Improving Management in Non-Profit Organizations

by Jim Britell

Usual Suspects #13 discussed why non-profits organizations are often poorly managed and dysfunctional. This is Part 2 of that essay. It gives concrete (and sometimes unorthodox) suggestions to make any organization more efficient and a better place to work and includes suggestions for employees stuck in organizations unlikely to improve

  1. Introduction
  2. Physical space is very important
  3. Private offices -- who gets the windows?
  4. Managing time and information
  5. Recruitment and retention of staff
  6. Appraisals and awards
  7. Resources for managers
  8. Advice for employees in impossible situations
  9. Things to remember when dealing with poor managers
  10. Coups, mutinies and their aftermaths
  11. Supervisors who get angry



Many of us have written about the technological issues that activists face, and there certainly has been an enormous increase in the application of computers to grassroots activism in the last two years. But while we have successfully implemented basic electronic communication in environmental organizations and support resources in this area, we are still no closer to providing systematic management support. Shortcomings in day to day supervision and management support of their ongoing work may be the greatest impediment to many activists' work.

It is a paradox that while progressive social activist organizations support workers' rights and the concept of unions, they nevertheless maintain "non-union shops" and often seem relatively indifferent to their own and their employees' working conditions. In a unionized workspace, supervisors' thoughtless acts are immediately challenged by the shop steward, who looks out for the employees. Environmental organizations and non-profits have a special responsibility to look after their employees' interests as our employees do not have the protections and formal rights which unions provide. Moreover since the purpose of environmental organizations is to promote ethical behavior, their managers have a special responsibility to model ethical behavior. The suggestions which follow will tend to make any organization not only more efficient but will also result in working conditions that are more ethical too.

The best indicator of good management is probably not bosses who are "good persons on enlightened paths" but managers who have been exposed to professional management and "nuts and bolts" supervisory training. The recent cover story in the 1/12/98 issue of "The Nation", (must reading for all environmental organizations and foundations), discusses the reluctance of progressive foundations to provide long term, general management support for environmental organizations. Training in first line supervision for environmentalist managers would seem to be an area of great potential payoff.

Of course idiosyncratic and dysfunctional supervisors are not new or unique to environmental organizations. On my first morning as a supervisor over 30 years ago my new boss called me into his office and said, "Be here ten minutes early, stand by the employees' entrance, make eye contact with each employee as they walk in, and say 'Good Morning' -- let them know you are genuinely happy to see them regardless of how you feel. These employees are sensitive plants." Then he paused... "Of course", he said, "I will never ever do this for you."

During the six months I worked for this manager, I would sometimes come home so upset I'd go straight to bed without eating. His style of management combined psychopathic ruthlessness and pathological undercutting with acute sensitivity to one's personal problems and an incredible charm. Looking back, this was the most useful management training I ever had. I learned that even the worst boss can teach you how NOT to do things. (And of course I learned to be courteous to co-workers and subordinates even if the boss is not courteous to me.)

Here are some of the other important things I learned about managing an office from observing good and bad managers. They are areas where small investments of time and attention can have a large payoff.

Physical Space is Very Important

In today's world, where the multiple electrical connections for a work station can turn simple desk moves into expensive logistical nightmares, careful initial planning of physical space is essential. A prerequisite to a harmonious office layout is thinking through the strengths and weaknesses, the personalities and duties of each and every staff member, and the effects different arrangements might have.

Deciding where a new employee will sit is one of the most important decisions a manager ever makes. It determines who they see and talk to, who they will become friends with, what they hear in the course of a day, and how private their work life will be. It also determines how much ergonomic stress that staff member will be subjected to, whether they will have artificial or natural light, and whether they will be subjected to office noise. Placing a new employee between two experienced staff members might facilitate integration into the work force; physical segregation might impede it.

When one lays out work space where our fellow humans may well spend more of their waking hours than they do at home, many complex matters must be considered. A good floor plan for 10 people can require several days of work sorting out the following sorts of questions. Who should be placed next to whom in terms of personality, experience, physical needs, (warmth, cold, ventilation), handicaps, disabilities and the needs for mentoring, solace, quiet and the like. What will each person see and hear at their desk? What are their lines of sight? How easy is it for people to deliberately communicate (or be accidentally overheard by others)? How will phones be covered when people are not at their desks, do people need to see who is there to answer them. Can windows create glare on computer screens? Someone who writes computer programs or conducts complex analysis needs to have space in which they can work undisturbed. Placing that person next to a chatterbox will degrade their effectiveness.

