“Let’s run it more like a business” (The problem with many non-profit boards)


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If you hang around the non-profit sector for any stretch of time, then sooner or later you’re likely to hear some variation of this line: We need to run this organization more like a business. Typically the mantra begins with a board member or two, keeps getting repeated by others, and eventually rolls downhill.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve seen the effects of poorly-managed non-profit organizations as both a lawyer and a professor. If running a non-profit group “more like a business” means empowering effective, inclusive, and socially responsible leaders and holding them accountable, then I’m all for it. And if it means maintaining fair-minded, ethical, and transparent employment practices, then count me in for even more.

But all too often, the “more like a business” mantra translates into the same authoritarian, top-down, command & control model that at least some board members who are drawn from the private sector may embrace in their respective roles as executives and managers. Oftentimes these board members have scant understanding of the culture, traditions, and histories of the non-profit organization they supposedly serve, and they may have a very condescending attitude toward its rank-and-file employees.

In terms of employee relations, these attitudes and practices can have unfortunate consequences. Board members may hear only from top managers within the non-profit, and thereby they may have a skewed, misleading impression of the organization’s strengths and weaknesses. They also may be cut off from information relating to valid concerns about the organization’s leaders and employment practices.

There are lots of poorly managed, dysfunctional, low morale businesses out there. Some of them are run by people who serve on non-profit boards. Let’s not emulate their errant ways. If we’re going to run non-profits “more like a business,” then we should at least pick & choose wisely among the very best business practices available.


This post was revised in August 2019.

Related posts

Myths and realities about working in the non-profit sector (2014)

When the bullying comes from a board member (2011)

5 responses

  1. “We need to run this organization more like a business” is what happen to the health care industry and schools. Look at how costs have escalated.

  2. I was about to use the “nail on the head” expression, David, but I see that someone already has. So let me just say that I feel like you’ve read my mind or you were a fly on the wall at my former, nearly 20 yr career at the same national/international nonprofit. I am fond of saying that this nonprofit went from grassroots-based compassionate advocacy to corporate hellhole (for employees, at the very least), seemingly overnight, with the introduction of a new executive director who had no experience as an executive director, but did have an MBA. The naive BOD eagerly ate up every word that she spewed forth (accurate or not).

    Now the entire organization has been outsourced to a management company (a business). This is a nonprofit organization that was founded by chronically ill women and successfully run by them as well, for decades (until it was made into a “business”). There’s just no comparison. And you are so right: Along came the “Big Bad Boss” hierarchical structure, and soon after the employee handbook went from under 10 pages to nearly 100, employees were urged to never communicate with each other, and several other nonsensical and unnecessary rules and regulations were enacted. It was humiliating, scary and surreal, even. Machiavellian.

    It also spelled out the end of my career (and my health). I knew that our days were numbered when new management and new HR started using the word “business” exclusively to describe the nonprofit (I had never heard that before, in all of those yrs). Thanks, as always, for your gift/talent of being able to get across such difficult, heavy-hitting subjects so clearly and succinctly.

  3. I worked at a non-profit Catholic hospital. I was bullied out (terminated after 3 years of bullying). Fifty people so far were bullied out of this hospital. I also found out that the workers in the department I worked in were told they were not allowed to know or speak of those of us who “left the department”. I just cannot believe that the workers obey upper management. They seem to be scared that they will lose their job. After I was terminated, I tried my best to get the word out to others. I had lunch with an ex-coworker who was bullied and terminated. She hung on for one year. She developed breast cancer, her husband divorced her, she lost her home, went bankrupt, and started drinking. She also lost the respect of her children while drinking (she has quit now). She had to move to low-income housing and received food stamps. She was an excellent worker and was at the non-profit company longer than me (over 20 years). Another women bullied out of her job was going to commit suicide because she could not make her rent payments. She wrote a suicide note. A friend came over just by coincidence. The friend was able to find her low-income housing, so basically saved her life. The sad thing is that this non-profit “Catholic” hospital allows this type of behavior to save money because they are a corporation. They do not realize what is happening to those who leave. I am still suffering PTSD. I cannot find work. My whole life has changed. I see a psychiatrist and a counselor. I have no insurance and cannot afford the Marketplace Plan. I will try my best not to go to this non-profit hospital. They are replacing us with younger workers who are not doing their jobs properly. They are not seasoned or have the schooling we had. They are hurting themselves. There are going to be mistakes on the patient’s reports. Even physicians are quitting (the good ones). I wish someone would just pass the Healthy Workplace Bill into law. It is so obvious that we need this law. Children who bully will be learning bullying techniques from their parents and we will have more bullies. We need to nip this now in adults and children. Why can’t we? Is the Government so naive to this problem. How easy it would be to pass the law. Instead, let Mrs. Obama talk about children losing weight, drinking water, and what the children eat in school. Of course that is important too. Start talking about this and get the word out. We need people in the spotlight to bring this problem out to the public. Bullying is extremely damaging and no one realizes it unless they go through it themselves.

  4. GEM is correct: “We need people in the spotlight to bring this problem out to the public. Bullying is extremely damaging and no one realizes it unless they go through it themselves.” I helped found a community nonprofit, believed in what we were doing, and continued as a volunteer for almost five years after my board service. I raised a concern with the group and was bullied for months on group emails by two women, the board president and vice-president. The president told the group it needed to “focus on business, not emotion,” while she wrote me personal emails saying how much she didn’t like me. I suggested a group facilitation at a local dispute resolution center. Fourteen of us attended, but it did not restore anything. I read later that bullies want to hold on to their power, not find common ground, so facilitation doesn’t work. The two women still run the group, because no one else wants their responsibility. A few board members resigned. The other group members remain as silent bystanders, as they were when the bullying happened, not making waves. I chose to move on with my life, but it has not been easy. I seriously considered filing a libel lawsuit and reporting the group to its email provider because of the content of what the women wrote. I couldn’t see doing that to my neighbors, although what they did was wrong. Today, because community involvement still is important to me, I work on small, meaningful projects with people who are not part of the group. In a few years, I plan to move closer to family and away from here; meanwhile, I am focused on my own healing. To me, it seems impossible the group can sustain itself with such dysfunction (much more than just the bullying), but that is for someone else to grapple with, not me. Thank you, David, for all your very insightful articles on such an important topic. I think it would be so helpful if more of us could find ways to share our stories in a safe, honest, and thorough way that helps us all heal.

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