Workplace bullying in the non-profit sector

Not always so rosy (Image courtesy of

Not always so rosy (Image courtesy of

It may be tempting to tag the big bad corporate world as the main locus of workplace bullying. But many who have toiled in the non-profit sector will tell you that work life in the land of crunchy granola and dreamy mission statements is not a picnic.

During the 15-plus years that I have been involved in the anti-bullying movement, I’ve heard dozens of accounts of employee abuse in the non-profit sector — including some of the worst situations imaginable. I don’t know if bullying is more frequent in non-profit organizations than in private companies or government offices, but it would be a huge mistake to ignore its prevalence and severity in the do-gooder realm.

After all, workplace bullying transcends social and political beliefs. You’ll find workplace aggressors of all different political stripes, income levels, and faith traditions. There’s no reason why the non-profit sector should be immune from them.

But why?

The non-profit sector is all about helping people, making a difference, and righting wrongs, correct? So how can such devastating behavior be commonplace in the philanthropic world? Here are some possible circumstances that plant the seeds, in no particular order:

First, non-profits often are hierarchical, top-down organizations, with scant managerial accountability. Such organizations may, rightly or wrongly, feel like they’re too busy to bother with adopting and practicing effective feedback mechanisms on their leadership.

Second, some do-gooders believe that the nobility of a mission justifies overlooking the building of positive employee relations, especially when time and resources are in short supply. It’s all about the cause, and we’re all in this together, right?

Third, non-profit boards may exercise very little oversight or care when it comes to how workers are treated. Impressions of employee productivity and morale are often filtered mainly through the executive director (or equivalent senior administrator).

Fourth, the non-profit sector is as susceptible as any other to falling for glib, quick-witted, charismatic types who are great at working the room during an interview. Some of these folks talk a great game but turn out to be all about themselves. The worst of them demonstrate deeply narcissistic behaviors and don’t hesitate to bully, exclude, and/or marginalize those in their way.

Fifth, non-profit managers are not always selected because of their leadership ability. More than a few are great at advocating for folks in need, a safe environment, or all the shelter cats and dogs whose pictures adorn Facebook, while being lousy at leading and working with others on an individual level.

Finally, non-profits often are expected to do more with less. Bullying can erupt when managers and co-workers feel the squeeze.

Part of a bigger picture

In a great 2007 piece for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “Guess Who’s Socially Irresponsible?,” fundraising consultant Mal Warwick noted that “philanthropy — the love of humankind — is missing from the practices of many nonprofits.” He especially criticized those organizations that deny their workers living wages and use “strictly hierarchical, command-and-control” management techniques.

Warwick didn’t talk specifically about workplace bullying in his article, but it would’ve made for a perfect addition. After all, his message was that non-profits must “come to understand that philanthropy begins at home.” Treating workers with dignity is a pretty good start.


This post was revised in August 2016.

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34 responses

  1. Oh my goodness! You just described my current job *and* my last job!
    1. Heirarchial w/out board oversight. Check.
    2. All about the cause (so shut up or leave if you don’t like it). Check
    3. Non-existant leadership ability. Check.
    4. Do more with less. Check.
    5. No reason to be exempt. In fact, with very little oversight, the non-prof arena attracts both bullies who understand that they will never be held accountable . . . and dedicated staffers who believe in the cause and will tolerate anything. Check.

    • I just read this blog and all the responses. The stories are all brilliant and elucidating I have worked for non-profits in the past and was a grant administrator working with non-profit groups. Recently, I saved myself from being trapped again. An inadvertent remark to the Executive director at the end of an interview provoked a response which demonstrated terrible insecurity and megalomania. The response was so disproportionate. She was very angry about something no one else in the room even noticed. I started to admit to myself all the red flags I had been willing to overlook about this organization. I am happy that I provoked her before I quit my current position.

