Fear and Loathing in Nonprofits

As an avid nonprofit nerd, friend, and occasional obnoxiously bossy big sister, I recently joined a massive Facebook group for nonprofit people. It’s a goldmine of support, love and answers to questions. It’s also a bit of a landmine for despair, frustration, ire and rampant slightly-veiled burnout. So, a mixed bag, really.

One thing that has struck me over and over again as I browse the posts is that there is so, so, so much FEAR.

It is an intense, palpable sense of fear. Fear of an Executive Director secretly lurking in the group just for the sake of identifying and destroying errant staff members. Fear of losing funders. Fear of losing jobs. Fear of saying what they know needs to be said in their organizations because they’ll be fired – or worse. Fear of leaving. Fear of winning. Fear of…everything.

Maybe it’s my nonprofit PTSD that makes this particular aspect of the posts generated in this group so apparently riddled with fear. Maybe it’s that Facebook knows what I’m looking for better than I do, and they only show me the posts where people are on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But maybe it’s this: way too many nonprofit organizations run fear-based cultures. I’m gonna go ahead and just go with the latter.

Here’s why I’m putting my bets on that last thing, and it’s not just because I’m a jerk and I hate nonprofits or something (nay! I love them, duh! That’s why I do this!!). It’s not me, it’s [social] science. Sociologist Ron Westrum studies (among other things) accidents and human error in the fields of healthcare and aviation – and his work applies far beyond these industries. Through his research, he identified three categories of on a “continuum of safety cultures:” pathological, bureaucratic, and generative organizations. (Check out one of his papers on organizational culture here, if you’re nerdy enough to check out the source).

Before I go into more detail on this, let me note that nonprofits actually have more in common with safety cultures like healthcare and aviation than you might think at first glance. Nonprofits often deal in high-stakes work – domestic violence, child abuse, homelessness, and other critical, safety-based, trauma-informed work. We also have myriad regulations with which to comply. We are bound by rules, laws, funder guidelines and requirements (anybody working with Federal grants??? You get me, right?). So, while we may not be dealing with hurtling people through the skies, or surgically removing or repairing parts of human bodies (though more than a few healthcare nonprofits exist, of course), we are dealing, very frequently, with life and death.

I would assert that nonprofits, just like safety culture organizations, exist in the categories Westrum posits. Pathological organizations are engrossed with “personal power, needs and glory;” bureaucratic organizations are preoccupied with “rules, positions and departmental turf;” and generative organizations focus on the mission, and all activities and behaviors intentionally support the achievement of this mission. In generative cultures, the mission supersedes personal power, needs, glory, rules, positions and departments. The mission is the reason for everything.

In a perfect world, we would all be working in generative cultures – especially in nonprofits. After all, we’re all capable of rattling off the ubiquitous mission statement (especially if we ever have to write grants)…But generative culture is usually not what we get. We end up, all too often, mired in the creepy pathological cultures that are based on personal needs and preservation of power at the expense of others.

Let me be clear on this, though – I don’t think that most nonprofit people are in it for the personal glory. Obviously, nonprofit work tends to require personal sacrifice and, even when we don’t do it perfectly, working toward a bigger cause than any one of us can represent on our own. But something about nonprofit structure lends itself to pathological cultures. In Westrum’s work, he focuses on two critical things that are pertinent to our discussion here: flow of information and alignment. Flow of information, in my opinion, is symptomatic of a deeper cultural foundation. Alignment is as well, but I think is a bit more causative. In generative cultures, people align with the mission – everybody buys in – everybody puts their allegiance and effort toward the mission at all costs. This is, in some ways, fearless. Your role, your position, your needs, your power, your departmental boundaries – all of this is less important than accomplishing the mission. In real life, is this something you feel comfortable with? Think about it: right now, today, do you feel you could let go of your title and status and whatever shreds of power you might hold in the culture in which you exist? In all honesty?

In pathological cultures, people align with a personality or clique. In nonprofits, most often, this is the Executive Director, or, in some cases, it could be a powerful board member or a compelling staffer, usually in a leadership role. Sometimes, factions exist, wherein people create alliances with each other based on their personal needs and desire for power (and safety), but where they may clash with other cliques within the organization. Information in these cultures is strategically administered to serve purposes other than purely meeting the mission. It is doled out when it is deemed necessary by those who hold power. It is hoarded. It is pieced together. Conjecture rules. Gossip and collusion are rampant. When something goes wrong, a witch hunt is launched to find a scapegoat – blame is more important than accountability.