People need defensible psychological space. For example: if you place a person in the main traffic path between the front door and the receptionist, with his back to incoming visitors, that person will always be under stress. Why? An arrangement like that allows people to be continually approached from behind and keeps them in a constant state of alert. Animals don't like being approached from behind.

On the other hand turning the employee around to face incoming traffic may be worse. Non-receptionist staff should not be placed where they will make continual eye contact and thus be forced to acknowledge incoming visitors with whom they have no business. Nor should their desk permit inadvertent eye contact with co-workers whenever they look up. If desks are offset somewhat, employees can easily call to a person for eye contact when necessary.

A thoughtful layout can provide more employee privacy in a 80 sq. ft. per person layout than one which has 150 sq. ft. Sometimes just turning an employee around so their back is to another will provide perceived privacy. And if you have someone who talks too loud on the phone, put them at the edge of the space facing a wall and cover the wall surface with sound absorbing material. Everyone will have more privacy. I saw this one simple step settle down a staff that had been in turmoil for years over this constant disturbance in the work area.

Defensible space is important not just for individuals but for the whole work unit. If possible, work teams should have space that is delineated as theirs to encourage team spirit. Once a highly skilled group with excellent morale and extraordinary team cohesion was ordered to move a file cabinet to open an aisle to comply with city fire codes. This new path quickly became a restroom shortcut for an adjoining staff component. This seemingly wanton infringement of the core inner space by members of another unit soon caused a complete deterioration of morale. An elegant solution was soon found. A piece of string was hung across the new aisle with a small paper "Do Not Enter" sign. This was enough to completely restore the integrity of the unit's core space. It complied with the fire codes, and instantly restored morale.

Private Offices And Who Gets The Windows?

A big problem in offices is who gets to sit by the windows. This can be a source of frustration if not handled sensitively. Sometimes a straight seniority system is a practical solution. A worse status problem is who, if anyone, gets a private office. Offices monopolize windows and restrict air circulation. Since they permanently withdraw large amounts of prime space, accommodations for new staff must be absorbed by whatever space is left over. If total staff size increases, a disparity will grow between the quality of the accommodations of employees with and without offices.

Offices always isolate managers from most of what is going on and often encourage the general attitude of ambient cluelessness that seems to characterize many of today's managers (if the success of Dilbert is any guide). When a supervisor occupies a private office there is usually more social distance and a more formal hierarchical relationship than where the supervisor just works out on the floor with everybody else. Today even in companies where supervisors draw seven digit salaries, managers and their staff often share work space and a casual visitor often wouldn't distinguish which is the boss. While there are circumstances where privacy is absolutely necessary, this is true for all staff members, not just managers. A shared conference room and/or private office can be for the use of everyone.

Because no supervisor can anticipate all the issues that may arise, giving everyone a chance to comment on proposed plans is a necessary step in designing or modifying any office layout. People understand their space needs and should be involved in every stage of physical planning. People want to mark out their space. They should be encouraged to decorate their space and bring in plants. Some organizations allow their employees to paint and decorate their office as they see fit.

Managing Time and Information

Milarepa, the 11th century Tibetan yogi, predicted that in the age of Kali-yuga (our time) information would expand at a rate too stupendous to comprehend, but conclusions would be hard to reach.

Nothing reveals the vision of an organization so clearly as the way its executives manage information and time. People never have time to do all that they ought to do, but they always make time to do what they really want to do. Every organization must deal with the avalanche of information that pours into it and integrate this information into the assignment and monitoring of the ongoing work. Some organizations develop a funnel style of management where all information, problems and data flow to the top person and they trickle it down into the rest of the organization. This leads to bottlenecks. The basic work of an organization should be performed by the staff. A few old tricks can help an organization learn to manage information much more effectively.

Formalize Meetings

A time should be selected where each week each staff member can have an uninterrupted face-to-face meeting to discuss assignments and work in progress, ask questions and give and receive feedback. Even though a supervisor may talk to an employee every day, all day, this does not substitute for a "personal meeting" where the employees' work performance is discussed. This meeting time should be fixed, consistent and the schedule should be adhered to as rigorously as possible. If both parties know this meeting will occur, they can hold many of the problems and issues that arise during the week because they both know that their upcoming weekly meeting will provide an opportunity to discuss them. In general this meeting should be closed to any but the staff member and supervisor. A system like this dramatically reduces the number of requests for ad-hoc meetings. Of course in an emergency, or when necessary, meetings can be held at any time.

