Why Can’t We All Get Along?

by Joan Garry

It’s time for all of us to start working together, both inside our nonprofits and across our sectors. Let’s just stop with the competition. It helps nobody.

While I generally like sports, I don’t watch much basketball. Maybe the NCAA college tournament as it nears the end. Baseball is my game. Always has been.

My dad was a Little League coach and I was his dugout sidekick. And then I went to school at Fordham in the Bronx, a stone’s throw from Yankee Stadium. I know a lot about the game. And about statistics.

But it’s basketball that actually captures my favorite statistic. The assist.

Simply put, you get statistical credit for setting the shot up, for making sure the ball gets to the open player who is free to make the shot.

Why don’t nonprofit leaders incorporate this mindset into their work? After all, most of you are in the business of assisting.

‘Assisting’ is actually a rather big theme in my How To Build A Thriving Nonprofit online workshop.

The workshop just started, it’s free, and it’s intended to help any leader at a nonprofit – board or staff – that can use an assist or two. It would be wonderful if you’d participate.

Here are just a couple of the comments people have left so far about the workshop. There are a whole lot more like these:

If you’d like to join us, click here to register for the workshop.

Connected to the workshop, I also started a Facebook group. And it’s been AMAZING! The assist percentage in the group is OFF THE CHARTS.

An ED posted her new logo and 25 folks (and growing) offered terrific feedback – about the logo itself, about getting board buy in.

Another leader asked, “When is it ok to say ‘no’ to your board?” You can’t imagine the quantity and quality of those responses.

So let’s talk about what happens to your organization when you start to emphasize the ‘assist’. And I’m thinking about two kinds of assists… 1) inside your organization and 2) within your sector or community.

But first, let’s discuss the five kinds of folks you meet a nonprofits.


During my time as the Executive Director of GLAAD, I used to advocate against stereotypes. That said, I know they sometimes exist for a reason.

So at the risk of stereotyping, here are five kinds of folks you’ll meet in most “teams” at nonprofits:

  • The Bug Crusher. The smartest person in the room who can’t abide anything less than brilliance from his ‘teammates.’ If he hears it, colleague is crushed like a bug.
  • The Ducker. I worked with a colleague like this in my for-profit life. I used to joke that he always needed to use the rest room when a tough decision had to be made. He was clearly washing his hands of the whole thing.
  • The Diva. She requires a lot of maintenance. And her roller board is filled with drama.
  • The ‘A’ Student. Meets deadlines, writes a first rate ‘book report’ and doesn’t know how to market his success and expects people to just know. Never really feels appreciated.
  • The Conflict Averse Boss. That would be the person at the head of the table managing the three-ring circus. Or should I say NOT managing it. He ignores the dynamics and focuses only on outcomes. And would rather have a cavity filled than be in the room.

Think for a moment. How well does each type handle assists?


So here’s an idea. What if we actually measured performance based on scoring AND assists. What if salary was tied to this?

What I mean is, how might each of the characters above change if we gave more weight to personal behaviors and attributes during performance reviews, rather than entirely focusing on outcomes?

Here are some ideas for what you might do:

  • Measure response time to emails or phone calls from colleagues.
  • Flesh out annual goals to include how your colleagues can (or need to) assist in your department’s success.
  • Invite other department heads to YOUR department retreat.
  • Require a monthly ‘team’ meeting where a member brings a problem to the table the rest of the team “assists” (and the ED takes notes).
  • Have a real conversation at a retreat about each person’s areas for development. The facilitator can then identify if these areas of weakness are actually areas of strength for other members of the group. Secure commitments and hold people accountable.

Unlike other performance metrics, these might be more anecdotal. And so the “boss” needs to keep a Google Doc for each person (or an old fashioned file will do). Toss notes in every time you see (or feel) an assist. Pretend you are a statistician. Can’t measure what you don’t keep track of.

Create a culture where assists are valued and measured and I believe that this just might be a key antidote to a dysfunctional ‘team’ that is not really a team at all.


Sometimes I think nonprofit leaders like to say they are all alone, that their jobs are lonely. Board chairs will literally tell me, “I just do what I think is best – it’s not like there is a rule book.”

Well there are resources and the best ones are not usually books.

They are colleagues. Other leaders in your community. People who work in your sector.

Friends, neighbors, co-workers who also serve on boards.

Why don’t you all talk to one another???

What’s the deal here? You see them as competition for volunteers or dollars? Please just stop it.

You’re shooting yourself in the foot.

My friends at the Arcus Foundation are generous and smart. They are seeding “Executive Director Groups” in a few key cities around the country. They’re doing this because they understand you’re a lot more likely to “score” when there’s somebody there to give you an “assist.”

PLEASE. I beg you to remove the word “competition” from your vocabulary – at least when you’re talking about other nonprofits.


Each of you reading this post is generous. You must be. It’s why you raised your hand for nonprofit leadership.

You feel compelled to give, to help, to serve – to put your skills to work to solve a societal problem, to find a cure, to bring families together, to get people back on their feet, to honor the legacy of someone you lost.

Squandering resources is something the nonprofit sector can ill afford. And some of the most valuable resources you have as a leader are colleagues. At a staff meeting, in your sector, in your community.

I could argue that you came out of the stands and onto the court because you wanted to be of service, you wanted to help. You wanted to assist. It is part of your nature and it feeds you in some important ways.

Remember that as you stroll through the office today. Think about it and pick up the phone and make a coffee date with the board chair of another organization in town. Instead of just “How’s it going?” try on the phrase, “Need any help with anything?”

You chose to play on this nonprofit court because you are generous. Please remember to be generous with each other.


I believe great leadership at a nonprofit is like a twin-engine jet with co-pilots – the board and staff leaders – who work together and fly the plane in the same direction. It’s absolutely critical.

How to work together – as teammates, as co-pilots, and as colleagues – is a big part of what I talk about in my free online workshop, How to Build a Thriving Nonprofit, which is going on right now.

I hope you’ll join me in the workshop. Just click here.

4 thoughts on “Why Can’t We All Get Along?”

  1. Hi Joan
    The link to sign up for the workshop leads to an error page-perhaps this is an archived post and the workshop has past? Would love to participate, if not.
    Do let me know! Thanks, Joanna

  2. the link that does not work is the first: “If you’d like to join us, click here, to register for the workshop”

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