      • Worst boss I ever had was in a non profit. She was a tyrant with some 19thcentury workplace norms. First you were given a total 1 hour break which could only be taken in one block. No morning coffee break. All about control. Second contract stated that you would be dismissed if your salary was ever revealed. Third there was no formal training period and expectations were never clarified. So if ED thought you were taking too long she would make you train on your own time. Allowable time was never specified in advance. Fourthly if a client made a request for money which was denied by the ED and the client was smart enough to do an end run, the ED would cave in to the government funding agency and lie that she had ever made the decision not to fund.
        I could go on and on. Staff left continuously and neither the board or government funding agency noticed.
        I spent a long time in the public sector and some time in the corporate sector and I have never been treated so badly by an employer .
        I should have known better but the job was something very interesting to me. I knew she was a crazy insecure narcissistic bitch before I started but personal circumstances caused me to accept and shut up. 8 months later I’m still plotting revenge

    • What a total injustice when our laws justify the illegal behaviours of NGO’s. They appear to even create a haven for fraudent behaviours by way of making it impossible for employees to get help unless the employee has deep pockets. This injustice goes against the grain of every law in the land and breeches human rights and social justice of any developed country, however the reality of those laws are as flawed as the behaviours of NGO’s continue to destroy employees lives. People get hurt in ways that can only be described as acts of work place terrorism by NGO’s

  2. Thank you for this. In the past year, I have been involved in three cases involving long-time leaders of mission-driven institutions who used guilt, shame, and the needs of organizational clients to bully those who tried to hold them accountable, including, in one case, the board of directors. This is an important dynamic, one that should not be overlooked in the overall rubric on bullying.

  3. In the Nursing Aged Care industry Bullying in the work place happens every day – its strong amongst the Nurses and happens far too often. Its actually horrible how much the bullies get away because they are so sly with how they bully. I have been bullied, and have seen others bullied. Its not right.
    Nursing Issues

  4. Thank you for pointing out the fact that bullying exists even in non-profit organizations. My colleagues and I were bullied by our director since she came on board. We filed a grievance complaint against this person and the board just let her get away with it. What really angers me is that the organization is focused on violence against women yet the board failed to recognize the violence happening in the office.

    • One of the realities of dealing with a bad director in the non-profit sector is that the usually all-volunteer board, having hired the director — often after an extensive search — is vested in the success of that director. As such board members don’t want to hear the bad stuff and often turn a deaf ear.

      If things reach a point when the board is largely handpicked by the director — a not-uncommon scenario — that’s even worse.

  5. I would like to add a couple of more points to the ones listed in the article.
    Often nonprofits work with vulnerable and maginalized people. This environment attracts sociopaths (they are not a rare breed) as well as activists and people with a strong moral compass. I work in a kitchen in a nonprofit community centre. I find the management more elitist and patronising than any restaurant I have ever worked in. They use their education to beat the crap out of anyone who challenges their perception of themselves as enlightened, educating, inclusive, respectful and empowering to the people they serve or employ. I have never been in an environment with so much bullying and with such a high tolerance for it. It is inherent in the workplace culture. Management does not recognise it or see it as bullying. They dismiss complaints as being an oversensitive reaction, a personality conflict, trouble making etc.

    • Jane, thanks for this comment. You are far from the 1st non-profit worker to have such a strong opinion about working conditions in this sector. I know that after much exposure to the non-profit sector as an employee and board member, I no longer have rose-colored impressions of it.

      • So true! Having met our board many times, I feel that most of them are only there so they can say that they are on the board of a non profit. The best manager I have ever had was at a car dealership in the service dept.! I left because I felt the dealership was so profit driven that the customer was a victim….ironically, they treated me like gold and I rarely made mistakes. At the non profit, I am under constant scrutiny, harrassed for each tiny error and now make mistakes all the time because I am as nervous as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. There is no upside for company, board or employee to bullying.

      • David and Jane, I’ve been there myself. After 12 years of working in HHS nonprofits, I finally gave up after all the subtle and not-so-subtle emotional and verbal abuse. I’m one of the ones with a strong moral/ethical compass, and I just couldn’t take being treated like dirt any longer. My part is putting up with it for so long. This type of bullying really needs to be addressed.

