Share Your Nonprofit War Stories

by Joan Garry

“3 angry calls from unpaid vendors so far this week. I have no idea what to even tell them.” How do you handle crises at your nonprofit? Some ideas…

Every week, readers send me stressful, anxiety-ridden emails about their nonprofit crisis.

“I can’t believe what the press is writing about us. I was pretty sure it was the end of our organization.”

“3 angry calls from unpaid vendors so far this week. I have no idea what to even tell them.”

“It took months to hire our E.D. In the meantime, fundraising stopped dead.”

“I’ve barely slept for weeks. I come to work every day wondering if I’ll even get paid.”

Sound familiar?

Perhaps you’re currently going through a crisis yourself. Know you’re not alone. Not even close. If you’ve been a staff or board member of a nonprofit for more than about 20 minutes, you have a war story.

Nonprofit war stories are a dime a dozen because nonprofits are hard wired to be messy. And things can get messy fast.

However, used strategically, war stories have an important role to play for the good.

Let me illustrate with something that once happened to me.


In 1997, I made the leap from the for-profit sector to the nonprofit sector and I was extended an offer for a great new low paying job as the Executive Director of GLAAD. I stopped breathing. I expected “low paying” but not A THIRD of what I was making. I negotiated. Ever so proud of myself, I secured a salary that I could say out loud without weeping.

But after my first meeting with our Director of Finance, I could only laugh (before I wept silently). There was no money. Whatever I may have negotiated for my salary, the organization couldn’t afford to pay me more than a one-time lump sum of $360.00. Because that’s all there was in the bank. Oh, and there were 18 other staff members that needed to be paid. And outstanding debt of $250,000.

I left eight years later with a cash reserve of $1.5 million and a staff of 42. We didn’t just survive; we thrived.


    1. People Have EgosLook at mine. Why do I love to tell that story? Makes me look pretty good, right? So there’s a dose of ego for sure.
    2. Who Doesn’t Love a Good Survival Story?This is the communal part. Don’t you hear people tell war stories with an oddly gleeful and sort of wistful tone? Crises bring people together; they require a special dose of adrenalin. There is a rush that comes with trying to fix a big fat mess in a hurry. It’s not typically “I did it!” — a war story usually starts with “WE did it!”
    3. Crises Amplify the Power of Your Mission

      Surviving a crisis requires a full court press on the part of board and staff. There must be a deep-seated passion about the particular work of your organization. If not, the crisis deepens and resignations follow.


    1. When the Experience Leads to Bold ThinkingWith your nose out of the aging Accounts Payable spreadsheet, a nonprofit leader can actually look ahead. You survived, you are steady, and now you can grow, invest, and think bigger.
    2. When We Learn Important LessonsHandled well or poorly, a crisis teaches you valuable lessons that strengthen your infrastructure, your board’s commitment, your fundraising efforts, the organizational structure, and your approach to press relations. Please, I beg you. Debrief after the crisis is over and commit to a session outlining the ‘positives’ of the crisis. These positives are the gems of a crisis.
    3. When the Experience Brings Staff and Board Together
      Your board and staff have tackled something big. It’s been hard. You have had to make tough choices. But you did it together. So here’s the opportunity a great nonprofit seizes. Continue that momentum. Your board may have been engaged like never before. A lunch with the board chair and the Executive Director (wine could be involved) to debrief and talk about lessons learned. Do not leave before you make a shared commitment to a few specific things the two of you can do to keep the board engaged.


    1. “Oh, you weren’t here then, were you? It was awful!”Those who survived the crisis can become an elite club. Not good for a nonprofit all working toward the same goal. By creating elitism, you diminish the voices of those who followed. So when someone raises a legitimate concern, the answer can often be, “Well if you think that is bad, you should have been there when….”It’s not a competition folks. That concern raised by the board or staff member may have real legitimacy and you’ve just missed it.
    2. A Crisis Can Cause A Risk Averse CultureI once said to a client, “Wasn’t it your PARENTS who went through the Depression? You manage this organization like it is resting on a big mattress and you are squirreling your assets away under the box spring.”If a war story becomes too much a part of your nonprofit’s culture, you won’t look to invest. You will avoid actions you feel are bold.Maybe that’s OK by you – to be a solid, safe, good organization. It better be. Because you’ll never be great.
    3. The Story Backfires If Not Told WellFocus on the disaster and not the triumph – how hard it was for everyone — and you toss an opportunity right out the window. Focus on how the organization came together and you’re telling a story of hard time and how you managed through it.Maybe that’s OK by you – to tell a story that shows that you handled the crisis well. It better be. Because your team won’t be seen as exceptional.


