Nonprofit Leaders: How Do You Manage Idealists?

My first nonprofit job was for a progressive organization with a progressive board in a progressive community. But all that progressiveness didn’t prevent the nonprofit employees from unionizing. It all began when the CEO fired a critical staff member. The rest of the staff decided the firing was an abuse of power symptomatic of her leadership, so they took matters into their own hands. Within one year the employees had voted in a union.

The unionization process made a lasting impression on me. But it still hadn’t sunk in how tricky managing a dedicated nonprofit team could be. I finally learned that lesson when I saw a key staff person break into tears thanks to persistent abuse by the founding CEO of another nonprofit. “Mary,” she told me, “we’re idealists and we expect nonprofits to be managed better.”

So, if nonprofit staff tends to be idealistic—and they will be—they probably have a low tolerance for an external charitable mission that feels contradictory to their workplace values. Your nonprofit might be doing good for others, but that good has to start within the organization. As the business world well knows, if the leadership takes good care of the team, the team will take good care of the customers.

This is five times as true in the nonprofit world. If you don’t listen to the staff before messing with the mission, you’re headed for big trouble. If you find yourself creating a workplace out of sync with your lofty mission, then rest assured a crisis is brewing. Make unfulfilled promises and your noble nonprofit can implode overnight.

And don’t assume that disenchanted staff members will simply flee; these impassioned employees will frequently fight back to protect what they believe is the way the mission was intended to be served. Like it or not, believe me or not, the staff has the strongest ownership of the mission. Not the Board, not the CEO.

How do you manage it? First, assume it’s a gift to have a strong, opinionated and idealistic staff team. These are the next steps:

1.       Manage that team consistently with transparent leadership that builds open, respectful, and safe communication. This requires trust, team building, and accountability to one another. Tolerate a level of conflict and manage that conflict.

2.       Be honest with staff. Don’t mislead them by implying they’ll always have input on decisions—or that they’ll always know every detail. Someone has to make big decisions and those decisions won’t always be popular.

3.       Work with the leadership team to assure the best nonprofit human resources practices are in place, known to staff, and implemented.

4.       Monitor staff turnover and seek out an annual cultural measurement tool that confidentially assesses the staff’s morale. Self-reports should score high on universal commitment to the mission, integrity, learning, and listening. Discuss the results with staff—and possibly the Board.

5.       If you’re the top staff executive, insist the Board evaluate you annually, including an occasional 360 review. Leaders need feedback too! When receiving feedback, be prepared to make some adjustments in your style.

An outstanding nonprofit workplace is challenging to achieve, especially when money is tight. But good management starts at the top. Don’t assume success as a corporate leader translates into success leading and managing a nonprofit. Get help from experts who’ve earned a reputation for successful nonprofit management.

And never underestimate what a gold mine your nonprofit has when talented employee recruits are clamoring to work with you!