    • Yes I get that but the people we support deseve good people to support them however the bullies are left standing….supported by NGO’s…god help the industry and inparticular the people we support….so many great talents are being bullied out of this industry….sad sad loss for the people

  6. i was a housekeeper in a nursing home i was awarded many skining stars over 3 years for my work our supervisor was let go new ones added more work to all of us saying we didn’t do enough i was the oldest employee in housekeeping my evaluation was imediantly reduced 19 points i was yelled at and assined a huge area i completed all work on time and classes test i was well liked by upper staff i was called to her office with complaints many times i worked like this for one hanf years i just couldn’t stand any more i had complained to hr many times nothing was done last straw i quit wrote a letter to president of co also eeoc tried to collect unemployment denied eeoc denied also i’m 72 years old i look early 50 neet appearance very healthy been a janitory co owner know how to clean know how to obay orders i know when i’m being pushed out with no good reason except my age number

    • Dixie, I’m sorry to hear about what you’ve had to go through. It sounds like you’ve moved on to some degree, but putting my law professor’s hat on, your situation may involve age discrimination. If you are so inclined, you could visit the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to discuss what happened. There’s no obligation to file a formal complaint unless you wish to do so.

  7. Bullying is rampant also in small humane societies and rescue groups, I believe for the reasons listed above, substituting animals as the clients. It has happened to me, causing me to walk away from work that I loved and was good at, and cats who needed me. Power becomes concentrated in the hands of a self-selected few who rule everyone else with a sense of self-righteousness and superiority. They are saving the animals as no one else can, and never mind the feelings of humans, because that doesn’t matter. Sensitivity is seen as a weakness. By-laws and manuals are ignored, and unwritten rules are formed arbitrarily that you may or may not even know about. The backstabbing gets worse and worse, people like me walk out, the group is cracked apart, and the animals end up with no one. Thank you for addressing this topic.

  8. There is far too little research available on this subject and even less in the way of legislation. Non profits should be held to a higher standard since many receive grants and all are tax exempt. I also have a horror story that is ongoing. The executive and deputy director at the not for profit where I work are a bullying tag team, routinely making threats ranging from firing all of us to shooting us. They fire people or remove positions and pile the workload on remaining employees, insult us to customers, nickname employees, indulge in name calling, change routines, interfere with our jobs by assigning useless tasks that often involve revealing personal feelings or research projects that are moot or just rediculous. They violate rules they set forth in an employees handbook (which they also change often), including carrying concealed weapons, cell phone use, arriving late and leaving early several times a week. Our recourse is a grievance system where the exec. director is the last word. They lunch with the chairman of the board, but don’t give us lunch breaks or interrupt them if we do get them. If someone tries to get unemployment by exposing this behavior, they lie for each other. They take great pride in not allowing anyone to collect. It is sick and dysfunctional.

  9. How should a Board of Directors deal with a complaint on a single Board member for threating and abuse of an employee of their Orginization?

  10. I’m glad and relieved that I found this site today. I can relate to most of the responses, too. I worked for a non profit for ten years, the employee turnover rate was 6 months so I saw lots of staff come and go. Supervisors seemed to get a kick out of having a wee bit of power over employees and were often times abusive, ignorant and seemed to think of themselves as caring for the underserved and also enlightened.

    I sought support from the Director and Co-Directors but the abuse and bullying just intensified, now it was the Director and Co-Director doing the bullying-not just supervisors. As employees we had SO MUCH work caring directly for our clients, we were bound to make a mistake here and there but supervisors came after you to write you up (especially if they didn’t like you). They seemed to get a perverse thrill out of controlling your job/well-being. They acted as though they cared more for our disabled clients than those of us who did direct care ie. bathing, feeding, cooking, cleaning etc. Supervisors always looked down on direct staff and abused us at any chance.

    I was finally retaliated against and terminated. A month later I had a mediation with my union rep and the former employer; this time I saw right through them and how sick they actually were: manipulative, abusive, liars, sadistic, sociopaths. I realized then that they actually exploit disabled people so that they can earn themselves a salary. Plain and simple.

