either elusive or more realistically unattainable, as there are always emerging issues that require interventions and attention. In my case, the challenge of doing good has resulted not simply from the nature of the work but rather from the nonprofit management itself. It is easy to assume that people do not enter the nonprofit sector seeking power and authority, but as power begets desire for more power, I have witnessed several occasions when leadership positions have led to internal power struggles often overriding the organization’s best interests.

Another management style I have encountered that hinders an organization’s ability to create real change is: the visionary leader-turned-executive director. These nonprofit visionaries seek to run an organization that fulfills a personal mission. In such cases, there are often no operating principles or guidelines, other than what the visionary sees as appropriate, so separating the mission from the executive director’s personal preferences becomes challenging if not impossible. The organization typically lacks a sustainability plan or transitional model, so much like dictatorial regimes following the dictator’s demise, after the executive director’s departure, the organization struggles to redefine itself. Sometimes it succeeds and sometimes not, depending on the strength and creativity of the board and staff.

A third category of nonprofits I’ve experienced is the lifelong nonprofit employee who has simply accumulated enough years to merit the transition to executive director. Without real management experience, organizations led by these individuals suffer.

Over the years, I have determined which dysfunctions I can tolerate. And so should you. I am no longer driven only by the mission of the organization. Having so many issues about which I feel passionate and on which I have worked, I have come to believe that employment happiness at nonprofits is more about how one is treated and whether one’s contribution is respected, rather than whether it seems to be the ideal position at the ideal organization. Nowadays, when looking for positions, my approach is dramatically different. As best as possible, I try to read the signs before accepting a position. Perhaps it is like reading tea leaves. How do I spot the red flags?

In my attempt to learn from past mistakes, I make a point of learning as much as I can about an organization. Of course, one important sign is the organization’s turnover rate, as is its power-sharing model. If the organization is too top heavy, it is a likely indicator that there are not enough people to do the grunt work and too many people trying to grab a piece of the power. Public documents like the organization’s 990s are an excellent resource. Organizations are required to disclose the salaries of the top five highest paid employees, and when it comes time for salary negotiations, there is nothing like knowing how much the top dogs make.

Still, having said all of that, I remain steadfastly committed to helping sometimes imperfect nonprofit organizations achieve their mission, but now I go into relationships with an eye first on the integrity of the operation.  Fortunately, I have experienced well-functioning organizations that are successful in achieving real impact.  Knowing that such organizations exist comforts me in those moments when I ask myself: am I a glutton for punishment?


 

Jinna Halperin has worked as an employee and consultant for domestic and international nonprofit organizations for the past 15 years.

  • Astrid Gehrig

    Thank you, Jinna, this is exactly to the point. My experience with a global non-profit organisation is that normal social standards and behaviors are more or less out of function. Management are doing and saying things that I presume they would never do outside the organisation in their privat life. And it definately would not be accepted in other types of social contexts.

  • Amy Hendricks

    An excellent synopsis of nonprofit culture. Do you have any recommendations to improve those nonprofits which are highly dysfunctional? I agree that one must decide the type of dysfunction he/she can handle, but should we stive to eliminate the dysfunction, or just accept it?

  • Jane F

    This has also been my experience, ran into every one of these examples at one of the major non-profits. It’s a shame and very discouraging/demoralizing – and so unnecessary! I believe, like all corporate culture change, it has to come from the top.

  • Jinna Halperin

    Amy, thanks for your comment. To some extent, we need to accept that the dysfunctions exist. With that said, I personally cannot stop myself from trying to improve organizations both in an effort to enhance the quality of work life for its employees and to increase the organization

  • Jim M

    Having worked in both profit and noprofit for the last 20 years, these points are valid, but not exclusive to the nonprofit sector. I’ve seen plenty of dysfunction in the profit sector, no matter the salaries. Some justify it because of the drive for profit, but the dysfunction is still present. Look at the numerous business books built on the concept of organizational improvement. It isn’t a nonprofit thing. It is a human thing.

