The non-profit sector: So vital, but not all gooey feel-good

I have spent the bulk of my working life in the non-profit sector, and I will defend its importance to the nth degree. Non-profits are an important part of our civil society, providing vital services and goods in ways that the private and public sectors cannot deliver. Nonetheless, there are built-in challenges that make managing and working in the non-profit sector something less than a dreamy paradise. Here are three:

The separation of revenue from services & products

Most non-profits have some charitable or educational mission. Inherent in the non-profit model is that the users and beneficiaries of services or products offered by non-profits will not have to pay a market rate for them. In fact, they may not have to pay anything at all.

A soup kitchen isn’t going to charge its guests for their meal. A research center probably won’t charge visitors to its website who download its studies. An animal shelter isn’t going to charge its critters…okay, you get the point.

Even many private universities depend on charitable contributions to meet budget needs not covered by tuition revenue. The same can be said for museums and their admissions fees.

It means that most non-profits not only have to offer services and/or products, but also must separately raise most of the money in order to provide them. That’s a huge added amount of work. By comparison, the private business model is based on charging what the market will bear for goods and services. And while government agencies must vie for tax dollars, the taxation system substitutes for having to raise the money itself.

Board members

In order to qualify as a tax-exempt, charitable corporation, a board of directors must be formed to oversee the organization. The relationship between a non-profit’s staff and its board of directors can be a tricky, delicate balancing act at times. 

Staff/board relationships vary widely in terms of involvement and interaction. Some organizations, especially small, grassroots groups, are designed with the intention of staff and board working closely together. Others assume more of an oversight role by the board, limited to addressing big picture issues.

One of the most challenging situations is when board members who lack familiarity with, and respect for, the nature and culture of the non-profit nevertheless believe that their own experiences in a different sector allow them to pontificate and impose their ideas upon the staff. The “let’s run it more like a business” theme appears often here, typically with little understanding of the non-profit world. (I can only imagine their reaction if someone told them, “You know, I think you should run your business more like a good non-profit.”)

Work environment

Appeals to idealism and a desire to serve are inherent in the attraction of working in the non-profit sector, and many of us who have spent our careers in this realm understand how those higher aspirations can be realized.

But it doesn’t mean that all non-profits are well managed and treat their employees with respect and dignity. Too many non-profits assume that their noble mission means that quality of work life can be treated as a lesser priority. Exploitation in the name of the “cause” is not unusual in non-profits, and in worst case scenarios, incivility, bullying, and harassment are part of the work experience.

A good number of non-profit leaders were promoted to their positions not because of their leadership and management ability, but rather because they excelled at some other tasks related to the non-profit’s core mission. Some will succeed because the characteristics of good leaders were within them. Others will fail, resulting in a mismatch of skill sets that can make for unpleasant workplaces.


If you’d like to read more about this topic, I’ve collected a cluster of related posts that dig into the details:

“Let’s run it more like a business” (The problem with many non-profit boards) (2014)

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

Consultants and the “outsourcing of leadership” (2014)

Bullying of volunteers (2013)

Non-profits: If you need a committee to obsess over your mission statement, you may not have a real mission (2012)

Strategic planning: All too often, a time-sucking bridge to nowhere (2011)

Burnout in the non-profit sector (2012)

Why so many managers are mediocre or bad: They weren’t promoted because they are good leaders (2011)

When the bullying comes from a board member (2011)

Workplace bullying in the non-profit sector (2011)

Most popular 2014 blog posts on workplace bullying

For new and long-time readers alike, I’ve rounded up the 10 most popular 2014 Minding the Workplace posts on workplace bullying, as measured by “hits” or page views. Simply click on the titles to access the full articles:

Targets of workplace bullying: The stress and anxiety of figuring out what the h**l is going on (November) — “One of the most significant stressors in experiencing workplace bullying is sorting out what is happening to you. The bullying behaviors themselves are bad enough, but the process of comprehending that you’re being targeted — especially when the bullying is covert or indirect — often adds a solid layer of stress and anxiety. What the h**l is going on here? is a question that runs through a lot of minds.”

New California law directs larger employers to engage in workplace bullying training and education for supervisors (September) — “Earlier this week, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation (Assembly Bill No. 2053) requiring employers of 50 or more workers to engage in training and education for supervisors concerning workplace bullying. …These employers are now directed to include ‘prevention of abusive conduct’ in their supervisor training and education programs. The definition of ‘abusive conduct’ draws heavily from versions of the Healthy Workplace Bill….”