    Director said he was gonna deny my unemployment benefits, they screwed with my FMLA and smeared my good name. Co-workers distanced themselves from me because they didn’t want to be retaliated against by the non profit.

    These are scary people. At least corporations are somewhat transparent about their motives whereas non profits hide behind a mask of goodness.

  11. I’ve been volunteering at a non-profit for many months. I love the work and clients/customers, however, the better I get at my work, the more hostile my manager is to me.

    From what I’ve learned online, she is now mobbing me with her like-minded workers and volunteers. She has been hyper managing me, giving me conflicting directions and so many horror tactics when no one is around that her intentions with me are totally clear. These encounters that I’ve had are 100% of a toxic boss or bully manager tactic.

    I’ve also found out she stalks Facebook and other online sites to gather info about people who interest her. Twice she has smiled (grimaced?) at me and said, “I know where you live.” Like really? So what? I do nothing wrong. A fear is now in me of what does this mean and am I in harms way.

    I’m not fond of hanging around gossiping and complaining like she and her group do when the directors are not around. She shared nasty remarks to me about the top boss when I was a new volunteer. I was informed that the boss’s new husband was a boy toy that she came back from vacation with. She shares quite of bit of mean info to new volunteers and her inner circle. From what I’ve learned online, I guess that since I am not like her or them, I must be intimidated or bullied into quitting.

    I just learned the other day that she using her cell phone and is warned by members of her inner circle whenever big shots are around. I watched her answer her cellphone then immediately stop lazying about or surfing the internet, and start to actively engage with customers and performing work in the workplace. This actually made me mentally raise my eyebrows because this means she and her inner circle know what they are doing or acting is wrong.

    Truly, one must bow to such effort to deceive. Its actually quite amazing.

    I’m in a tough bind. Do I stay and still enjoy the work with clients/customers and other volunteers that I have a great relationship with, or do I leave?

    My sleep has been suffering and I’m fearful of going into volunteering. Its crazy because I don’t get paid, I just support the cause and actually used to enjoy what I did there and most of the people there.

    The volunteer turnover there is massive. This manager truly has a gift for knocking off the freebies I guess. Perhaps she has the mentality of a paid workers worth being incredible significant and that volunteers are a dime a dozen. Non paid workers maybe are worthless?

    I could muse on and on about perhaps why she is like that and even muse more about why she is retained at that institution.

    I will most likely have to discontinuing volunteering because the emotional burden is more overwhelming to me than the fun and pleasure in new human relationships and helping in what I still feel is a good cause.

    My heart goes out to anyone suffering the mobbing and toxic environment that a few inappropriate people/workers/managers can inflict in a non-profit organization.

    • i feel your pain and am sorry for what you’ve been through. my so-called head manager was a two headed snake, an elitist sociopath exactly how jane described. she was a co-dependent who couldn’t breathe without a man controlling her in her personal life, so she tried to control her employees in her professional life. she was a former deb who couldn’t understand why every man she lived with eventually tossed her away like a dead fish.

      she was insecure about her looks, age and skills. she took out her anger on her employees and volunteers. she got away with everything including having affairs with co-workers and bar hopping with sycophant underlings that called her the gossip queen. i knew i was at the wrong place when i saw how some managers under her and their employees partied, lunched, dated and bar hopped together with upper management’s tacit approval. she let them in on plenty of her action. her favorite employees bragged behind her back they got out of work by hanging out with her because she didn’t have any real friends.

      two headed snake treated volunteers, clients and employees the same way behind closed doors. she micromanaged to the point of her employees wearing tracking devices. the atmosphere was hostile and horrible with her teaming up with and feeding off co-workers who were as ruthless as she was. her paranoia poisoned not 1 but 2 departments.

      the turnover rate for employees and volunteers was tremendous. rumor was upper management loved her (literally). she bragged she only wanted employees and volunteers without education or experience. she argued high turnover in the nonprofit sector never impacted the company’s bottom line. in fact, she believed her hiring and firing proved she was a superb head manager.

