Dear Joan: My Workload Just Doubled and I Need a Raise

Once or twice a quarter, Joan responds to readers who send emails asking for nonprofit advice, practical solutions, or just general therapy (Joan tries not to make direct comments on a reader’s psychological state — that’s called practicing without a license.) You can send your questions to Joan by clicking here.

dear joan fire donor need a raise

In my experience, managing staff is especially tricky in the nonprofit space.

Why? I have a few theories.

First, bosses can be timid about offering direct feedback. That can really cause problems. Some supervisors I know feel guilty about how hard the staff works. Others are just conflict averse.

Second, many supervisors at nonprofits have never been supervisors before. They don’t have the professional development of the tools necessary to manage with confidence.

In this month’s “Dear Joan,” I answer some questions from supervisors that are in the second camp.



Dear Joan: A colleague of mine is about to leave and I have been asked to take on additional responsibilities. I think it’s going to be a while before they find the right person and I think they may move even more slowly because they are sure I will be able to do an excellent job. But the E.D. seems to be forgetting that I already have an overwhelming job.

I can’t say no – the work must get done – but can I ask for more money?

– The Job I Have Is More Than Plenty

Dear Plentiful:

In my mind this is a mistake Executive Directors and supervisors at nonprofits make all the time. They just simply assume that the existing staff will cover until the new hire is on board. Often, there is not even any conversation. Frankly, it’s not very considerate.

Conversely, staff members often just accept this situation. The work needs to be done, so they take it on. That comes from the reason they joined the nonprofit in the first place – they’re passionate about the mission. They don’t initiate a conversation.

Here’s my recommendation. Try to get a conversation before you take on the extra work. Before you have the conversation, think very carefully about your bandwidth to take the role on. Will your overall performance suffer? Be honest. Can you handle it? What would you need from the Executive Director to assure that neither set of responsibilities suffer during the interim period.

A great E.D. will raise this when asking you to take on the responsibilities – to ask, express appreciation, to ensure that you have sufficient bandwidth, and to offer some way of compensation you for taking one for the team. But many won’t.

If yours doesn’t, set a meeting. Talk about your interest in covering the additional responsibilities and what you might need to insure that you can continue to juggle current and additional balls. You might need an intern reallocated, a volunteer re-assigned or even a temp.

You don’t get what you don’t ask for. There should be personnel savings in this interim period. If money is very tight, rather than asking for an interim bump in pay or some kind of one-time bonus, ask for a certain number of additional vacation days once the new person is hired.

I hope your boss recognizes and generously acknowledges that you are stepping up. Your boss is lucky to have you and should be generous to you in return for your generosity to the organization.

– Joan


Dear Joan: I am the Executive Director of a small nonprofit with a staff of 4 full time people. I was hired less than a year ago, following someone who had been in the job for a long time, leaving me to clean house.

I have to fire the office manager/receptionist. He is on the phone with friends throughout the day and there is plenty of evidence to illustrate that his performance is subpar.

He is an older man – not quite ready to retire. And there is no way my small organization could afford a lawsuit.

What would you do?

– He’s Answering The Wrong Phone Calls.

Dear Wrong Calls:

Unless this employee does something egregious that would be grounds for immediate termination, you are going to have to take just a little extra time to get your ducks in a row.

There are a few steps I would take right away.

1) If your organization is this small, I am guessing there is not a formal performance review process.

So initiate one. Keep it simple. Find a simple template online, review each staff member, and set 3, 6 and 12-month goals. Make sure that with this particular employee that the 3-month goals are VERY specific and feed into the issues at hand in some way. Be sure that the goals are solid and tailored to the position and not the individual.

As part of this review process, you should share specific illustrations of poor performance and make it clear that his performance must improve.

2) Keep a file and start putting in notes regarding specific performance problems. Note the date and the problem.

3) If you don’t have an attorney on your board, someone on your board should be able to point you to an attorney that, given the good work of your organization, will provide an hour of guidance on how to manage out or fire an older employee. I’m not a lawyer. I don’t even have a law degree. So double-check that my advice is solid. 🙂

4) At any point where an egregious error has been made, call in the staffer and be clear that you have been documenting other recent situations of concern. Put the staff member on a 30 or 60-day performance improvement plan. It can be just a letter with a list of things that must change over the next 30 days. It should state clearly that if you do not see changes, you might need to ask this person to move on. Then continue the notes and meet again at the 30-day mark. Is he doing better or does he have to go?

