What i thought was going to be a most rewarding experience turned into a surprising pulling-back-of-the-curtain, and three years later it still haunts me.

As a junior staffer at ___, I had very little contact with senior management or trustees—especially the board officers, who tended to be quite wealthy and accomplished people with amazing connections. Our organization was nationally recognized as a leader and innovator in helping women out of poverty, getting truants into college, and marrying business discipline and community organizing into a single organization—with tons of publicity, prominent trustees, and gala fundraisers.

After 25 years of inspiring and highly recognized work leading the $20 million family service agency, Carlos de Silva was retiring—headed to the University of Buenos Aires as a guest sociology and politics lecturer.

The agency’s board was holding its annual retreat at the Mammon family’s historic home three hours north of the city, and, partly due to the worst sore throat of my life, I was in the back seat on the return to Manhattan in Ms. V___’s Saab along with Carlos de Silva, our now ex-president. Mr. de Silva got into the car like a newly elected official, with board members and staff congratulating and waving to him. A justifiably proud and friendly man, with a lot to contribute.

I was in no condition to talk, not that Ms. V___ or Mr. de Silva really wanted to hear my ideas—I was just looking forward to listening in on the “Great Ones” I had seen from a distance. Ms. V___ was chair of the board, and not only was she a major donor among major donors, but she also held an annual wallet squeezer that brought even more donations, publicity, and connections.

At first, Ms. V___ and Mr. de Silva just engaged in small talk about mutual acquaintances, international travel, and their adult children’s considerable accomplishments.

As we headed down the Palisades, the conversation in the front seat took a strange and bitter turn. I was looking out the window and dozing a bit when Mr. de Silva’s voice rose and said, “What exactly do you mean?”

Ms. V___ said, “Well, I’ve always thought of ___ and the other agencies like they were sheltered workshops—a better occupation for many people’s time than they could otherwise do, and they get a paycheck and feel like they’re doing something.”

Mr. de Silva looked peeved when he said, “So what do you think the last five years’ work on outcomes measures has been? Your foundation funded that process, and you yourself said it was cutting edge work.”

Ms. V___started backtracking and held up her hand. “Oh yes, that was groundbreaking work, and a lot of people have learned from it. I’m just saying that with manufacturing leaving the country, the economy needs to find things for many people to do, and I’m very happy to do my part to keep people occupied, which is good for everyone.”

“I can’t believe you’re saying this—you’ve been on our board for seven years—you know what we’re trying to do!” said Mr. de Silva.

“Yes, I’m not saying anything against that, because I know you all try very hard.” Ms. V___ was still talking cheerfully, but I could tell she wasn’t really her cheerful trustee self.

“Carlos, you know the success rates as well as I do—there is nothing wrong with giving people things to do that they care about—you have a lot to be proud of, including keeping your 110 employees out of trouble. Then multiply that by all the nonprofits in the whole city—this is an essential employment service, or else this city would be a disaster.”

“We are not a sheltered workshop!”

“Yes, I’m sorry I used that phrase, but you know what I mean. I serve on nonprofit boards where we support the community, and I serve on business boards, where we produce hard numbers and real results.” Ms. V___ switched to a reasoning and persuasive voice. “I do my corporate work and I have my almonry. Society needs both kinds of organizations, Carlos—economic stratification is inevitable, and even you have to admit that poor people are necessary to keep your side of things going.”

“Almonry? Ms. V___, have you talked with other board members about this? I really think you’re going way out on a limb here.”

“Oh yes, we talk about this all the time—not with the community board members, obviously—but really, everyone knows what’s going on. It’s not a bad thing or a mean thing to be honest about how the world works!”

My throat was burning and I felt weird. Mr. de Silva was slouched in his seat and I thought he was going to cry.

“My God!” he said suddenly, sitting up in his seat with a jerk. “The last 25 years have been a farce! A sit-com for trustee entertainment!”

Ms. V___ looked startled, and said quickly, “That’s not fair, and you know it. I’m just being candid with you because you seem to be taking a larger view and moving on to the University of Buenos Aires, after all.”

After a quiet but tense last leg of the trip, Ms. V___ pulled up to the curb outside our main office, and I got the bags. Mr. de Silva seemed like a crushed man.

“Please don’t repeat that about the sheltered workshop,” she yelled out the door. “That’s really not what I meant. Anyway, we will do lunch when you get back!” The Saab disappeared around the corner, and Mr. de Silva reached his arms up in a big, slow, noisy stretch and smiled at me.

“Sorry you had to hear that, Phil, but this board is like a little pageant. Trustees pull this every three years or so. Somehow it makes them feel better to do that—or at least feel like my better—so I play along. It’s harmless, really.”

Mr. de Silva gave another smile when we parted, but I couldn’t really tell if he was ironic or just resigned. He shrugged his shoulders, saying, “The things we do in these jobs! You’ll get used to it!”

My friend Jodi S. saw Mr. de Silva at a social network theory conference in Chile last month and said he is as passionate and high energy as ever—with some funny and quite pointed stories of his time working for a U.S. nonprofit, and has a new book under way.

Phil Anthrop is a consultant to foundations in G-8 countries.