Working in a nonprofit organisation: the good, the bad and the ugly

Working in a nonprofit organisation

A lot of people would like to work for a nonprofit and of course a lot of people already do. So what do people who do work in nonprofit organisations think about their workplaces? Nonprofit Explore founder Victoria Lister is a nonprofit professional who has worked across a variety of organisations and in roles at all levels. She shares some of her experiences here.

I’ve been involved in the nonprofit sector for a combined 40+ years.

No, I’m not that old – I’ve simply often worked in a number of roles simultaneously. I’ve been a volunteer, an employee, a management committee member on numerous occasions, a locum CEO, a project manager, a marketing and business development manager and, as a consultant, have worked and continue to work in pro bono and paid capacities with many social and nonprofit enterprises, the majority of which have had charitable status.

The types of organisations I’ve worked in or with range from community centres to breed associations; from human, legal, refugee and education service providers to economic development organisations, women’s services and many more. Some have been community-serving, others member-serving. Either way, you could definitely say I’ve seen nonprofit life from all angles and certainly from both sides of the boardroom table.

So what exactly have I seen? Here’s the black and white of it.

A lot of good people, motivated by a love of humanity and desire to serve others. More ‘people problems’ than you’d dare to think possible.
Dedicated board members giving generously of their time. Board members tearing each other (and their CEOs) apart and vice versa.
CEOs and managers who do an amazing job. Executives who are corrupt.
Many beautiful and dedicated nonprofit employees and volunteers. Fraud, personal agenda and self-interest at all levels of an organisation.

Yes, the nonprofit world is a paradox – the sector we expect to not only ‘do good’ but ‘be good’ is often a sector behaving very badly, a notion that might come as a shock to some.

So how and why does this happen?

I have a number of theories. In no particular order, here are some of them:

  1. The nonprofit sector is just as representative of humanity as any other and despite an emphasis on social good, is no less immune from the woes that beset other industries. Dysfunction in organisational life is often more rule than exception, no matter the sector in which an organisation resides, or its legal structure.
  2. The nonprofit sector can be perceived as a haven, a safe harbour, and often attracts those who have fled what they have experienced to be harsher climes (such as the corporate world) looking for a ‘softer landing’ – a benign, inclusive, values-based environment where poor behaviours can go unchallenged. Some come to it sensing it is in some ways similar to the public sector, which too can harbour people with behaviours that are less than productive or healthy.
  3. Community-based organisations often form organically as a response to a locally or personally felt need. As a result, the people running them – be they board members or CEOs – can be heavily invested in what they are doing to the extent they can find it hard to make entirely independent or self-less decisions. This kind of emotional, personal investment can result in numerous conflicts.
  4. 4. There is no such thing as altruism. OK, let me qualify that: true altruism is a rarity at this stage of our development on planet Earth. From the donors enjoying the ‘warm inner glow’ associated with giving, to those who knowingly milk the system, everyone gets something from their involvement with social organisations. In other words, for the vast majority, self-interest underpins all charitable activity and very few are able to truly act without an ounce of self-gain of one kind or another. And until we learn how to remove self from the equation, we have an investment in an outcome and the door remains open to taint.
  5. Smaller, remote and community-based organisations (and there are many in this category) can suffer from a lack of professionalism. Remote and regional organisations – and small, no-to-low profile organisations located anywhere – often struggle to find people to join their boards and have little option but to recruit from a small pool of (usually known-to-them) candidates, many of whom are well-intentioned but often lack sufficient skills and or understanding to be able to undertake a governing role. To compound the matter, people in this position ‘don’t know what they don’t know’, or lack the resources to fund professional development.
  6. Resistance to change is endemic. Nonprofit people can be mired in history of the organisation, ‘the way things are done around here’ and a refusal to acknowledge and move with the times – or move on if they can’t.

    The term ‘Founder’s Syndrome’ is used to describe organisations governed or managed by people who can’t let go. Few have what it takes to lead successfully over long periods of time, yet it is not uncommon to see board members and CEOs in top roles for 20 and sometimes 25-30 years or more.

    Staff too are often highly resistant to change and can arc-up enormously at the slightest hint of it, particularly where there is a strong emotional investment in the organisation and its mission or their role in it – or both. A strong attraction to a particular founder or charismatic leader whose tenure might be in question can also trigger strong emotional reactions.

    Similarly, the general members of an organisation (where they exist) can galvanise and become politically active if they perceive a threat to their interests, to a beloved leader and or to the ideals on which the organisation was founded.

  7. Many people find their way on to nonprofit boards because they are genuinely drawn to this form of civic engagement and would like to support their communities. However others are attracted to the potential for politicking, or use their roles to satisfy a need for personal power. Some are there because they are obliged to be, or there’s simply no one else to take up the slack. Others still use their involvement as an opportunity for social connection. Either way, these are not good reasons to initiate participation in nonprofit life.
  8. 8. Some use their involvement with a nonprofit for the kudos – to publicly demonstrate their philanthropic or altruistic natures or to obfuscate the parts of their lives or business dealings that are less than wholesome. This is a theme that often appears in film and TV dramas yet sadly, the use of nonprofit entities or involvement to disguise wrong-doing is no work of fiction.
  9. The majority of us come to the sector because we want to help: to change the world or a part thereof. While this is not necessarily a bad thing and it is certainly an understandable response to the world we live in, we come not knowing what it is that will actually lead to real and lasting change.

After all, we’ve been behaving charitably since man began organising himself socially but our problems have only escalated rather than diminished over time.

This indicates we are continuing to invest in something that doesn’t actually work. Yet instead of asking why, we plough blindly on, looking for solutions, spending billions, building elaborate industries designed to prop up an ailing world.  

This doesn’t mean we need to stop what we’re doing but it does mean we need to pause and take quite a number of steps back and honestly ask ourselves if all this activity is effective in the way we want it to be.

In other words, we are investing mightily in hope without stopping to ask if what we are investing in is offering sufficient return.

And hope, as much as any of the other points mentioned here, is but another form of self-interest. When we invest in hope we are seeking to alleviate a personal and collective itch; to find relief by hitching our wagon to yet another solution to our worldly woes.

Effectively, we are providing little more than expensive and elaborate band-aids to the knee of a child that keeps falling over without pausing to ask why the child keeps falling over – and are finding comfort in the knowledge that ‘at least we’re doing something’, whether that something is providing a social service, researching a cure for disease or attempting to alleviate global poverty.

There is much more to say, but for now my observation overall is when it comes to nonprofit organisational life, we have a long way to go and that the overwhelming majority of nonprofit activity is actually very much founded in self-interest of various kinds.

I’d love to hear what you have observed as a result of your involvement in the sector. Do you feel self-interest is what gets in the way of us all? Is there merit in taking a more reflective, big-picture look at what it is we’re actually doing – and how we’re doing it – when we engage with the nonprofit sector?

Comment below or email your thoughts in confidence to me at

By Victoria Lister

One Comment on “Working in a nonprofit organisation: the good, the bad and the ugly

  1. I have certainly noticed that nonprofits can become what is deemed a safe haven for those who find the corporate world too challenging and tough; thee founders and employees can turn into steely hard if not cold blooded defenders of the status quo, whether it serves the organisation they are working for or not. The question thus is – was the move into the sector truly charitable and motivated by a genuine interest and passion for the sector or was it a choice based on the perceived need to withdraw and hide, thus making it all about self?

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