A paper file folder should be created by the supervisor for each staff member; into it goes notes, ideas for new projects, assignments, incoming material, completed work products for review, etc. These are all discussed in one sitting. On the left side of the folder a piece of paper can show a running record of assignments and their status. This provides a permanent record to both parties of exactly what is outstanding and when it is due. Each employee should get at least one annual performance review and a six month status review; at the time of that meeting this documentation will provide a record of what the person did during the year. Without an employee file of some kind, which keeps a running record of employee's work products, supervisors will generally only accurately remember what the employee did, or did not do, in the month or two prior to the performance review.

Use a Daily Route File

Many documents come into, or are created in, an office that all or several people should see. In many offices important pieces of information get lost or mis-routed. Topical periodicals and magazines of wide interest may not be circulated. One solution is to create a routing file that circulates among the staff into which goes everything that anyone on the staff might want to see. These folders should be accessible for everyone to add to if they wish. This puts the whole flow of odds and ends from postcards, to thank you notes, to newspaper clippings and completed staff work in one place that can be monitored. If a particular document needs to be filed later or processed in some way it should be clearly noted on the face of that individual document. On the front of the file a routing slip can be stapled which shows each staff member's name and a space next to it where they write the date they received the file and any comments about its contents. These folders should be kept on the top of staff members' desks so bottlenecks can be detected visually. At the end of circulation the folder can be reviewed and broken up. The route should begin and end with the manager.

Peer review of written work products

A requirement that all work products be reviewed by at least one other staff person before the finished work is given to the supervisor can save time and improve communications within the staff. The reviewer, whose name is shown on the file, is selected by the writer. They cannot reject the work, rewrite it or slow it down, but must read it and give comments to the writer, who is free to accept or reject them. The reviewer is not responsible for the work in any way.

Formalize policy so correspondence can be delegated

It is possible for a single person to respond to dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of letters a day if they delegate authority and set up a good procedure. An organization can formalize general policy positions which cover the basic issues that arise in incoming correspondence. Outgoing letters can then be signed by someone else for the principal. The time that a manager spends answering mail personally is better spent coaching staff members about goals, vision, plans and priorities to the point where others understand enough about the managers' views to be able to write letters that reflect current organizational policy for their bosses' signature. Typically, in larger organizations, a mid-level person never signs what they write, nor writes what they sign.

Recruitment And Retention Of Staff

Decisions about who will be selected to fill vacancies are the most important decisions managers ever make. Many personnel problems can be avoided with a careful selection process. Recruit for brains and a sense of humor. Everything else can be taught. Personally I think the ideal staff consists of smart, hard-working people who are usually on the edge of insubordination, who have a good sense of humor, are voracious readers and love music.

After you have screened your pool of potential applicants down to a manageable size, say 25 or less, interview all candidates for an opening. Ask to see samples of their work. Let your staff interview candidates. They will have to live with them. If the decision on who to hire is a team decision, everybody is responsible for the new employee's success. I have on a few occasions hired people over the unanimous objection of every staff member, but these cases were rare exceptions.

Probing interviews should be conducted with the candidates' former supervisors. If work experience is skimpy, interview former teachers. Every interview should be written up. A check list of items to be covered in the interview is a good idea to insure you get all the information you need. In general, a person who has had problems with former supervisors should be passed over. Of course some managers are so bad that an unfavorable report will work to a candidate's advantage. Avoid candidates who bad-mouth former supervisors, even if you know that the criticism is justified. If candidates do this to others, they will do it to you too. Probe closely how the person got along with their co-workers.

Appraisals and Awards

Staff members appreciate a formal scheduled appraisal process. Employees who lack feedback and recognition will sometimes go to great lengths to get it and this will cause dissension. Formal written performance appraisals should be furnished annually with interim evaluations at the six month point. Appraisal time brings no surprises when the supervisor gives honest work assessments and provides useful feedback and coaching during the year. If a corrective interview is necessary it should be conducted behind closed doors and never, ever, where it can be overheard by other staff members.

Some managers invite their staff to complete similar performance reviews on them although this requires a certain amount of trust building before subordinates are willing to be frank. The people who see your faults and strengths best are the people who work with you.

Supervisors and managers should always share credit with their staff. Really great leaders are always figuring out how to transfer credit from themselves to their staff members. The highest compliment anyone can pay a manager is that they really do very little but the staff is just amazing. Some highly skilled supervisors may seem almost invisible and the office runs as well or better when they are gone than when they are around.