If he has to go, you have documentation of performance problems, goals he did not reach, and I bet your attorney will be more than satisfied. Depending on your financial situation and his tenure to the organization, I might offer a bit more severance than you would typically.

– Joan


Dear Joan: Maybe it’s a bad idea but I often refer to my staff as “family.” It probably is a bad idea because I find it hard to have difficult conversations when problems arise. But this time I am furious and really need to call out one staff member for being really unprepared at the board meeting an even responding inappropriately to a question one of the board members asked. She embarrassed me and her presentation was supposed to inspire the board members to raise money.

She is one of my stellar employees and I don’t want to upset her. I certainly can’t afford to have her leave.

I Really Don’t Want To Have This Conversation

 Dear Reluctant Conversationalist:

A few things stand out in your question. First, a group of workers is not a family. If you are a strong manager, you can move the group to a team. But using the term “family” blurs the line in a workplace and makes it much harder to hold people accountable.

Secondly, even your stellar employees can be replaced. No supervisor should cede the power in the relationship to the high performers. No one, not even you, is irreplaceable.

Next, difficult conversations are best handled when you have calmed down a bit. Anger does not often help you think clearly or speak eloquently. So wait a few hours and sit down with your staff member. Take time to collect and organize your thoughts.

Lastly, change the nature of the conversation. Rather than coming in with a monologue about what went wrong from your perspective, ask questions.

Inquiry is a key strategy in difficult conversations because it doesn’t put the staff member on the spot, leading to angry or defensive responses.

  • How did you think your presentation went?
  • Do you feel you achieved the goals we set for your presentation?
  • How did you feel you responded to the questions you were asked?
  • When I asked you to present, I emailed you the details of what I was looking for. Do you feel you delivered?

If this really is a stellar staffer, you can assume you and she will be in sync on answers. And if that is true, you have a great conversation about the implications and how they should be addressed.

How she responds will affirm for you that she is terrific or not. Maybe through this inquiry you realize that she has some professional development needs or maybe you will figure out that you did not set her up succeed. Maybe you both come away learning something.

Either way, no board presentation for this staffer next time without really clear expectations up front and then a presentation run through.

– Joan

Now it’s your turn. What are you struggling with? 

Please let me know (just click the link above.) Perhaps I can help you. I promise you will remain anonymous.

And if you have further advice for any of my readers above, please share in the comments below.

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • Deb Allen

    Why assume that a non-profit couldn’t afford to pay someone more, when they are doing two jobs, including the work of someone no longer there–and who is no longer drawing a paycheck? Even if thethe person left behind to do the job of two people is paid another $10,000 a year until the new person is in place, the non-profit is still saving quite a bit of money. What is their (short-term) incentive to hire very quickly, when they can get some poor schlub to do the work for no extra cost to the agency? Sure, long-term, that person may burn out and quit, which is why it’s very short-sighted to dump even more work on someone already overworked and underpaid, but it’s not my experience that many businesses, non or for profit, suffer from a surfeit of long-term-thinking.

    • I should have been more explicit. I was thinking about situations in which someone leaves and there are financial issues and the job isn’t filled. Or if there is a layoff. I wrote this piece to ensure that both the staff member and the boss were considering the issue of incremental compensation in whatever way makes the employee feel VERY appreciated.

  • Pete

    I am the development director of a small nonprofit that I have worked at for almost 2 years. I love the organization and community but am not compensated adequately for my position and/or all that I have achieved (significant increases in grant funding, from our annual banquet, increased membership, and more individual donations). My ED and I spoke about the situation that I had another offer for more money and he basically said there wasn’t money to afford me a raise commensurate with experience and achievements, though I know there is. Should I simply leave the organization (a dream organization/position), go over the ED to the BOD, or suffer in purgatory because I believe in the mission?

    • Pete. One of a few things is happening here. 1) Is your ED satisfied with your performance? If you have had performance reviews that were less than stellar, you may be getting a message that he thinks you should take the other job. 2) If you are regularly praised as a star performer, then you should tell him the number it would take to keep you and you should make the case that he does in fact have the money and see where that leads you. Going over the ED’s head can be risky. Unless you are tight with someone on the board and can simply drop that you have been offered a new job but have a quandary b/c you’d love to stay b/c you love the mission more than the other org but the other org is paying more. Maybe that board member will take it up with the ED. You’re just sharing info and not ‘ratting’ him out for saying he can’t afford it when he can. Just some thoughts without having much to go on 🙂 Good luck. I hope you can stay with the organization whose mission you love. Joan