The uncharitable nature of charity culture: what happens when you don’t drink the Kool-Aid

The uncharitable nature of charity culture

Recently I spoke with a colleague in the nonprofit sector who had decided to leave the organisation in which she occupied a senior role due to the level of dysfunction she had observed – and experienced – within it.

When I asked what had driven her to do so, sadly her responses (for the most part) beat a well-trod path: I’ve heard and also experienced many versions of the same throughout my time in the industry. However she also spoke about an aspect that was newer to me – or rather, one that had not yet become as clear for me as it did when we sat and talked.

So what had she observed as a result of her time in the organisation that was familiar? Several items featured. One was the lack of professionalism exhibited by members of the organisation’s executive and board.

As with many in the sector, social organisations often bear all the less-than-inspiring hallmarks of the ‘passion projects’ they so often are. In short, someone comes up with a solution to a problem and decides to execute their idea despite a lack of skills and or experience in the sector, in organisational management and governance, or even in small business or the corporate or public sectors. Thus the third or voluntary (nonprofit) sector is often populated by people who are committed, driven and wildly inexperienced. I’m hoping the current enthusiasm for social entrepreneurialism – the new ‘great white hope’ of the charitable world touted by governments in developed countries – includes a great deal of training and support for social start-ups.

The problem of lack of experience and professionalism is often compounded by several other factors. These can include:

  • Personal identification with the enterprise, particularly if the founder and or the organisation has a high public profile, is a common pitfall. Is the enterprise truly serving the community or is it a vanity project?
  • Over-investment in the cause – often seen in founders, members and staff with personal ‘skin in the game’, such as a loved one suffering with a condition or challenges for which the organisation seeks a cure or support.
  • The stacking of boards and senior roles with friends and family: in such instances conflicts of interest, entrenched interpersonal dynamics and a lack of clarity when it comes to expenditure (to name but a few of the ensuing possible difficulties) lead to all sorts of havoc. Are critical decisions being made around the kitchen table after-hours rather than in board or team meetings? Are friends or family members in positions of power privileging the wishes or needs of some over the all? Are people who might otherwise be unemployable elsewhere being given safe harbour in a ‘friendly’ firm?
  • A lack of transparency when it comes to revealing how decisions are made and money is spent; profligate spending and more.

As my colleague pointed out, such errors of judgement can impact an organisation mightily and any lack of professionalism exhibited by an organisation overall, or by individuals within it, should be tolerated to a small degree, if at all.

Why? Most charities and many nonprofits are utilising monies provided by the likes of you and me via taxpayer-funded grants and or donor dollars. In other words, organisations reliant in part or in full on external, publicly-sourced funds have an obligation to utilise those funds in the most responsible ways possible. The more public the nature of the enterprise, the higher degree of accountability and transparency – professionalism – required.

So that was one part of what my colleague had observed. Now let’s return to the point she made with which I was less (but not incompletely) familiar with.

In essence, my colleague found herself being marginalised due to her (perceived) failure to align to the culture of the organisation.

A highly professional woman with a standard of personal presentation and deportment she feels is commensurate with the demands of her occupation and seniority – she found herself increasingly singled out for attention because she did not look, or act, as the organisation’s founders expected. Over a relatively short space of time she experienced a mounting pressure to dress down, work longer hours, volunteer additional time outside those hours, and generally behave in a way that signalled devotion to the cause. Bending to some of these pressures, she ultimately felt extremely uncomfortable with this giving away of herself and decided to step away from the organisation.

But of course it wasn’t just about ‘hours and attitude’. My colleague had, in line with her role, experience and qualifications, offered insights to her peers and seniors that sought to improve the running of the enterprise, yet her offerings, rather than being embraced for their potential, were perceived as a threat.

This often what happens when an individual steps into an organisation run with a level of skills and professionalism less than their own – especially if that individual is a woman in a predominately male setting or in an environment in which competition between women abounds. In both, a woman with fresh ideas or ideas that run counter to ‘the way we do things around here’ or that threaten existing power structures is not welcomed: she is the enemy and as such needs to be hastily and summarily dispatched. It’s a phenomenon I and many others – men and women alike – have experienced in their forays into nonprofit life. 

It’s also what happens when an individual refuses to ‘drink the Kool-Aid’; to buy the hype their organisation peddles.

In the corporate world high-profile tech companies, through their employee offerings, more or less own their staff who are expected eat, breathe, sleep the brand and it’s often no less so in the social sector. If you’re not on board, if you don’t exhibit or espouse the prescribed level of enthusiasm and dedication, you’re an enemy of the organisational state.

As mentioned, I’ve seen this before. Last year a colleague reported that some people in the nonprofit to which she was attached were often working through until 2 or 3 in the morning; I’ve come across many other social enterprises with expectations that their people consistently go ‘above and beyond’ with nary a thought for their well-being or that of the organisation long term.

But more apparent in this case was the fact that my colleague, in her offering of her professionalism and advice, was a threat and therefore intolerable and needed to be ousted. Choosing to see her decision to care for herself as evidence of disloyalty or worse was simply a convenient excuse with which to reject all she was offering.

By Victoria Lister

2 Comments on “The uncharitable nature of charity culture: what happens when you don’t drink the Kool-Aid

  1. I enjoy reading your insight into this sector. You talked about transparency, well it’s interesting with the recent inquiry into the George Pell case and what I have read about how the Catholic church doesn’t have to report any financials to ASIC and many other areas which are very questionable, not that it wasn’t suspected but that it is allowed is the issue.

    • Thanks Christine and you’re right – religious institutions are closed shops in many respects, with very damaging effects as we have now all seen, and continue to see. In this country the RSL too is currently in hot water related to financial misconduct. From organisations large to small, it’s apparent we haven’t yet mastered (or even come close to mastering) how to respond to community need in a true and responsible way, and we don’t yet know how to behave with integrity.

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