  • Cathy C. Lee CFRE

    Good grief! I have 25 years employment in nonprofit management and consulting and have not seen the phrase “cognitive dissonance” since college.

  • Nancy B.

    Thanks for the honesty. We have a tendency not to discuss this. It is crucial to identify for professional success. Agree that for-profits have the issue too, think we expect better from NFP.

  • Jane F

    I agree with Jim M, but only to a certain extent. Most for-profit organizations do not have mission statements that they exist to, for example: help people find good jobs. That’s an easy one.

    The discordance that is so hard to understand occurs when a non-profit organizations’ internal policies and culture are directly contrary to their mission statement. The n-p whose mission is to help people find good jobs has a culture that does not support the people it employs and has a much higher than average turnover rate, because it is a difficult place to work, which causes qualified people to leave, or be fired, mostly due to the issues Jinna identifies. That’s called not “walking the talk.”

    Remember the CEO of United Way several years ago who was caught using enormous amounts of UW funds for his own personal use? My ethical sense is that, that was far worse than the executives at Enron pulling their fraudulent activities.

    Some sectors are, and should be, held to a higher standard; when they fail to do so, the social impact on all associated organizations – and the people they serve! – can cause damage to more of those most in need of help.

  • Michael Lloyd-White

    This is certainly a sad case of affairs which I did not realise was the norm rather than the exception in NFPs. Rather than be disheartened I find adversity inspires me and have now launched a new NFP. My 12 months as a volunteer in the largest peak parent body in the southern hemisphere saw some appalling cases of bullying which led to death threats all in the midst of an anti bullying campaign. We need both the “warm and fuzzy” and “pointy ends of the stick” to bring about change. Unfortunately in Australia whilst workplace bullying is covered in legislation it does not include volunteers. Its the bystander and gang behaviour that needs addressing at its core. The power of exclusion or fear of it, which some individuals source power from by manipulation. Talking about it openly and honestly is a start.

  • Paul Wamai

    Thanks Jinna. This is a very good illustration of the goings in the nonprofit sector. I have been in nonprofit organization employment since 1991. The facts you have outlined are true, unfortunately tainting the images of some very well intentioned actors.

    Is there a regulatory system for nonprofits? I know that countries have their own internal regulations for nonprofit organizations. However, the global nature of the nonprofit field and fact that the organizations benefit from public funds require a global control system.

    In my experience and opinion the nonprofit organizations have been left to function without proper control. While they are seen as the helpers and rescuers of vulnerable and often as public watchdogs over governments, they luck a controller and set their own rules. In order to ensure the independence of these organizations which is critical for them to achieve their mandates there needs to be a global mechanism, independent from political systems, that oversees the performance of the nonprofits.

  • Karen L

    So very true. In the nonprofit world we so often expect people to be “better” than human beings in general. Organizations are just groups of people and people in groups tend to have much in common regardless of their purpose. As for the tendency to “blame the leader” for the ills of the agency – sure there are lousy ones but there are just as many lousy employees who are poison to the culture but always expect to be treated with kid gloves because they are underpaid and under-appreciated doing the work of the angels.

  • mayra nunez

    I agree with Karen L when she said that people are not appreciate for the kind of job we are doing. The paid is not good,but the executive director salary for a non-profit organization is more than 650,000 a year. You tell me how can this be possible. You tell me how come an employee working for 14 years at the same agency is earning 33,000 a year. Is it fair for the emoloyee and every day we are loosing days, sick, personals and the last no increase with a bachelors degree. Now we are working we people that have only high school diploma and they have the same rights as us in the classroom because the agency desided to change our tiltle. Now everybody is the same. You tell me why we the ones with degrees went to school for.We have to agree or we loose our job.

  • Lynne

    Oh, this article is so timely as I am again looking for another position in NFP! I totally agree with Jinna and Jim about disfunctioned organizations in both sectors having spent many years in both. You may not be able to change it but you certainly get to pick the organization which best suits you.

