Improving Management in Non-Profit Organizations

by Jim Britell

Summary:   Many nonprofit and social change organizations, working to make the world a better place, manage to create work environments that are social nightmares for their staffs. The lack of good management in many of these organizations often drives their most dedicated employees and volunteers away frustrated and resentful.


The best of all rulers is but a shadowy presence to his subjects. Next comes the ruler they love and praise; Next comes one they fear; Next comes one with whom they take liberties. When there is not enough faith, there is a lack of good faith. Hesitant, he does not utter words lightly. When his task is accomplished and his work done The people all say, 'It happened to us naturally.

- Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu

In their study of job satisfaction in northern Rockies public interest organizations, Kuric and van Hook found that many groups treated their "...good hearted staff with callous disregard." They found widespread dissatisfaction with work space, pay, relations with directors and boards, and that employees had a sense "they are less important than the causes they work on." Their survey found that among employees who had quit, poor administration was a frequent complaint. When asked how the management of these organizations could be improved, former employees overwhelmingly singled out the need to improve the management and supervisory skills of the directors.

I discussed the findings of this report with individuals familiar with social change organizations in other regions of the country. There was a consensus that many, perhaps a majority, of these organizations suffer from internal problems because the managers lack management skills. One person, who conducts training programs for social change organizations in the Midwest, observed that the overall quality of management in social change organizations is not good. She sensed a feeling of isolation in executive directors, and said that few are caring, too many are workaholics that can't share power and there is an expectation that the staff will sacrifice themselves.

Another who has worked for environmental organizations in the Northeast noted that often these organizations are headed by charismatic, messianic people who do not like to see other charismatic people emerge from the organizations or begin to take charge. An executive of a national charitable foundation in the Southeast who has overseen many community nonprofit organizations said that managers of nonprofit organizations are not taught to manage, and that lack of management skills is widespread. One organization he worked with had a director who made it a point to let everyone know that he was the boss by routinely rejecting other people's ideas just because they weren't his.

One person who worked for the Forest Service and who now works for an organization whose primary purpose is to oppose the Forest Service's deforestation schemes said, "I hate what the Forest Service does, but I have to say that when I worked for them I felt as if I was part of a family, part of a team. In the environmental organizations I have worked for since I have never had that feeling."

During discussions with some younger employees of nonprofit organizations about the effect of management on employee morale, it became clear that some have never experienced "good" management and were fascinated by the whole concept.

While it is difficult to generalize about thousands of groups of different sizes and missions, observers and directors of nonprofit organizations agree that many are experiencing management problems which impede their effectiveness. From large national organizations like United Way to small local social service organizations, conflicts over goals, funding and leadership are apparent. Even several major meditation centers have undergone agonizing internal management shakeouts caused by conflict between the members and the directors.

Large Organizations Have Problems Too

Nonprofit and social change organizations are not the only organizations under stress. Ross Perot's acrimonious split with General Motors was caused in part by his aggressive criticism of its president for failure to communicate with employees. Apple Computer, which many held to be a model of organizational creativity, expelled its founder for alleged lack of management skills. A recent survey of 120 senior women executives found that 91% had at least one bad boss in their career.

Workers in America have many problems. They get significantly less vacation time than most European workers. Government regulations to protect workers, the public and the environment have been gutted in recent years. The nation has no national health care program. Few strong unions exist to successfully bargain on behalf of workers. Workers are held as hostages by the multinational corporations. Whenever needed changes to protect the environment, provide full employment, or deal with social ills are proposed, the mere recitation of the 90's mantra "jobs, jobs, jobs" seems sufficient to drive would be reformers from the field in total rout. In an article in INC, April 1992, Paul Hawken sums it up by asking "Why is it that work is so hellish for the majority of Americans?"

A good candidate for patron saint of America's workers might be Benedict Arnold. The English generals thought he was America's best fighting general and that without him America would have lost the revolution. But the generals who supervised Arnold were bitterly jealous of his successes and routinely court-martialed him after his major victories - one of which he won after he broke out of jail, raced to the front of a battle in which the Americans were being routed, rallied the troops and saved the day. Finally Arnold got fed up and turned traitor so he could work under managers that appreciated him (and paid better too).