      in less than 3 months, 2 employees were fired and another quit. she lured an employee for a promotion, then fired him 6 weeks later for no reason. when he asked what was her reason for firing him, she said she couldn’t tell him what he was doing wrong that he didn’t already know. she had severe mental illness but would never get treatment. she blamed her problems on her staff and not herself. she never targeted a man to bully or mob, only other women.

      i am completely turned off on nonprofits. i keep hearing the same horror stories about their micromanagement and mismanagement. i won’t work for a company or agency that refuses to write an employee handbook because they change the rules according to the person and the situation. some get a free pass. others get an unpaid ride home.

      eventually something will have to be done, but it will take decades. a business has to have professional ethics to survive and thrive. when petty tyrants fire and hire every 3 months, there won’t be any cohesion or morale. everybody was too busy looking for other jobs and stabbing one another in the back. two headed snake was too busy having affairs with co-workers to notice.

      i am gone and god is good. namaste.

  12. I did a NFP internship for college credit last summer. I trusted that my school had vetted the organization. I walked into an untenable situation of a highly dysfunctional, disreputable organization with which there was no hope to have a positive internship. The beginning of my second week and within moments after she was bullied by her own supervisor, my immediate supervisor took me in a room and verbally abused me. I was spun out. isolated, needed information withheld, no training, no supervision.
    Despite a timeline never having been discussed, they terminated me 20 hours short of my needed 200 hours, saying I had not come through with deliverables. The “deliverables” they asked me to do shifted each week without consultation with or addressing me. I would find out in the weekly meeting as they talked to each other but not directly informing me, that I was no longer to do something or that more had been added. This lack of continuity was nerve-racking at the least. When I asked for needed information, glancing at each other, I was asked why I needed it as if I was being subversive. I would not be given the needed information or it came weeks later and often buried in other information.
    One task they gave me was writing their policy and procedure manual, which is beyond the capabilities of a graduate student of any program–and I worked on it day and night. After hours of research and consulting others with experience, I broke through the haze of having been abused, and realized, I am not qualified to write this. That I was terminated right after I pointed this out while asking for more information to try providing something is telling.
    Alas my program (an advocacy program), has not held up their part of my learning contract and forced me to go part-time, a financial hardship that may prevent me from finishing my Masters.
    My grades are stellar and another internship that I designed and executed is headed for a documentary.
    Do I have any recourse to losses?

  13. You hit this nail on the head. Every single nonprofit I have been in is dripping with severe bullying, intimidation, and verbal assaults. Funny how the list of your reasons why transcended the reasons I had already articulated myself.

    Sociopaths run rampant in nonprofit, I mean literally. This analogy will scare some, but its true.

    Just like you will find high percentages of pedophiles working as coaches and living in walking distance of elementary schools, you will find high percentages of sociopaths in nonprofit.

    Predators go where they believe their prey is.

    Furthermore, nonprofits are often misconstrued as a workplace where you do nothing, slack off, and work with a bunch of namby-pamby do-gooders. What better atmosphere for a sociopath to “think” they can waltz in and sit on their ass and abuse others?

    Absentee volunteer boards do not help this problem. Overworked employees who haven’t the time to address these issue does not help this problem. Lack of structure and managerial oversight do not help this problem.

    Every job I have been at when I try to stomp this out – I become unwelcome instantly.

    I hate to say it but the non-sociopaths avoid this issue like the plague like nothing I have ever witnessed in my life.

    The desire to create a perfect picture of the organization so as not to dissuade funders and donors is completely out of control in this sector. It is a perpetual abusive relationship that has no end because none of these organizations would sully their reputation, no matter the reason.

    I worked for one of the big cats, we all know them. Extreme sociopath nightmare Director was my boss and he held the entire department hostage with his crazy. Always hidden behind a smile and never bluntly stated so he could maintain deniability – it was literally the worst situation I have been in in my life.

    The other employees were completely hypnotized by this man, lived in utter fear, yet adored him (typical relationship a sociopath boss builds). They all abused the new people in kind. Constant belittling, everything you did was wrong, everything you did was stupid, yelling and treating others like garbage.

    Yet this organization is considered one of the best to work for because of their lies and facade of having an amazing work culture to the general public.