This kind of pathological alignment happens for several reasons, the most interesting (to me) of which is our tendency to over-identify with our work. This is the biggest risk of nonprofit work! If you devote your life to a cause - something so big and important and world-changing - you are going to get some of your identity from it, most likely. However! This is a point of caution. When we get too wrapped up in our work and the success of that work, we get grabby and freaked out. We start to do things we wouldn't normally do. We start to work really hard to preserve our sense of power and self-worth. We may damage other people in the process. We will, in all likelihood, create or contribute to a pathological culture.

In pathological cultures, fear and punishment rule. In pathological cultures, the truth is obfuscated and nobody fully understands what is going on, and may feel like they are crazy or out of control. In pathological cultures, the mission suffers. Founders’ syndrome prevails. Turnover is likely astronomical. It’s a bad deal, you guys. I have a million stories about this kind of culture, and I’m sure one day I will tell them all…for now, suffice to say, a lot of us know what this is like. Way too many of us know what this is like. According to my new friends in the Facebook group, this is an everyday reality for tons of people.

Interestingly, an organization I worked for straddled the line between pathological and bureaucratic. I think we were moving along the continuum. A natural response to deal with a pathological culture is to attempt to impose some order on it, while also preserving personal power and boundaries. We all have a very human need to own our own domain. We all want to contribute something. It is easier for us to put rules and regulations around a pathological culture, once we realize it is ruining everyone and everything, than it is for us to jump to a generative culture, where we let go of our own turf and power, and instead focus all of our efforts on the mission.

In bureaucratic cultures, information flows along clearly prescripted lines, and alignment is primarily to one’s department. In cases like this, department heads often make decisions based on protecting their turf or their staff at the expense of the whole organization and its mission. There may be excessive lines of approval (if it’s egregious, this may be, yet again, a sign of a pathological culture)…for instance, my former organization sent out a set of various email newsletters. It seemed there was always another we wanted to add to the stack for some additional audience or purpose. Yet, when it was time to send them, we had to route them for approval and corrections from the communications person, to the department manager, to me, to the Executive Director, and then back again. It could take days…weeks…sometimes, MONTHS. This is not a joke. Then, we would face the wrath of missing deadlines (ahem, pathological again), because of the impossible process.

Whew! No wonder we’re so fearful! Holy mother of mothers.

So…here’s the deal. Fear is imposed when you are knocked off balance every day because you exist in a pathological culture. You may be dealing with some seriously messed up systems, alignments, and bizarre internal politics that fly under the radar because they do not match our idea of what a nonprofit is or should be. You might talk all day and night about the mission. You might have rallies and picket lines that insist that your mission is super much the most important thing ever in the world. But if you go to work and suffer at the hands of a pathological culture every day, you will simply be, by turns, inspired and then confused and then horrified and then fearful and then depressed and then, you’ll call it burnout.

It can be healed, but culture takes a concerted, honest effort from leadership – starting with the board – to create and handle. Without intentional and purposeful work, culture becomes whatever it will be – for better or worse – and it is dependent on the personalities at hand when it starts. This is a dangerous game. And yet, nonprofits don’t typically see it fit to invest in culture. It’s seemingly complicated and it feels like a luxury. BUT IT IS NOT A LUXURY. It is necessity. Without it, you will waste time, energy, effort, people and donor dollars frittering away your organization’s life on handling a dysfunctional culture. It’s a disease, and it must be addressed. For some hints about how to start, check out this blog about why everybody may be fleeing your nonprofit, and how you can change your culture…and in the meantime, just know you’re not alone, and you’re not crazy, and you don’t have to live in fear.

People doing the work of changing the world – and this might sound crazy, but bear with me – should not live in fear of their own bosses. Of their boards. Of their funders. People doing the work of changing the world should be supported in their fearlessness to uphold their missions and address the injustices of abuse, poverty, violence and the degradation of environments, among many other worthy causes. People doing the work of changing the world are heroes. Let’s start living like we are – humble heroes, stronger than we think we are, bigger together.

Sarai Johnson is an author, speaker, host of the No Nonsense Nonprofit podcast, and purveyor of nonprofit wisdom. She is the founder and principal consultant of Lean Nonprofit, which helps nonprofits build better businesses to get real mission results and inspires passionate people to build world-changing careers.