The Management Of Organizations

The day to day operation of any organization, no matter the size or purpose, includes certain management tasks:

  • Work areas must be acquired, laid out and assigned.
  • Someone must decide what work is to be done, who is to do it, and what the basic work flow will be. - Quality and timeliness of work products must be overseen. - Bringing human beings together inevitably means that all the complex idiosyncrasies of people will surface. Whether negotiating a formal union contract or congratulating a staff member on a new baby, managers must deal with issues that arise simply because they are dealing with people.
  • Operating an organization requires deciding who to hire, what to pay them, and how to provide employee benefits.

The mundane day to day details of managing an organization may not be as interesting as giving an interview to the New York Times or having a Senator call to ask your opinion on some upcoming legislation. But truly creative managers remember that God is in the details. Chaos and disorganization masquerading as freedom may create diversions that allow the manipulation of others. Some managers equate that with power: it is not. The vicissitudes of life and the laws of entropy create enough disorganization as it is without managers playing "pile on".

Unique Problems Of Nonprofit Organizations

In addition to the stresses all workers share, nonprofit organizations working to change the world for the better often have problems not shared by large "for profit" operations: insurmountable tasks, uncertain funding, inadequate pay scales, "voluntary" overtime, poor employee benefits, inadequate staffing, inadequate space, and substandard equipment. Ongoing funding is often based on the charity of gifts and grants, creating a life on the "dole". Certainly the difficulty of integrating volunteer and paid staff into ongoing daily operations is a daunting task not faced by most government or profit making operations. These problems are endemic to social change work, and those choosing to work for nonprofit organizations accept these conditions in return for doing work that is socially important.

But the smaller of the nonprofit organizations suffer from unique problems due to a paucity of management resources as compared to large organizations, parlayed with managers who often have little management experience. Large nonprofit organizations like the Girl Scouts and national religious organizations have management resources comparable to other large organizations. In the case of the Scouts, they also have an institutional wisdom built up over time based on many successes and many problems solved. Most small grassroots organizations have neither resources nor history to draw on.

Large profit making and government organizations usually have formal staff functions for management tasks which in turn have sub specialties such as purchasing, recruitment, systems acquisition, employee counseling, and many others. Each of these sub specialties has its own supporting professional organizations with professional certifications and accreditations, journals, conferences, and ongoing training programs. Large organizations, for example, may have an entire professional staff exclusively devoted to managing bulk mail operations; a nonprofit or social change organization may have a volunteer who once a year engages in a brief conversation with a misinformed clerk at the local post office.

One small volunteer environmental group in Oregon wasted 20% of their entire budget for five years, because the local postmaster misinformed them about their eligibility for bulk mail privileges, and charged them the full first class rates to mail their newsletter, which could have been sent out at a fraction of the cost with a nonprofit bulk mail permit.

Managers in large organizations not only have technical support, but their personal career paths usually include assignments and training in various management specialties at several supervisory levels. Management development staffs examine and evaluate strengths and weaknesses of individual managers from early in their careers. Individualized career development and training programs are developed for each manager. Managers often go through formal training programs with mentoring by senior managers who formally evaluate the candidates performance, strengths and weaknesses. People who aspire to management careers are expected to attend the many training programs offered by most colleges and universities. A large organization would no sooner put a person without formal training in management into a position of managing others than it would make a staff accountant the pilot of the company airplane.

Big organizations can be hellish places to work, but most have a variety of mechanisms to detect, prevent and correct the effects of poor management. Personnel practices are formalized and monitored. Formal employee grievance systems identify difficult managers early. Unions and their shop stewards in the work units act as a check on poor management practices. Large organizations have many departments so employees can often transfer away from unsatisfactory work areas. Personnel departments have employee counseling programs where employees can get advice and talk out their problems in confidence. Managers usually have other experienced managers nearby who they can go to for advice.

The managers of non-profit organizations not only arrive in management positions with little prior supervisory experience, but typically have little in the way of support systems to which they can turn. Often they are selected for skills unrelated to managing others, typically: fund raising, law, publicity, political activism, science, or writing.