Resources for Managers:

For technical areas like computers and telecommunications, books are usually out of date. Even monthly magazines must be augmented with weekly or biweekly newspaper publications. It is also now very easy to subscribe to Email lists and news services that will screen the flow of information in your fields of interest and deliver them in a summary form in your Email in-basket in the morning. Managers should read the Harvard Business Review and a few magazines to keep up with general management issues and trends, but the meat and potatoes advice of how to be a leader is found in the classics. For important issues such as how people should be treated, what quality is all about, and how to create loyalty in an organization, the old stuff is the most useful.

A. Loyalty

If you want to learn about how to earn loyalty from subordinates, read anything about Julius Caesar. He was so beloved by his soldiers that once, when he ran out of funds for his army, his troops pooled their personal money and gave it to him. Why? He always put the troops' welfare 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 on the ground in the rain. He would always personally do the most dangerous jobs like reconnoiter enemy camps and be the first to swim across raging streams.

B. The power of awards

To grasp the immense power of non-monetary awards to motivate people read a biography of Napoleon. He believed his success was due to the fabulous system of awards he invented that included thousands of different ribbons, pins, badges, symbols and regalia. His views may sound cynical to our ears, but Napoleon said that it is with these small things that people are led.

C. Sexual discrimination

What are the worst and most bizarre imaginable downsides of allowing discriminatory sexual considerations into the recruitment and promotion process? Check out the Roman Emperor Elagabalus. He used only one criteria in making appointments to high office - - penis size. ( You might find some original insights into the whole problem of "inappropriate touching" too.)

D. Organizational politics

Read about Abe Lincoln. He had a cabinet who thought he was a joke, hated him, and wanted him to fail so they could be president. He was the all time master of close up and personal organizational infighting.

E. Unsolvable political problems

Do you need to obtain agreements where philosophical differences seem utterly irreconcilable? Read The Autobiography of Ben Franklin. He once was charged with getting funds by public donation for cannon desperately needed to defend a frontier community of Quakers, who, unfortunately were implacably opposed to wars, even defensive ones. Franklin persuaded the community to donate money to a volunteer fire department to buy "fire engines". Then when the Quakers conveniently "forgot" to come to the next budget meeting the few non-Quaker members present simply interpreted the word "fire engines" to mean large cannons and bought them. Everyone retained their principles.

F. Curious about corporate abuses?

Anyone concerned about organized systemic corruption in high places should read the Autobiography of Harry Truman, particularly about his career prior to becoming President. While corporate contracting abuses have been rampant in every war since the revolution, they reached stupefying heights during WW II. As the Senator in charge of the War Production Board, over the combined opposition of the President, Congress, and the military he singlehandedly forced American corporations to give back to the US treasury over one hundred billion dollars (in today's dollars). As late as 1941, Alcoa Corporation was still selling magnesium at below cost to the Nazis -- Truman stopped that too.

G. Powerless in the face of overwhelming strength?

Read the Tales of Uncle Remus. These stories contain very sophisticated coping strategies for people in slavery where the people who supervised them had whips and branding irons and were happy to use them too. Tragically this book is now purged from many libraries because of perceived non-PC speech (dialect). My favorite saying from Uncle Remus? "Watch out w'en you'er gittin all you want. Fattenin' hogs ain't in luck." (From Plantation Proverbs)

H. One book for a desert Isle

The essence of good supervision is to understand other people. For essays into the complexities of the human heart, and to help understand the experience of being a human, read The Essays of Montaigne (1580). If one had to supervise others and were restricted to a single book, his essays would be my first choice. No one else is even close. It is probably too late for us to go back and study ancient Latin and Greek writers, but Montaigne peppers every page of his remarkable and delicious essays with thousands of very accessible quotations from the great writers of history. He covers an amazing range of subjects. How could a defeated king stoically stand by while his whole kingdom -- including his family was paraded before him in chains on their way to slavery, yet totally collapse into tears when his dog passed by? How do you negotiate when your castle is under siege? Why do common Italian and Greek proverbs say "crippled women make fabulous lovers"? Why the best lies consist entirely of truthful statements. (Look for the translation by Donald Frame, Stanford Press.)

I. Are you being politically manipulated?

To see through and identify the various manipulative schemes that unscrupulous leaders use to control subordinates (and superiors) read Machiavelli's "The Prince". His simple yet penetrating analysis of the sequential steps of many classical political situations will allow you to predict the outcomes of unfolding events that may appear random. He worked out the rules for common political ballets, and things don't seem to have changed much since he wrote it. Here's one example: say you have to take over a hostile country (or government or company) and your new subjects are hostile to you. How do you get them to love you?

