Workplace Woes and Contracting Conundrums: Dr. Conflict Weighs in

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Dr. Conflict

Dear Dr. Conflict,

We are considering contracting out for some of our management services (fundraising and grant reporting). What concerns and/or questions should we be raising with respect to the fact that the service provider will also have other nonprofit clients with similar missions? We would appreciate any thoughts or resource links about shared management functions.


Dear Concerned,

If what you’re after is how to deal with confidentiality, address it directly with your outsourcer. But Dr. Conflict thinks you ought to be thinking more broadly. You could do this by imagining hiring an employee—which, in effect, you are. And when it comes to doing that right, you must “Hire hard, manage easy.”1

Your first step is to spec the job itself. Outline the tasks, duties, and responsibilities for the job. Next, clarify the necessary knowledge, skills, and abilities to do that job successfully. Finally, nail down the performance expectations that describe “what the job accomplishes and how performance is measured in key areas.”2 This would include maintaining the confidentiality of your account, timeliness of reporting, and other guidelines of conduct.

Only after having defined the job can you recruit a talent pool. The best method is referrals: a “full 77 percent” of industry leaders say it is their first choice.3 Be careful here, as referrals are only as good as the source; if you solicit from losers, you’ll get losers.4

Selecting the best candidate comes from structured behavioral panel interviews. Structured means using a standardized set of questions that you ask the applicant, to make comparisons easier. Behavioral means asking applicants for “specific examples of how they have performed a certain task or handled a problem in the past.”5 Panel means having a group of people meet at the same time with each applicant.

To be sure, outsourcing noncore functions can be enormously productive and cost-effective, and many agencies outsource payroll functions without hesitation. But according to a Blackbaud survey, it is relatively rare in fundraising except for back-office activities like data/computer systems, at 13 percent, and accounting, at 8 percent; face-to-face fundraising comes in at just 1 percent.6

You get Dr. Conflict’s drift here, yes? Face-to-face fundraising takes a deft hand from the executive director and from a board member who often comes along. Keep the important work in-house, where you can give it a personal touch, and outsource the rest.



Dear Dr. Conflict,

For a little over the past two years, I have been working for a nonprofit in a very tenuous and more often than not hostile, small-office work environment. My direct supervisor has been the director of operations for the past eight years or so and since arriving at the organization has systematically fired or “run off” anyone who has opposed her (either in terms of work or personality). The ED is less than two years away from retirement, and her efforts to stymie any conflicts that do arise are hesitant, ineffectual, and in many ways resigned to the erratic wishes of my supervisor.

Yesterday, my supervisor did something that on many occasions she has snapped at me not to do. When I tried to establish my boundaries by asking her not to do it in the future, she took offense. She waited until everyone in the office had left to verbally “go at” me, listing all of the reasons why what I had said was not okay. She began by telling me I had made her really mad, and that she was my boss and I could not talk to her that way. Despite my calmly trying to tell her I was just trying to do my job, develop boundaries that I felt had been lacking, and hadn’t meant to offend her, she broke into tears and told me that she was going to have a panic attack. I ended up saying whatever I could to get her to calm down.

I strongly believe that the only reason I have made it this long is because I have always tried to appease her. At this point (two years in) I am working harder than ever for the organization—wearing more hats, and doing more projects that require me to make my own statements and opinions known. I am at the point where the only “out” I see is either looking for a new job or applying for grad school. My ED and supervisor have told me on multiple occasions how valuable I am to the organization, but this is just schizophrenic. How can I survive?


Dear Desperate,

Expert Robert Sutton can offer you some tips for how you might “limit the damage . . . by learning not to give a damn about those jerks.”7 But with an ED two years away from retirement, you’re in a world of hurt. You should most certainly arrange your schedule so that you’re never without witnesses close by. And if your supervisor goes on the attack when you are alone, protect yourself by walking away.

You should also consider talking to an attorney about whether you have cause for action. And, consider discussing the situation with a professional counselor to see why you are staying put when you say you have other options, including graduate school. Maybe you can also gain insights into the boundary-setting issues you wrote about.

The answer to how you can survive in this den of jerks is that you probably can’t. Start your networking engine right now so that you’ll be on everyone’s “you’d be perfect for this”referral list.8 In the meantime, stay connected with friends and family; you need them for loving support to counterbalance the toxicity.



  1. Robert L. Mathis, John H. Jackson, and Sean R. Valentine, Human Resource Management, 14th ed. (Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2014), 220.
  2. Mathis and Jackson, Human Resource Management: Essential Perspectives (Mason, OH: South-Western, 2012), 238.
  3. Geoff Smart and Randy Street, Who: The A Method for Hiring (New York: Ballantine Books, 2008), 49–50.
  4. Stephen Burks, Bo Cowgill, Mitchell Hoffman, and Michael Housman, “You’d Be Perfect for This”: Understanding the Value of Hiring through Referrals, Discussion Paper No. 7382 (Bonn, Germany: The Institute for the Study of Labor [IZA], 2013), 13,
  5. Mathis, Jackson, and Valentine, Human Resource Management, 238.
  6. Blackbaud, 2010 State of the Nonprofit Industry Survey: North America Survey Results (Charleston, SC: Blackbaud, Inc., 2010), 13,
  7. Robert I. Sutton, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t (New York: Business Plus, 2010), 150.
  8. Burks, Cowgill, Hoffman, and Housman, “You’d Be Perfect for This.”





  • Miguel A. Novoa

    Mark, the format of your article is informative and allows the reader to engage the cases in a more analytic manner. Thank you for sharing your knowledge about conflict resolution and management in nonprofits through your persona “Dr. Conflict.”

    I agree with your suggestions on the first response. Developing an effective job description is crucial when attempting to conduct a productive hiring process. I add that, considering the confidentiality concerns, perhaps another good option would be to consider internal candidates instead of contracting outside of the company. Giving an opportunity to existing members would also have the advantage of having someone with greater knowledge serve the company. For more on this perspective, I recommend Carol Barbeito’s 2006 book Human Resource Policies and Procedures for Nonprofit Organizations, specifically the third chapter on “Recruitment, Hiring, and Termination.”

    Due to the nearly helpless situation of the person in the second part of the article, it catches my attention the most out of both cases. Your suggestions for the “desperate” person are good to help him/her handle the situation. The lack of concern the organization seems to have in worker retention reminds me of the work “It Ain’t Natural,” by Jeffrey Brudney and Lucas Meijis, which basically presents the argument that traditional nonprofits place little focus on retention and, instead, prefer to constantly hire new recruits. It also is clear that his organization is not paying much attention towards addressing the worker’s labor environment. The problem is all the more concerning when taking into consideration that it has been going on for a considerable amount of time (eight years, to be exact).

    Based on the information presented, it seems that the root of the problem is with the Executive Director. By essentially relinquishing the leadership of the organization, and allowing the supervisor to do whatever she considers correct without any apparent opposition, the long-term structure of the workplace is in jeopardy. A future ED is going to find it difficult to manage the power of the supervisor. I would recommend that, as a primary measure to start resolving the situation, the nonprofit should probably implement a personal performance appraisal system. It doesn’t need to be a complicated one, but at least one that can allow the workers to express their grievances in a formal manner. This would also allow the ED a better opportunity to take action and resolve the matter. Joan Pynes’ Human Resources Management for Public and Nonprofit Organizations is a good book I would recommend for more information on this topic.