Dysfunctional Organizations

When a staff member's work atmosphere is harmonious and constructive it has a positive effect on a wide circle of family and friends who that person's supervisor may never meet. Conversely, poor or insensitive supervision can have adverse lifetime impacts on its often defenseless victims. Staff members in dysfunctional organizations may find it almost impossible to figure out whether their problems arise from a society in decline, problems intrinsic to poorly funded organizations, impossible tasks, ineffective management and supervision, or their own shortcomings and inexperience.

In one instance, a highly capable and popular employee of a social change organization spent months organizing and presiding over a successful conference that brought national recognition for the executive director. On the Monday morning following the conference, she was called into his office and fired.

Poorly managed organizations exhibit some or all of certain basic symptoms. Such organizations may lack rhythm as they lurch from crisis to crisis. Projects frequently change scope and direction in midstream. Staff members may have a lot of personal problems: marital problems, overeating, sickness. Managers are often unhappy with their whole staff. Visitors to the office may sense a sullenness in staff members. Receptionists don't have time to be friendly.

A manager oblivious to the social complexities of a office full of people, is a lot like the manager of a logging company who is oblivious to the biological complexity of a forest he is logging. The seemingly insignificant day to day decisions of either can have profound long term implications. The decision, for example, about where to place the desk of a new employee may affect the course of that person's whole life. It determines who s/he will see and talk to in the course of a day, how private his/her work life will be, and how much ergonomic stress, such as artificial light or the noise of photocopier machines, s/he will be subjected to. This will reverberate through the whole human ecosystem just as surely as a decision about where, when and how to conduct logging reverberates through the physical ecosystem.

A person who has audited hundreds of offices told me that he could go in the front door of an office, walk through it without looking right or left, exit the back door and write a report on the management of the office. An experienced forest ecologist can walk into a natural setting and read what is happening at a glance;so can a professional manager. The style of a manager impresses itself on the look and feel of the whole operation.

Every organization has to deal with the avalanche of information that pours into it, and integrate this information into the assignment and monitoring of the ongoing work. Nothing reveals the vision of an organization as well as the way its executives manage information and time. People never have time to do all that they ought to do, but they usually have time to do what they really want to do. A manager who doesn't consistently answer mail and phone calls sends an important message to the staff. One sure sign an organization has lost control is unanswered mail and unreturned phone calls.

A few years ago an environmental organization sent people to sit on a board to review and vote on proposed federal timber sales in or near Spotted Owl habitat. One of the board members asked the regional headquarters of his environmental organization for guidance. The person he talked to was far away, knew nothing of the details of the operation of the board and was busy, so he told the board member to just go along with the process and try to cooperate. When the voting began on the afternoon of the first day the other environmental members on the board realized to their horror that this member was consistently voting with the timber industry against the environmentalists. When asked on a break what in the world he was doing, he said that he had been instructed to go along with the process and not cause problems. By the end of the day, seventeen million board feet of timber had been approved for logging in split decisions that the environmental community lost by a one vote margin caused by that one phone call.

Relations Between Management And Staff

One person knowledgeable about social change organizations recounted to me the story of a director of a nonprofit, a lawyer, who routinely drove out the lawyers working for him because he was unable to delegate even simple legal responsibilities to others.

Another professional in a national environmental organization once told me that although his organization had only 200 people and he had worked there for six months, he had never talked to the executive director. When I mentioned this later to another professional in a different environmental organization, he said he hadn't either.

Unlike biology or plumbing where the need for training and apprenticeship is taken for granted, many people assume the ability to manage people is innate. Perhaps for a few it is, but for most of us it is a trade just like any other and must be learned by training and coaching. Absent this preparation most people revert to the only supervisory models in their experience - their parents. Much of what staff members resent in their managers is merely the manifestation of adult supervisors treating staff members as their parents, spouses, or children.

While researching this article, I heard from employees in both nonprofit and for profit organizations several variations of one particular story. It is the story of a manager who sits at his/her desk and keeps writing while a staff member stands in front of the desk unacknowledged. This type of manager dominates and intimidates perceived subordinates while fawning over perceived superiors. This might be called the "lick what's up, kick what's down" syndrome. Certainly this is unacceptable behavior in any organization, but is particularly egregious in a social change organization.