Here is what Machiavelli says is a time-proven solution. Appoint a cruel bastard to rule in your place, and let him make all the necessary reforms that you want. In time, the people will despise him. After a while when the people's hatred is at its height, cut his body in two and leave it in the public square; be sure everyone knows you did it. But Machiavelli also discusses all the variations of takeovers like: when a county is conquered as opposed to when it is given to you; if the people love you; whether it is better for a king to be loved or feared, etc.

J. Does the boss need better PR?

Any manager who feels that the future of his organization, and perhaps civilization and the very environment itself depends on how well the media covers them personally would do well to read Lao Tsu. (try the Penguin edition)

Advice for Employees in Impossible Situations

Tolstoy wrote that "All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." There seems no end to the creative ways that bad bosses can disorient an organization. For example, a manager incapable of doing their job, and needing to keep busy, may do a subordinate's job and set up a "Cascade effect" where everybody performs the work of folks one or even two levels down, from the front office to the mail room.

Some bosses keep an office in a state of continual chaos while simultaneously claiming to be so busy that they don't have time to listen to employees' concerns. The manager is the only one who knows what is going on and thus obtains a perverse control. Of course, frustration that cannot be expressed by an employee in a healthy upwards direction will inevitably find its outlet, often sideways towards co-workers. The ensuing divisions among the staff insure that employees are unlikely to combine against the boss.

Employees and volunteers under continual stress from these kinds of tactics may get very strong emotional and physical signals to get out of the situation, but sometimes it is just impossible to leave. So what do you do? A casual trip to the woods, or even a half hour's close examination of your cat in the back yard will reveal that life is simply not fair. Keep your head and hold your tongue while you look for another job.

Things To Remember When Dealing With Poor Managers

  • No one likes to face people daily who only bring them problems. Don't get into a downwards spiral where the boss only hears from you when you have problems. Rather,
  • Wait till they do something right and then praise them for it. Sooner or later even a bad boss will do something that deserves praise. When they do, let them know. This will reinforce the good behavior you wish to see more of. Bosses need praise from subordinates just as much as employees need it from their supervisors.
  • The main goal of truly bad bosses is probably not the work product at all, but their need to continually ratify their own self-image. If you can figure out a way to ratify or affirm that self-concept, you may gain a measure of immunity from your oppressors' abuses.

Coups, Mutinies And Their Aftermaths

Sometimes employees may be tempted to wage a coup against the boss. As I said in U.S. 13, there is nothing as dangerous as a merely wounded boss. Besides this, rebellion has several potential pitfalls.

Other organizations may look unfavorably on employees that have waged coups, even successful ones where it was apparent the boss was wrong and the employees right. This follows the theory that once a dog has tasted live chicken, they get a permanent taste for it. Many poor souls, who have never supervised others, have learned after a coup or mutiny, when it is too late, that bosses, good and bad, stick together for self-defense. It is a bond almost stronger than blood. This is why one should never be completely forthcoming about one's innermost thoughts with any boss. Their first responsibility will always be to the work, not to you. And that is what you want, because they need to keep as their first responsibility the preservation of the entire organization and the accomplishment of its mission.

As well, if you do manage to get rid of your boss, and if the same board that picked the current one picks the next one using the same process, you will run into an unhappy "management constant". Your odds of getting a worse boss are about one third; the same - one third; and a better one only one in three too.

The only way a board can improve those odds is to do a better job of checking all the references for the final list of candidates in detail -- back to the womb if possible, particularly their history of getting along with co-workers and their sense of humor. If there is a bad boss, poor background checks are often the reason for it in the first place. The need for careful research for all new hires, particularly managers, cannot be stressed too much. In today's climate the failure to do this, like the need to spend time with employees, is often excused away by the alleged press of time and competing priorities. This brings us into the roles and responsibilities of the boards of our organizations, which is a story for another time.

Angry Supervisors (A note for supervisors)

Naked, raw, "supervisory power" should be very seldom expressed. I worked for several supervisors who for years on end never once spoke to me in an angry tone of voice. The only instance in which a real tongue-lashing could possibly be justified is in response to a staff member's willful and deliberate insubordination. Getting mad at your staff merely communicates that the supervisor is insecure and is in fear of something or somebody. If you have organized your space well, chosen your people carefully, kept them well motivated and work as a team, you should have nothing to fear.

(1) This fact is also noted in the rules for Feng Shui (the Chinese art of arranging living and work spaces). It warns against kitchen designs where a cook can be approached from behind while at the stove. Their solution when it cannot be avoided? Hang a mirror on the wall behind the stove. Anyone involved in arranging space is well advised to pickup a good book on Feng Shui for its innumerable interesting and often curious and incomprehensible rules for the design of living and work spaces.

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

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