    It makes me sick that the high levels of sociopaths in nonprofit is completely unchecked and never will have any kind of reform because the overall culture of the industry is to pretend and lie in order to get the gift. Disgusting.

    When I retire, I;m writing a book and calling out all of the insanity I have been subjected to since I entered this gong-show sector.

    All the good I wanted to do is tainted with constant bullying and sociopath bosses and co-workers.

    It is a disease that has taken over nonprofit. Thank you for addressing it. Even though this is from three years ago.

  14. Wow, this has been enlightening. I was just let go from a NFP special ed. school, after 17 years of service. I believe it was because I fired the ‘friend’ of a Board member because she was paying people who weren’t working. The entire Board turned into bullies! So disappointing. They have so little concern for the actual mission of the organization. Ironically, the organization is sponsored by a religious order of nuns!!!!

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  16. I’ve worked in the private and none profit sectors of care. And bullying discrimination and down right appalling behaviour is endemic!
    I have worked in care for 10 years and have seen things that would make your toes curl.
    Also abusers seem to get away with abuse! As long as you suck up to the hierarchy it seems to be Ok!
    I myself on a few occasions have had to report abuse and I lost my job! I was ostracised and pushed out, for doing my job and protecting people.
    And the abusers got away with it!

    It’s all corrupt, I love my job and the people that I look after.
    There is too much corruption and down right evil people in the care sector.

    • As I’ve suggested many times here, it’s a terrible irony that the non-profit sector is home to so many abusive personalities. The disconnection between caring about the work you do and navigating the realities of the work environment can be huge.

  17. Do you have suggestions or examples of Anti-Bullying ByLaws for non-profits? I am on the Board of a non-profit now and there is one Board member who is bullying others. I have been trying to find some good examples on the web of good Anti-Bullying ByLaw wording and so far, I have not found any. Thank you.

    • I’m sorry to hear about the situation on your board! If your organization wants to implement an anti-bullying policy, it would be advisable to work with counsel for the organization to develop one. Because each organization is different and liability exposure may vary from state to state, I cannot recommend any “model” anti-bullying policy that can be simply plugged in, without review by an attorney who understands the legal implications.

  18. Sixth, (possibly) like nursing and teaching, the non-profit field attracts empaths as employees. I would add teaching and non-profit workers also tend to be idealists. I am/was/will be? So when a boss bullies you the first time you think “I must have misread the situation.” The second time, you think, “Geez, I must have done or said something.” Then you have failed the litmus test of taking a stand for yourself and the bully tosses the gauntlet. Before you know it, you are told to “turn in your card and your keys”. Zombie-like you get in your car and pray you make it home. Just think about making it home!

  19. I am going through all of this right now. I have recorded 4 incidences which I have been bullied, I have had witnesses too. everyone says this is just how the Executive director is, but I do not want to be part of this anymore. It makes it hard to come to work. I want to look for a new job, but it is unfair to our MISSION to leave this type of treatment to workers, who are usually also underserved populations. who do I report this to?

  20. This article and the responses are helping me feel better. At least I know I am not alone. I have spent the past two years branding and marketing a new non-profit. These first few years are fragile and resources have for the most part been thin.

    I resigned from my position last week as Assistant Director after taking a stand against bullying. I was shocked at the response. The Director of the board actually admitted to me that She was OK with this behavior in the workplace!!! I didn’t know how to respond. This was designed to be a therapeutic environment. I was deeply disappointed and as an Assistant Director I knew that we had to lead by example. If she was willing to allow it I had to look at my moral compass and call it what it was.

    The worst part about the whole thing was I saw right through it and just wanted to resolve the issue before it became a problem. They say evil prevails when good people do nothing. What do you do when to feel like you have exhausted all of your resources to solve the problem and the only options left are putting up with the abuse or walking away. How is such a young business going to survive after driving off the “good” people? By reading the comments it looks like they can continue for quite some time as a dysfunctional mess all the while running a marketing machine that acts as a mask for the irresponsible, to say the least, behavior.

  21. Pingback: Bullying Behaviour - Governance & Management

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