Myths and realities about working in the non-profit sector

It’s possible to make a difference in the non-profit sector, but no one should assume that work life there is a picnic. Like for-profit and public employers, non-profit employers run the gamut. Some are terrific, many are okay, and others are positively dreadful.

In addition to facing the financial pressures of trying to do more with limited resources, non-profits suffer from their own brands of employee relations problems. So steer clear of the myths of non-profit employment, and understand the realities. Here are among the major ones:

1. Myth: Non-profit employers care deeply about their employees.

Reality: Don’t count on it. The non-profit sector sometimes forgets about its own.

In a 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 urged that non-profits must “come to understand that philanthropy begins at home.”

2. Myth: There’s very little bullying, mobbing, or sexual harassment in non-profits, because people working in that sector watch out for each other.

Reality: Some of the worst bullying, mobbing, and sexual harassment situations I’ve heard of over the past 15 years have come out of the non-profit sector.

A do-gooder organizational mission doesn’t ensure high-character employees. It’s one thing to fight for The Cause; it’s quite another to treat people decently. I’d be surprised if prevalence rates of interpersonal abuse are materially lower at non-profits than in the for-profit or public sectors.

3. Myth: You won’t encounter any psychopathic or narcissistic types in the non-profit sector; they’re only to be found in the big bad corporations.

Reality: Sorry, but these folks can easily turn up as senior administrators and board members in non-profits.

It seems like such a disconnect when people with these personality traits and disorders are hired into institutions that embrace a social mission, but it happens — a lot. Once empowered, they may bully, connive, and manipulate, sometimes while serving as the charismatic, smiling face of the organization.

4. Myth: There’s very little hierarchy in the non-profit sector, because everyone is in it together.

Reality: Oh, don’t get me started on this one.

Malcolm Warwick observed that many non-profits use “strictly hierarchical, command-and-control” management techniques. Check out a typically large, multi-layered non-profit organization, and you’ll see what I mean.

5. Myth: Non-profit board members really care about the organization’s employees.

Reality: Non-profit boards often are comprised of business executives, many of whom don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the well-being of rank-and-file workers.

To the degree that employee relations matters are brought to their attention, they usually will be filtered through the organization’s top management. Workers’ concerns are more likely to be regarded as a nuisance than as a priority.

6. Myth: Lawyers who represent non-profits take on a more humanistic approach to employment disputes.

Reality: Do not make that assumption, ever.

Many non-profits, especially larger and more prestigious ones, are represented by corporate law firms that specialize in advising management. Especially if a non-profit has a track record of treating its workers poorly, one can expect its lawyers to echo those values and practices.

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Related posts

Prestigious honorary society president may be a bullying boss (2013)

Bullying of volunteers (2013)

Burnout in the non-profit sector (2012)

When the bullying comes from a board member (2011)

When bad employers retain thuggish employment lawyers (2011)

Workplace bullying in the non-profit sector (2011)

10 responses

  1. Thanks for posting this. Eye opener indeed. I believed a lot, if not most of the realities, but i thought i was on my own with this. thank you for highlighting this.

  2. Another Myth: What legal protections are available do not change just because you work for a non-profit. Truth: Many nonprofits are religious organizations which have not had to follow any non discrimination or wrongful termination laws in the management of their clergy but recently where deemed able to expand their definition of who in the organization falls under the legal umbrella of being a religious leader.

