Leading from the (outside): can kind-but-tough love strengthen our organizations?

A friend of mine recently updated her Facebook status:

(name withheld) is wondering why she is always disappointed by the non-profit organizations she becomes involved with. Drama, politics, and unprofessionalism abound. Should she stay away…or start her own?

This friend is a great person with solid, professional skills to offer with lots of passion for a variety of issues. Yet her support of the various causes continues in spite of the organizational leadership, not because of it.

I agree sometimes. It’s one of the main reasons that I am doing (almost done!) my MBA. Passion for the mission is definitely not lacking in the nonprofit sector. However, the knowledge of what it takes to lead and manage an organization to fulfill that mission is not spread as equally. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s lacking, but it’s concentrated, leaving many organizations to frustrate the very people that want to help them further the cause.

One could definitely argue that this “drama, politics, and unprofessionalism” also exists, even runneth over, in the private and public sectors as well. But that doesn’t change the fact that nonprofit organizations are losing good volunteers (and good staff, too).

So what are the options?


Leaving can reduce your frustration in the short term, but how does this support the cause that you are passionate about?

Start your own

Takes work. And time. Other orgs are already doing it (however unprofessionally you may think). Thought starting your own may be the right answer, there are many reasons why not to start your own nonprofit.

A third option?

What about sticking with it? Is there a way to demonstrate (outside) leadership, provide constructive feedback, and keep our nonprofit relationships strong?

How might a conversation starter like this be taken by (inside) nonprofit leadership?

I really believe in the mission of your organization. I’m really passionate about this issue and want to contribute my time, skills and knowledge to help you further the cause. However, I have come to find myself frustrated with [X, Y or Z], and it’s leading me to question whether or not I will continue volunteering with [insert org name]. Is there something that can be done to improve [X, Y or Z] to help attract and retain volunteers like me?

Suggesting improvements alone may result in defensiveness, and not including the suggestion of leaving may make the issue seem less important than it is.

Is there a way to get this message across without coming off as an annoying “I’ve come to help professionalize you” type while actually positively impacting the professionalism of nonprofit leadership and managment?


  1. Great post! Definitely experienced this, and here are what I’ve observed to be contributing factors:

    (1) The world is changing faster than non-profit leaders are willing to move. When I first started working in the sector 10 years ago, 90% of the small and medium sized organizations I worked with were run by women 50 years and older. Many started careers as entry level or volunteer workers, and gradually moved their way up. Their approach was very old school and motherly, and suggestions from 20-year-old keeners like me were frowned upon.

    (2) Closely related to the above, the “but we’ve always done it this way” mindset. If direct mail campaigns and galas have always raised money by following X formula, why would we change our approach? A reliable funding stream or self-sustaining program is the holy grail, and charities cling to it fiercely, sometimes to their detriment.

    (3) Frankly speaking, the salary ranges attract two kinds of people. The talented people who can afford to work at a salary 75% or less of their market rate…and people whose skills are at or below the salary range.

    These factors create the kind of stagnant environments that are the downside of non-profit work. The good news is that I believe this is changing. More business-minded young people (like Trina) are working their way through the sector, and there are some great innovating charities raising the bar for everyone else.

    1. Thanks April. You may be interested to read a post by Rosetta Thurman about wages in the nonprofit sector.

      The question is, how can these issues be changed? Is it a matter of waiting for those hesitant to adapt, change, think beyond “what’s always been done”, to perish? As you mention in your last line, will a new wave of innovating charities transform the sector? Can anything be done to save the dinosaurs?

  2. I know too many people who could have posted that on Facebook! Including me! Thanks for the great post.

    I love the book Crucial Confrontations: Tools for resolving broken promises, violated expectations, and bad behavior. It’s a great tool for trying to think through difficult conversations like this with supervisors.

    Two of their recommendations would be great places to start here: Create Safety & Describe the Gap. To help create safety, I’d try to establish mutual purpose & mutual respect: “I know we are both passionate about this mission, and I so appreciate all you do to keep this organization going. I really want to contribute, and hope you see the value in what I bring to the organization.”

    Then to describe the gap, stick with specific facts: “The other day [x happened], and I found myself really frustrated and wondering whether I should continue working with you all. That made me sad because I really care so much about the mission and want to stay connected. Can you help me understand what happened that day? What can we do to make sure that doesn’t happen again to me or other volunteers?”

    As a former nonprofit director (on the 30-something side, not the dinosaur side!), I can definitely say that a “we’re on the same side” approach helped me feel less defensive than a “I’m frustrated what are YOU going to do to fix it?” approach. I’m not sure I’d have put that all together until I read this book. I only wish I had found it a couple of years ago … I might still be in the nonprofit sector!

    1. Dawn,

      Those two recommendations are fantastic, and really succinctly explain the message I was trying to get across in this post. Thank you for the book suggestion and the productive comment.

  3. As long as there is a passion for the vision of the non-profit, if it’s possible I think the person should stick with it. Become the leader, not in the sense of having the title, but in steering the organization. A great resource to start with would be John Maxwell’s 360 degree leader. You can get it at my website (jasonshick.com) or through Amazon.com. The focus of this book is that leadership is about influence and if you are stuck right in the middle of the organization, you can cause influence in every direction.

    The next suggestion I would have is to have your friend examine themselves. It’s not a perfect world, there will never be a perfect place to work. I have a close friend who wanted to work in a certain field. Yet each time he got a job in that field, it wouldn’t be long before he was out of a job again because he couldn’t deal with the “politics” of the job. So now he works out of the field and really wishes he could find the perfect job for him. I truly believe his problem was him. After a person loses or quits 3-5 jobs in the same field in a short period of time, you’ve got to eventually ask yourself what the common denominator is? All the jobs are different, so the common denominator is the one who walked away. Maybe some personal growth or tough conversations sometimes need to occur before we can get past ourselves.

    This response is getting lengthy so I will briefly mention that it is also good to understand what people usually mean by the term “politics”. I hate the word and think it should be renamed “peopletics” because most of the time when somebody uses this word it is just a dislike for basic, natural human interaction. There is an entire article on this topic on my blog which may be useful for anybody interested in this particular topic.

    1. Jason – What a great thought on “peopletics” – I completely agree. It is about human interaction or (more academically) organizational behaviour–peoples’ motivations, leadership styles, capacity for self-reflection, etc. I’m not sure of the root of using the word “politics” to describe frustrating situations like cliques, favouring, bargaining, playing nice, etc in the workplace. Feel free to leave a link to the blog post you speak of in the comments!

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