Boards Cannot Be Sacred, Staff Cannot Be Saints, and Founders Should Never Be Martyrs

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I approach this essay with not a small amount of trepidation. But it’s been writing itself in my head for over two decades now, and it’s more important than ever to take it on. So here goes:

We who work in the nonprofit sector can be prone to just a bit of self-sanctification for ourselves and our cronies. After all, we sacrifice, we follow our passions, we are deeply committed and high-minded, we accept less pay—or no pay at all—and we give until we have almost nothing left. We are, by any measures we take of ourselves, better human beings than any who are not in our sector.

Or so the narrative usually goes, and any exposure as less than saintly—say, via a salary exposé in the local press—is always denounced as cruel and unfair. Certainly, there are sinners among us, but the rest of us? Definitely not. Probably. Yes, it’s an overstatement.

But there is a halo that comes with (or is brought to) the nonprofit designation, and that halo shines more or less brightly depending on many factors. But so what? Why should it matter if that’s what people think of the good work they do? Much of it IS true. We ARE looking for work in our lives that ultimately improves the human condition to whatever degree we can do so. We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. And we know that this work is hard, and it is rare to be able to show something for everything we do. Our victories are small and often short-lived. But we stay in there, year after year, making our sacrifices, earning our small(er) salaries, and trying to keep all these “other people,” these “outsiders,” from coming in and trying to tell us how to do this work.

Because how can someone show someone else how to be a better saint? How can you possibly overlay mathematical equations on the inspiration of Sacred Work? And how could anyone ever tell the person who CREATED an organization—who conceived, and birthed, and fed, and nurtured it to health—that there are better ways of running it? No! The work is wholly based in divine inspiration, and answers ONLY to the divine that provides it sustenance.

And perhaps most important, at both the level of governance and the level of the street: Volunteers give time as an act of love, and thus can NEVER be corrected. They can only be thanked.

For me, after many, many years of working with this and watching it go on in the nonprofit sector, this thinking—which is actually not thinking at all; it’s a visceral, emotional belief—has become the central way that the sector has hobbled itself from moving forward and becoming an even greater steward of the solutions it is seeking to bring.

So am I saying that the love and desire to improve the human condition that is a primary motivating force behind nonprofit work must be somehow crushed and rejected?

Well, no. NO, no, no-no-no-no-no.

I’m saying that the nonprofit sector, and specifically the members of boards, and members of staff, and founders and executive directors, must be much more willing to say, “Wow, I didn’t know that.” Or, “Hmm, that seems to be a better way of doing this.” Or, “Yes, I am out of my element here, and I have a lot to learn.” Or the almost never heard “Yes, I started this, and it’s time for me to hand it off and move forward.” More willing, that is, to be fallible, vulnerable, and open to learning.

But because board members, as an example, are volunteering their (undisputedly) valuable time to serve on a board, there is a tremendous hesitancy to require them to devote additional time to learning what they really need to know to make the highest-level decisions in the organization. No one wants to require them to take a course on the legal requirements of board service, or an overview course on nonprofit financial management, or even a two- or three-hour introduction to the organization they’re about to govern. ALL of these should be required. They are NOT optional, and they are certainly not irrelevant. And if the members of the board are out of their element, how can they bring everything they (undoubtedly) have to bring to the board? If all an organization wants from them is money, then they should have the courage to say so and ask for it, rather than try to flatter them with a place on the board and the hope they’ll then just write checks continuously. Respect them enough to teach them what they’ll need to know to contribute more than that.

Similarly, the fact that staff members at nonprofits are willing to accept lesser salaries should NEVER mean that they are not worth additional professional development and investment. The fact that they are being forced to “do more with less” actually argues that they MUST be taught better and deeper. And it is my position that this is a profession as much, or more, than it is a “calling.”

Again, using the language of charity removes the impetus to treat it as a profession. If someone is “called,” they are prepared to put up with just about anything in order to answer. They expect to put up with just about anything. So when they are made to put up with just about anything, why would they complain? And even more important, why wouldn’t the organization take advantage of their expectation to put up with anything?

The organization, of course, has no other choice because—at least in its view—it ALSO accepts that “nothing can be done.”

“We are a charity, our means are small, our prospects are slim, and anyway, our work is based in love. Get used to it.”

The Founder-as-Martyr is the most extreme and unfortunate example of the language (and emotion) of charity. “Founder’s Syndrome,” while certainly not limited to the nonprofit sector, seems to be particularly virulent in it. After all, in the for-profit sector, one either folds or sells out. In the nonprofit sector, neither need happen, and a founder can hold on literally for decades with only a few sympathetic donors. The issue here is with the people being served, not with the founder. Once people come to depend on the services, the primary consideration should be to continue them.

In my experience, the most frequent occurrence is that the organization outgrows the founder’s ability to manage it, but the founder refuses to believe that. “It worked just fine when I started it” is never a good reason for continuing to operate in a particular way, but because of everything the founder has “sacrificed” (remember that second paragraph), they believe in their absolute right to continue, even down to firing everyone and disbanding the board that opposes them—which is, as everyone on the board would have known if they’d taken the course, completely illegal.

There is no question—none—that the nonprofit sector was built by very dedicated, smart, extraordinary individuals who made decisions to strike out and start something they saw as missing or sorely needed by the people in their communities. Organizations don’t begin whole. People start them, and people nourish them. Individuals must be acknowledged as the catalysts that form the sector.