Workplace bullying and the “weak” target (August) — “Some who doubt the severity and prevalence of workplace bullying suggest that those who report being treated abusively at work are somehow “weak” or “oversensitive” and thus are prone to exaggerate their situations. Oftentimes, these sentiments are buttressed by an unspoken belief that self-proclaimed targets of bullying simply lack the requisite toughness to deal with the ups and downs of the workplace. In other words, those who can’t handle it should either toughen up or go away. It’s a faulty belief system that we need to keep responding to and rebutting.”

Workplace bullying as crazy making abuse (August) — “Crazy making” is a term one hears a lot in counseling and psychology. It basically means what it sounds like: Behaviors and actions — often intended — that create stress, confusion, and anxiety, and sometimes make people question their judgment and even sanity. There are lots of overlaps between workplace bullying and the concept of crazy making, in ways that validate bullying as a form of psychological torture. In this post I’m drawing on previous commentaries in an effort to understand those interrelationships.

When superficial civility supports workplace abusers (and their enablers) (June) — “But at times, the organizational embrace of a superficial brand of civility can advantage those who engage in bullying, harassment, or discrimination at work. It often starts with mistreatment masked by a steady, calm demeanor. This may include behaviors that are calculated to be plausibly deniable, such as bullying by omission (e.g., exclusion and ostracism), “lighter” forms of harassment, or indirect discrimination.”

How to deny, discount, and dismiss bullying and psychological abuse at work (May) — “A recent blog piece by psychologist Kenneth Pope explaining how reports of torture can be easily denied, discounted, and dismissed strongly resonated with my understanding of the dynamics of bullying and abuse at work. I thought it worth sharing and discussing with readers here.”

Dealing with a bad workplace: Getting to tolerance (March) — “If national studies on workplace bullying and job dissatisfaction are any indication, a lot of people are dealing with lousy workplaces. These experiences can cause no small amounts of anxiety and stress, resulting in significant human and organizational costs. …In terms of energy levels, these realities can leave people in a state of utter despair or recurring anger and conflict. For folks in these places, getting to tolerance is a goal worth pursuing.”

Pass ’em on: Two short videos about workplace bullying and the Healthy Workplace Bill (February) — “The American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence produced this three-minute animated video about workplace bullying…. Deb Falzoi of the Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Advocates produced this six-minute video about the Healthy Workplace Bill….”

The bullied and the button pushers (January) — “Workplace aggressors are often experts at button pushing. They know how to get a rise out of someone, and if it causes the target to say or do something that gives the aggressors even more of an upper hand, then all the better. Under stress, targets can engage in self-defeating behaviors, and crossing the line in responding to abusive work situations is a frequent one.”

APA launches new webpage on workplace bullying (January) — The American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence has just launched its new webpage of resources for employers and individuals who want to learn more about preventing and responding to workplace bullying….It was my privilege to serve as a pro bono subject matter expert to the Center and its director, Dr. David Ballard, in developing this page and the accompanying video….”


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Presenting about workplace bullying & the law at annual legal education conference

On Monday, I’ll be participating in a panel discussion titled “Emotions At Work: The Employment Relationship During an Age of Anxiety,” at the annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools (AALS), being held this year in Washington, D.C. My presentation is titled “Is Workplace Bullying Entering the Mainstream of American Employment Law?”

The AALS annual meeting is the major U.S. conference for legal academicians, and thus it will be a good opportunity to talk about workplace bullying and the law with fellow employment law professors.

In essence, I’ll be briefly covering developments that long-time readers of this blog have been following for years, including:

  • Introduction of the Healthy Workplace Bill in some 25 states over the past decade;
  • California and Tennessee workplace bullying legislation enacted in 2014;
  • Municipal and county anti-bullying policies covering public workers & proclamations supporting Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week ;
  • County grand jury reports on workplace bullying in county agencies;
  • Insurance companies starting to cover bullying-related lawsuits in Employment Practices Liability Insurance policies;
  • Professional associations, such as the Joint Commission (a non-profit organization that accredits health care providers), addressing workplace bullying in their membership requirements; and,
  • A growing amount of legal scholarship and coverage in the legal media about workplace bullying.

While these are all constructive developments, my main editorial point will be that workplace bullying has yet to enter the mainstream of U.S. employment law, especially in comparison to its presence in academic and professional fields such as organizational psychology and human resources. And obviously, we’re behind those countries that have enacted workplace bullying laws on a national or state/provincial levels.


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