  • Tara Maffei Tozer

    Nonprofits employ human beings – perhaps that fact has escaped some. People who have a calling to help or to serve have many of the same human qualities as those who enter the “for profit” forum, so why are we shocked that there is a level of dysfunction, and why do we act as if this is a sin of unforgivable nature? Nonprofits, and their workplace relations, should not be held to a different set of standards. In an age where shrinking budgets and decreasing staff struggle to meet growing sociological needs, administration and staff do the best they can to feed, house, and provide other services with diminishing resources. I stepped away from the for-profit world 20 years ago and received a masters degree in social work. After 20 years, I make less than I did two decades ago – I do not blame this on the nonprofit sector, but acknowledge that there are donors and board members who generally come from the for-profit world and who feel that we should be martyrs to our causes and deserve to be paid less than their own secretaries. That being said, turning on our own cohorts is never a solution. I accept that workplaces, nonprofit or otherwise, have a level of dysfunction that directly correlates to the number and quality of employees along with factors like the economy and social constructs affecting our jobs. I embrace my job and the work we do in the community every day, even on the days we’re not perfectly in sync. Furthermore, women all over are paid less than men for the same job – if anyone sold you a bill of goods that it would change in nonprofit, I suggest you see them immediately for an apology. We need to tackle that issue in the greater community and not place the blame on the doorstep of nonprofits as if it were a broken warranty. Nonprofit world jobs are not fairy lands where people go to “work less”, or for some level of fabled parity. If anything, we see the cruel reality that our clients face on a daily basis. Either roll up your sleeves and dive in, or get on out of the pool. I wish you luck.

  • Sharon M

    I too have had too many disappointing experiences while working at non-profits, dealing mainly with the lack of leadership. It has been a learning process for me to speak up and try to address the lack of managerial skills given to “leadership teams”. Too often, the small NP is top heavy with the least paid employees, and the ones most vested and devoted to their work, who are doing the job, with the least credit given.

  • KateG

    Thank you;this is simply refreshing. As a nonprofit professional, this ‘phenomenon of dysfunction’ is something I’ve thought about, and faced, often.

    I thought that even if I wasn’t alone in my assessments, it certainly wasn’t something one would discuss w/ colleagues – and definitely not something to let the rest of the world, (e.g. donors, constituents, supporters, & doubters) in on.

    Kudos to you for bringing it to light & for opening the dialogue.

  • Jinna Halperin

    Thank you all for your thoughtful and insightful contributions. I have long considered initiating a discussion on nonprofit workplace culture, and it is both refreshing and inspiring to see that there are so many of you who wish to participate in the conversation. Like many in the nonprofit sector, I only have limited experience working in the for-profit world. In fact, an earlier version of the article included a sentence about how the same dysfunctions likely exist in most businesses, as recent events have shed light on their grave imperfections. Years ago, as a relative newbie to the nonprofit world though already discouraged by my early negative experiences, I frequently espoused the notion that nonprofits needed to be run more like businesses. Clearly, much of the business sector does not offer a management or compensation model worthy of emulation, though Ben and Jerry

  • Toni Z

    Jinna,

    You mentioned public forms 990’s, where exactly would I be able to locate these forms?

    Thanks

  • Jinna Halperin

    Toni,

    If I’m looking for a nonprofits 990, then I use Guidestar. You can create a free login. If I’m writing a grant and I want to find out what organizations a particular foundation has funded, then I use Foundation Center, but it requires a paid subscription.

  • Dr Ani

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful article. From where I stand working with for profit companies as well as for not for profit, those who are for profit have similar dysfunctions mentioned in your article.