And then, individuals need to grow, evolve, professionalize, or step aside so that the need they sought to fill can continue to be met. The language of charity allows them to stagnate and forbids those around them from correcting them. It stymies boards into submission and forces staff into silence. And it ultimately turns something created through love and dedication into something ugly.

Language always matters. And whether we’re talking about what boards should or can’t do, or staff needs, or how founders should be “handled,” the language of charity will always limit and restrict any action out of a false sense of deference. We do this work because we are human, and this is what humans do. I’ve known for a long, long time that I’m no saint, and I’ve just been waiting for everyone else to bust me on this point. I guess I’m hoping this can be my defense when it happens.


Paul T. Hogan is Executive Vice President of the John R. Oishei Foundation.

  • Simone Joyaux

    Excellent article, Paul. I love it. You sound like my kind of person…. For example, my newest book is called FIRING LOUSY BOARD MEMBERS – AND HELPING THE OTHERS SUCCEED. Published by CharityChannel Press in February 2014.

    I often talk and write about nonprofits as having a sense of entitlement. I think that goes well with your article. And boards as being dysfunctionally polite.

    Ah yes, founders… I’ve founded two organizations. And when I hear founders say they expect to stay forever… Or when I hear organizations refuse to invite founders to leave… It drives me nuts. I left both organizations – intentionally – even before they may have wanted me to leave…. Because founders should leave. (I was a board member and board chair.)

    Anyway, thanks for the great article. I’ll be encouraging people to read it.

  • Anne Lawlor

    Agree wholeheartedly. Am reminded of a statement I heard once and have never forgotten “Domination in the guise of service”, a trap which many a person has fallen into.
    We are most undoubtedly educated by language, mostly sub-consciously it might be said. The language of charity perhaps is long overdue an overhaul, it is in very many ways both outdated and outmoded no longer serving the people it purports to help.
    On the issue of feeling unable to speak out perhaps the first order of the day for is all, including boards, is basic communication skills which would greatly enhance this ability.
    This particular conversation? Long overdue.

  • Judi Nolan Powell

    Well stated and Amen!

  • David Geilhufe

    I think you essay has been writing itself in many of our minds over the past 20 years. Recently, my mind came full circle on how professional I think the nonprofit sector needs to be. I went back to something that my first executive director taught me about — diversity. He was a classic “Founder-as-Martyr” and had no interest in working within an outcome oriented world. But he did value diverse voices at the table and strove to make sure his work had room for diverse people and views.

    I believe we don’t have enough outcome-drive, market-driven, “professional” activity in the nonprofit sector. But I also believe, as I think you do, that the fundamental humanity of the sector is it’s core strength. It the diversity or outcomes, stories and humanity that will transform communities.

    If we can be tolerant of diversity and intellectually honest about our diversity — admit where we lack skills, explain why we care about the story more than the outcome measure or we care about the outcome measure more than the story — that is a nonprofit sector that can take some big swings at tackling intractable problems.

  • Roland

    Excellent article………and very true

  • E. A. Baker

    Perhaps the easiest part of this type of sanctified thinking to refute is the “Volunteers give time as an act of love” part of the piece. (To be clear, I define volunteers in this comment as people who are not part of the permanent staff or board or founders who donate their time and energy to a nonprofit on a small, as-needed temporary basis.) While volunteers in a nonprofit organization can and should be valued and thanked for their donations of time and energy, they are not necessarily there as an act of love. Some of them will be there as part of their school or college project, some of them will be there for training as part of a job, some of them will be there for something, anything to take up their time throughout the day. It is not even altruism that drives some fraction of them.

    Each and every volunteer should be valued and thanked, and the majority will likely feel some pride and satisfaction in their good works and the cause they support, but love? Not necessarily and not immediately.

  • Norm King

    Well said…and fair comment.

  • Robin

    We done. I have thought about some of these points myself. I always wondered, how often do non-profits revisit their mission statement. Language is a big part of this field. And sometimes the way the mission is worded can be outdated and re-create the same outcomes/message over and over. I definitely am not a saint either and have fallen into that story. That doesn’t feel good and takes away from the clarity of the work to be done. But, I am risk taker and enjoyed reading this piece. Thank you for sharing it.

  • Jodi

    This essay is long overdue. Thank you for calling attention to this very important issue. I’d like to this as an AFP talk.

  • Jayne Hughes

    Eloquently put, as a staff member of a nonprofit this article offers a clear view from the outside, avoid of the many emotional feelings and ties one feels when immersed in an organization. Thank you for an insightful article.

  • Gil Jordan

    O.K., points well taken, but when I hear stuff like this, I am reminded of my least favorite admonition when someone periodically suggests, “Why can’t you run your non-profit more like a for-profit business?” I invariably reply, “Oh really? Which business do you think we should emulate? Enron? Citibank? B of A? Bear Sterns? J.P. Morgan? UBS?” My point is the non-profit sector, while we can all benefit from self-reflection and self-criticism, by comparison to the so called “for-profit” world, has nothing to apologize for. In fact, it can be argued that if it weren’t for the non-profit sector patching up the deleterious effects of profit and greed, the for-profit world would have already destroyed not only the people and culture of the world, but the very planet itself.