    • UURESOURCE: You are correct. There are no legal protections available working for non-profit. I worked for a Catholic hospital. They are still bullying. They are horrible in the way they do the bullying. They also remind you have no protection of your job. The hospital was run and owned by Nuns along with a Catholic college. The Corporations was broken, but in the contract from the Nuns (who were extremely profitable), the hospital has to stay Catholic, do mission work, and the Nuns have say in who the CEO is. Ironically, I saw a counselor who was one of the “Top” Nuns after the non-profit Corporation sold; so she said I could see her because she was not affiliated with the hospital. She told me about the bullying that happens there about every 11 years (still going on now) and that they haven’t been following the mission work properly. She said the Nuns that stayed working at the non-profit Corporation are not very nice. It is just a business to them and they want to make money. That is all it boils down to. The non-profit hospital has their own lawyer (a little old short hyper man) whom I had to go against, because I filed with the EEOC. I finally gave up because the lawyer wore me down and it was going on almost 3 years. I could not afford keeping a lawyer. The hospital is still known as a Catholic hospital who treats their employees like “Gold”. I know a smart lawyer on my side could have found something to help me. Many lawyers are not well versed in bullying in the workplace. You would almost have to get an extremely well-known lawyer in the United States, so the case would go National. Who could afford that? It is too bad there is not a very well known lawyer who would help someone for free or reduced to bring attention to this subject. You would need a “Dream Team”. When this non-profit hospital/corporation was owned by the Nuns, the bullying still happened. This whole thing is so well thought out and deep that it would take years to even figure out their strategies. More lawyers need to learn about bullying to help the employees. They must be so into it and feel extremely strong about helping others. The lawyer who works for the non-profit hospital must study about bullying all the time and know all the ins and outs.

      • I missed this post before but wanted to say how nasty that sounds. I think in the past even church based nonprofits where expected to comply with most employment laws. It is a good warning to those eager to back efforts to further deregulate business. Religious institutions are a great example of the how far we can trust the benevolence of people to guide the free market in a moral way. And for anyone in any work setting- I have come to think that the only viable chance of successfully litigating is to strategically anticipate that possibility in advance in nearly any situation which is such a bleak way to approach work.

  3. Thanks for the great article! Back in the late 80’s, a friend of mine dedicated herself to serving a local non-profit that assisted victims of DV. She was a client advocate, not the program administrator, yet she played an enormous role facilitating growth and renewal in the lives hundreds of clients and in the organization’s ability to efficiently serve the community. After 8 years, a newly hired employee endeared herself to the director and began spreading divisive rumours behind closed doors. Sixteen months later, every other staff person had either been fired or left the agency. Even the director. Quite a loss.

  4. I worked at a non-profit organization and everything in the article is so true. It is also very sad. I never knew this kind of behavior existed until I was let go – plus bullied 3 years before that. The non-profit organization fired the Supervisor/Counselor who was ahead of the Counselors helping employees (part of the benefits). They do not care what they do or say. They have their own lawyer. They do not keep up with their mission work in the proper way. More than 50 employees have been bullied out of this Corporation. I heard it happens every 11 years to clean house. I am glad to be learning about this behavior but cannot believe a nonprofit organization does this. I myself did mission work before I was terminated. Our Department got a 1st place trophy for our mission work. I helped with highway garbage cleanup for this non-profit organization. I always went above and beyond, probably like many others. I cannot believe how upper management gets away with these horrid tactics, and still go about their every day lives like nothing is wrong. They must not have a conscience.

  5. I was gala director for a charity (I was asked) and the bullying started almost immediately. Two years later, raising record amounts of money, having expended hundreds of volunteer hours, I was exhausted. The jealousy, the pettiness and the callous way they treated me was vicious. It has been three years and I am still in therapy and I haven`t been the same since. I honestly thought that everyone was there for the same reason, how wrong I was. I concur with everything the writer has stated. The only good thing is that I realized I have a knack for dealing with people, obtaining donations and raising funds. Luckily, many of the guests have stayed in touch with me because they enjoyed the galas so much and now I help with their charities. It is fulfilling now without all the hatred.

  6. Oh my God, why did I finally Google sociopaths in nonprofit? My personality is strong, my self esteem unbreakable, my character and integrity at high standards – BY CHOICE.

    I am like a oil in the sociopath water that is nonprofit. I want to make a difference. But the insanity and sheer idiocy is out of control.

    And now here I sit, ranting on your site about it.

    How is this still going unchecked?????????????

    Will anything ever be done to eradicate the sociopath control over the nonprofit industry???

    The even worse and scary issue is that the organization all “stick together” and have created a “club” of sorts. So, you can’t say anything or try to push forward positive change because you literally get black balled.

    WTF.

    Thank you for having the courage to write about this in a public forum.

  7. I work in a non profit work place, and all I get is harassed and bullied. My manager that I went to for help doesn’t even think about I feel, he’s always on the other persons side.

  8. Wow! Wow! Wow! Thank you for the article. I feel less alone and crazy after the other responses. They called ME the crazy one.

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