Tuesday, December 22, 2009


I’ve been collecting “bad nonprofit management” stories lately. They’ve come to me in various forms such as: word of mouth, direct telling and emails. I’ve let them rattle around in my brain hoping to divine a pattern and I think now that I’ve found the similarity. But first, let me tell you the stories.

Story #1: An office manager receives a call from her Executive Director. The Executive Director is away from the office at a board meeting. The E.D. informs her and another staff person that they will have to submit their resumes via fax to the E.D. (away from the office at the board meeting) in order to apply for a new position being created. It seems there are two positions being melded into one and both employees will now be in competition for the one position. But wait! It gets better. Not only will the office manager have to compete against her office mate, but the job will be posted to the general public and the office manager will be competing to save her job against any newcomers.

Fine, in this economy there are lots of tough decisions being made, people are being laid off, jobs are being combined, and that’s reality. However, did the E.D. have to inform the staff via a phone call? Additionally, what is with the exercise of having the office manager submit her resume or having the two employees compete against one another?

Story #2: I get an email from a young man asking for my opinion. It seems he sent an email to a vendor asking the vendor why a certain price was a bit high. He suggested that perhaps the vendor’s supervisor might be able to help bring the price down. Two weeks later the vendor called his supervisor complaining wildly about the email and swearing he would never work with this young man again. Next thing you know, the young man’s supervisor calls him on the carpet, giving him a reprimand and talking about termination.

The young man wrote me and asked if I thought his email was out of line. I read it several times and it seemed innocuous enough, however, I reminded him that email has a funny way of being open to interpretation; it is the recipient of the email that may load it with meaning beyond the sender’s intent. I suggested that he do what he can to sooth ruffled feathers, but be sure to have his resume up to date and make sure he had what I call “go to hell money.” (If you don’t know, that is money you have saved that allows you to step out of a bad situation; whether that situation is a relationship, a job or a landlord).

Story #3: Employees at a certain nonprofit have not had raises for two years. There’s nothing unusual about that in the current economy, many people are not receiving the raises or bonuses they received during the boom times and most employees are very understanding because they recognize that money is tight. However, in this scenario, the Executive Director decides it’s a great time to remodel the office. Walls are knocked down, walls are constructed. New carpet is laid, new furniture is purchased. Things are really spruced up to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. Everything looks fresh and new and fabulous, but the employees are left feeling a bit pinched. None of them have received a raise in over two years, but money gets spent on an elaborate renovation. What is wrong with this picture?

Story #4: A very prestigious scientific organization holds a board members’ and funders’ reception, all the key employees are present, except the Executive Director. As time goes by, Board members are questioning staff, asking where the Executive Director could be. No one seems to know. Over an hour late, the Executive Director makes an entrance and it’s a dramatic one to say the least. She is not wearing a professional suit or even a tasteful dress, but instead, she is wearing a very mini-skirt, fish-net stockings and four inch spiked boots. There is a complete disconnect between her fashion decision and the staid organization she is representing. Needless to say, board members are not happy, the funders are a bit embarrassed and the staff is whispering and giggling. One might ask, given her generous six-figure salary, might the E.D. have hired a style advisor?

What do these stories have in common besides illustrating human foibles?

I say it’s lack of leadership. Leadership qualities, leadership traits, leadership training and maybe even leadership DNA. We all know people who are in leadership or management positions who shouldn’t be there. You’re thinking of them right now aren’t you? And I think there are an abundance of them in nonprofit management because nonprofits are often so personality driven versus performance driven. Further adding to nonprofit vulnerability is the culture of the volunteer nonprofit board.

What kind of leader would call an employee to inform them that their job was being eliminated and they needed to re-submit their resume in order to compete for a new position? That is a conversation you have in person and you certainly don’t need to require the submission of a resume, the employee has been working for you and if you don’t know their capabilities, then what are you doing at the helm? I think the tactic was an attempt to avoid an unpleasant in-person conversation and I certainly understand that impulse. However, that is what leaders do; they stiffen their spines and have unpleasant conversations, in person.

Story #2 reminds me that often people think leadership is akin to parenting. Step out of line and not only will I “punish” you but I will threaten you with even more punishment. I also found a certain lack of loyalty in that story. One of the most important things a leader can do is be loyal to the people who work for him or her. If you aren’t willing to listen to your employee’s side of the story, consider what your employee was trying to do or accomplish (even if it was misguided), calmly counsel your employee on your expectations for behavior and external interaction, you shouldn’t be in management. Sure, sometimes people deserve to be fired for egregious behavior or lack of performance, but you can’t go into a knee-jerk reaction every time someone makes a complaint.

In the third instance there is a complete disconnect between the management and the employees’ health and welfare. There is also a lack of understanding of what builds loyalty from employees to the leadership. Going without raises or bonuses is something that employees will understand when times are lean. It is their loyalty to the organization that makes the situation less painful. However asking your employees to sacrifice for the good of the whole and then turning around and spending a great deal of money on something the employees view as frivolous, destroys loyalty and weakens morale.

The fourth example just shows bad judgment.

We lead by example. We use the tools of empathy, honesty, forthrightness and self-sacrifice in order to develop those traits in others. We do things to encourage the personal and professional growth of those around us. We exhibit loyalty to those who work for us and we carry ourselves with a modicum of decency. And while it is true that some people are born leaders, I believe that people can learn to be leaders and often that learning begins with introspection.

Ask yourself. “What kind of leader am I?”


  1. Bunnie,

    This is great.... Leadership is the epitome of do onto others as you would have done to you...

    In none of those examples does the leader bother to think of how anyone perceives of their behavior. Another perfect example of "The Peter Prinicple".

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  3. Wow.

    Thanks for these stories.
    I've got my own "How NOT to be a nonprofit leader" blog series going on at http://wildwomanfundraising.com, would love to get your thoughts!