The leader of an organization is not necessarily the smartest, the most capable, or the best person on the staff. The leader's role is to bring out the best performance the team is capable of producing. This requires that the leader bring information and direction to the team, represent its interests to the outside world and be very attentive to the needs of the team members and the dynamics of their interactions.

People need feedback and recognition, and will go to great lengths to get it. In the social change sector, people often measure their personal worth by how they are able to help others and by the changes they are able to bring about in the world around them. When managers ignore intangibles such as praise, access, status, feedback and self esteem, employees can be forced into negative unproductive loops.

Julius Caesar was so beloved of his soldiers that once he ran out of money for his army and his troops pooled their money and gave it to him. Why? He always put the welfare of his troops first. Once he was caught in the woods in the rain and there was only one hut. He gave it to a sick soldier and slept in the rain on the ground. He would always personally do the most dangerous jobs like reconnoiter the enemy camps or be the first to swim across raging steams.. If loyalty of staff to management is a concern there is no better guide than the management style of Julius Caesar.

Good Management

In the late 1930's and early 1940's the Roosevelt administration launched the New Deal, and because of the depressed labor market, brought into government an unusually well educated and liberal minded group of people who were passionately devoted to reforming society through the effective implementation of social change programs. By the early 1970's when they retired, some of these people had reached the highest levels of government. I was fortunate to know some of these managers in the closing years of their careers.

In the two decades that have followed since these managers left, their organizations have deteriorated along with the rest of the federal government. Nevertheless, the essence of what they believed, taught, and tried to practice is still valid for any organization: -No organizational crisis ever justifies treating people without respect. -Managing people is like writing rhymed poetry: people need the widest possible freedom within a disciplined structure. - An organization must have explicit values and principles and every decision the organization makes must be judged against them. -An organization is a hologram, and the quality and ethics of the top managers will be reflected in every aspect of its operations. -To manage is to often make mistakes, so managers must have staff people who can "speak truth to power."

In January 1968, on the first day of my assignment to Karl he called me in to get acquainted. About ten minutes into the visit Karl's secretary stuck her head into the office and said that Bob, the legendary head of the whole organization, was on the phone and wanted to speak to him. Karl said "Tell Bob I'll call him back later." A few months later I was having lunch with Karl and asked him why he had not taken the call. He relayed this story:

Some 25 years earlier when on his first assignment as a junior staff assistant in the regional office in New York, he had been called in for a visit with the regional administrator, a woman who was a powerful force in the Democratic party, a personal friend of President Roosevelt and a former Ambassador to Great Britain. During the visit an aide informed the administrator that the Queen of England was on the phone on a trans-Atlantic call. Karl said that she told the secretary "Tell the queen I'll call her back later." Then she turned to Karl and said "Excuse me for the interruption." Karl said that incident made such an impression on him that from that day forward he had made it a policy not to interrupt conversations with subordinates.


The purpose of social change organizations is to make the world a better place. Their legal and historical roots spring from a tradition of charity, giving, education, helping, and sharing. The profit making world seeks to domesticate, simplify, and commodify the world, to treat people as fungible objects so they will be more efficient consumers. If social change organizations treat employees as disposable objects, is this any different than the for profits who view the whole world as simply a commodity to be "parted out"?

Many people work for social change organizations because they empathize with the plight of other beings; this emotional response should be respected and encouraged. Our environmental and political problems are due in large part to its absence in too many people. But "charity" in every sense of the word must begin at home, and for workaholics where home seems to have become the office it must begin there.

While there certainly are many innocent victims in this world, most employees of public interest organizations cannot claim to be among them. We create our own reality, not through some mystical means, but through our every perception, and each small decision and action we take. Managers and employees in social change organizations need to set an example for the rest of society by taking care of themselves as well as others. We can not expect to really change the world unless we can change ourselves. Of course we can't wait until we are perfect - we must just all keep trying.

I once worked in an office in New York with many other professionals. One busy day we were fighting and squabbling among ourselves over work assignments. Molly, the receptionist, walked over, eyed all of us sternly and said, "Kids, please, play nice."

©1992 Jim Britell
All rights reserved.
May not be reproduced without permission.

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