  • Barbora

    A great article. I looked up a couple of organizations 990s and I wonder what the reasonable salary of a, say, vice president of a non-profit organization is…

  • Steven_

    Chilling! The image of veteran athletes showing each other their scars sprang to mind. I came to non-profits from an intensely profit oriented industry expecting to work with some genuine human beings. The first few non-profits I worked for were like a headless version of the for-profit culture without even elementary graces such as mutual respect, concern for welfare, or a sense of common direction and purpose. In many cases we must make compromises to break into a new area, though, but not at any price. What I learned, and what I would pass on is that you should insist on visiting HQ, meeting senior management, meeting your future supervisor (and +1), your peer group (if not the actual individuals), and paying strict attention to the answers you get to questions. Is there a common view point on topics – that is very good. Do people seem to know intuitively and consistently how things are done – that is another very good. Cynicism in the people you meet is a warning sign that you shouldn’t ignore. People evading or glossing over your key interests or concerns is another warning. While it may not be possible to join your first-choice non-profit right off – it is of paramount importance to establish yourself on a professional path as soon as possible. Less than a year with any organisation is virtually a waste of time. More than two years with a wretched organisation will dissipate your skills and outlook. If you find you are in a poisonous environment after 6 months – try to move within the organisation before considering evacuation. Most of all – when you find yourself in the right organisation, with the right people, at the right time – make the most of it. This is growing time.

  • SF

    [quote name=”Tara Maffei Tozer”] Nonprofits, and their workplace relations, should not be held to a different set of standards. [/quote]

    I wonder if that is that the consensus of the readers of this article? My own feeling is that they ARE held to a different standard, since they mostly raise money from individuals or organizations on the premise, and promise, that they are indeed a different type of organization. I also work for a dysfunctional NP, where the board is mostly friends of the founder and very compliant, and the ED is truly incompetent (but well paid, of course). Turnover is extremely rapid and in a knowledge-based organization, this is fatal. After several decades, we may be in our last year of existence…… stay tuned!

  • N

    Could you explain what you mean by “turnover rate?”

    Also, what do you mean when you refer to organizations as “too top heavy?”

    I am looking for my first job in the nonprofit sector and this article has given me a lot to think about. Thanks for writing it!

  • Linda Fredrick

    Great article,the title says it all. Those of us working in the Nonprofit sector understand the frailty and general craziness of the populace in general and the workplace in particular. I think our largest flaw/character trait is a strong belief in our principals and a desire for the better world that could exist. See the link below from RSA Motivation Theory.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc&feature=autoplay&list=PL94D154B9880DBE99&index=12&playnext=11

  • sfortier

    This article sums up what I have been thinking. I know the grass may not be greener if I worked for a different nonprofit and all nonprofits have their quirks, but as I talk to colleagues, I sometimes think I could live with their nonprofit challenges.

  • Ruth McCambridge

    we all feel that way from time to time but there really are some toxic workplaces that you are just better out of altogether. I remember reading an interview in the book “Working” by Studs Terkel and this woman was saying that the place she worked was the kind of place where you left your spirit at home because if you were to bring it in with you it would be killed.

  • Jinna Halperin

    N,

    I just realized that a reply I wrote to you earlier was not posted. Forgive the delay.

    In answer to your questions, by turnover rate, I mean the rate at which employees come and go. What is the average lifespan on an employee?

    As for organizations that are too top heavy, I mean those that have more management than worker bees, which is not a good balance of power, particularly for those entry- and mid-level staff trying to carry out management’s wishes.

    Best of luck with your job search.

  • Isha

    Jinna,
    I wanted to let you know that I am working on my masters in sustainable business and community and am focusing on nonprofit workplace culture. I came across your article as a resource. If you would like to discuss this matter more, be interviewed for my thesis or share resources, please reach out.
    Thank you for writing this piece.
    Best,
    Isha

  • Roger H

    No matter where one works or what it is they do, culture matters. I think everyone has had odd jobs where they knew they didnt fit. Its more than just knowing what you want to do, its knowing the where and who you want to do it around. I recently went to a technology staffing and requested that I meet with them to get a feel for who I was and what I wanted in a workplace environment. Now one would think that working at a non-profit organization would be full of people with similar goals and attitudes but reality shows otherwise

  • Elliott

    How do you find out an employers turnover rate prior to employment?