If you are, let me say this first and sincerely. I’m sorry. I know it’s really hard. I hope this post gives you a tiny bit of hope and inspiration.

Second, you can learn from your colleagues, including the members of my tribe of weekly readers.

(Are you not yet a weekly reader? If not, you can subscribe here –

And so to my weekly readers, would you take a minute and toss a dose of hope out there for your nonprofit colleagues who may be trying to dig out of some kind of ditch? A lesson? A piece of advice?

Share a brief war story and the positives that came from it. Probably a good exercise for you too.

7 thoughts on “Share Your Nonprofit War Stories”

  1. Perfectly timed (as always)! We’re coming out of a pretty good series of war stories and it’s an interesting challenge to keep the lessons from the past from dominating the present and future planning. Santayana’s famous aphorism “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is always top of mind. It’s particularly instructive in our Finance Committee meeting this week where we reviewed the first draft of FY16’s budget. Those who’ve been around were ecstatic given the past. Those newer who haven’t lived through the “war” were much more interested in pushing further. A healthy balancing act and we all came to a good place.
    Organizationally overall what we’re trying to do (with varying degrees of success) is that in our onboarding process with new board members we’re telling the story of where we’ve been and the battles we’ve gone through to get where we are – and that’s why we’re talking with them about where we’re going. It’s a good way to keep everybody aligned without the “elite club” noted here. Thanks Joan!

  2. I am thick in the middle of a “war story.” I have not received a salary for almost two years –which means that I have gone without food, have defaulted on my student loans, and am months behind in my rent. Most of my clothes are beyond threadbare (luckily, I work from home, so rarely leave the house).
    And yet, if I don’t finish this project and the work all falls to the ground –everyone else who has also sacrificed will have been royally screwed — by me.
    Its all for a good cause, of course. And I hope that I can pull this thing off. If I do, it will indeed be “sweet.” But OMG.

  3. Ruth Eve. I had to wait to respond as after my first read, I was speechless. I tell my clients that I am a ‘compassionate truthteller’ so here goes. It is hard to imagine any nonprofit cause that would warrant the kinds of sacrifices you have made. I understand that the passion of a cause can lead you to unhealthy places and I have written about these things – in fact next week’s post is on this very subject — but your situation is extreme. I ask you to consider the price you are paying for this cause, to take time to seek out additional help. Please take care of YOURSELF!

  4. Thank you for your “compassionate truth telling”, Joan. I know that I have gotten myself into quite a mess. (I didn’t mean to become a martyr for my cause, I just found myself up a creek despite my best intentions –as this was my first time trying to lead a project.) I look forward to reading next week’s post. Your articles have been very helpful.

  5. There is a lifecycle to nonprofits. They rise because a need is identified and folks want to do something about it. They fall because that need no longer exists and/or stakeholders no longer have interest. Crisis isn’t the problem. Crisis offers the opportunity of bringing creative solutions; stepping outside the comfort zone. What does matter, as has been mentioned, is the way in which a Board; an executive director; key stakeholders; respond. If an organization does not wish to get well; fails to recognize the crisis; is resistant to change, there is not a lot professional staff can do to “save the day.”

  6. Joan, first of all: mad respect! Your site is not only a great resource but a platform for NP staff to share stories and more importantly solidarity and support.
    Much of what you share resonates thoroughly.
    As a new DoD, my first impulse after reading this was to share my story; then I read the comments and realized that what I’m going through doesn’t come close.
    It saddens me to read so many people are willing to put the health and wellbeing of themselves, their families, their lives, second to that of their organizations – all in the name of the cause.
    I’m just not willing to do this anymore. It serves no one – especially not our community.
    Thank you for being there for us, for the sector. This site is invaluable.

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