The Secret to Managing Nonprofit Staff

by Joan Garry

I was a good manager in corporate America and very good when I landed in nonprofit. Here’s the difference.

Why did you choose to work at a nonprofit? How about your staff? Certainly it’s not for the money.

But to understand the answer is the key to managing your employees.

After all, it’s really easy to screw this up. Way easier than in corporate America.

During my fourteen years in corporate America, my expectations as an employee in order of importance were:

  1. To be paid bi-weekly
  2. To be treated with respect by my boss
  3. To work with my boss to set annual goals so I understood what success looked like
  4. To make a significant contribution to the bottom line of the organization (in my last years at Showtime Networks, that meant extracting money from Don King)
  5. To secure a very nice year-end bonus if I delivered aforementioned significant contribution

The list isn’t quite the same for managing nonprofit staff, is it?

Here’s what nonprofit people care about:

  1. To be given the opportunity to have a voice
  2. To make a significant contribution to a cause that is deeply and personally meaningful to them
  3. To be treated as a three dimensional person and not just as “a worker”
  4. To work with a boss to set goals and expectations so that success is clear
  5. To be paid bi-weekly

Nonprofit folks have made a tradeoff. No year-end bonus. The anxiety of wondering if there’s enough cash in the bank to even get paid bi-weekly. It’s about commitment to the work or cause itself and the stakes feel really high.

The most important item for nonprofit people is having a voice. Great nonprofit managers understand this.

Here’s what a nonprofit staffer wants to feel and think.

“Decisions aren’t being handed down to me. I believe my thoughts, insights, and opinions have real value in shaping decisions.”

As an organizational leader managing staff, there are a lot of ways you can help your employees feel empowered. Here are two that have worked really well for me.


My eldest daughter Scout once referred to me as the “might” in our family.  I thought this was “mighty” high praise. She did mean power, but it was a double entendre, because I used the word “might” so often.

The power of “might”

Here’s what Scout meant. Instead of directly leading someone to an answer, I begin a sentence with a staff member (or a daughter) with this phrase: “You might want to think about …” I also think of it as helping a staff member “try something on” in response to some problem they are trying to solve. It offers a sense of ownership. It can even lead to a conversation about why someone might not.

The power of ownership

One day Glennda, my lead programming person (today an Executive Director in her own right) came into my office with a knotty problem she was struggling with. She asked for my help.  I asked her a simple question:

What would you do if I weren’t here – if the decision was entirely yours? 

With that, Glennda spoke for maybe 5 minutes, outlining the pros and cons of each different option. Without my saying a word, she reached a conclusion about how to resolve it.

I spoke two more words: Sounds good. And with that Glennda left the office with her problem resolved.

Sound good? Hope so. You might want to consider this approach. It might lead to a boost in morale, a more cohesive management team, and that little bit of the world you are changing could get just a little bit bigger.

Do you have any other tips you’d like to share? Please weigh in below in the comments.

NEXT: What To Do When You Can’t Afford Staff Raises

11 thoughts on “The Secret to Managing Nonprofit Staff”

  1. Excellent article. I’m a new director in a nonprofit, having spent 40 years in the corporate world. Very insightful. Thank you, Joan.

  2. The shift from corporate to nonprofit requires many different kinds of adjustment and I”m glad this was helpful to you. While there will be lots of new territory to navigate, I can assure you that you will receive as much as you give. I am a much more compassionate and clear manager today than I ever would have been had I stayed on the “other side of the aisle.” Best of luck to you!

  3. My last leadership position had me starting my position as a Director of a food bank, a senior center, a homelessness/crisis community resource center, and a senior center. By the third month, I was also asked to be a part-time case manager, a property manager for 10 acre summer camp, and to pick up the main phone line 20-30 hours a week. I was tasked to fund-raise for our programs, to meet with community members weekly, and attend anywhere from 5-10 hours of standing meetings per week (23 miles from where I worked), I managed 4 budgets and was tasked to reconcile all of those budgets on time and to address changes should those budgets begin to go south. When I approached my VP about my working anywhere from 50-75 hours per week for months on end – with no break – his response was “We hired you to do a job.” And, sadly, this seems to be a trend in the Nonprofit world – at least in the Puget Sound area. The only thing that I now hope from anyone I might work for in the future (I left the job to have surgery on a shoulder that was blown out by my relentless schedule and have been nearly 5 months disabled) is that they not try and kill me. That they not take advantage of my dedication and desire to serve and work me into the ground and not expect me to cover every position they refuse to hire for just because I can. I became no person I ever want to be in my final months with this organization and they almost – almost – had me leaving a sector I have dedicated over 15 years to serving. I loved my work and they pushed me to despise it. That was my experience. Help me love my work by allowing me to do it with a level of competence and not just hope I stick with it as my hair falls out until I am no longer useful to them.

  4. I am so sorry about your story. So so often, organizations find themselves with fewer resources and burden existing staff with more work. I have hear ED’s say to staff “Well, we’ll just have to do more with less.”
    WHY? The absurdity of this statement is stunning. Doing the same with less is highly ambitious. Organizations with fewer resources have an obligation to consider doing LESS. Making the tough decisions to stop doing something so that their staff do not have the kind of experiences you have.
    That said, you have control over your career and the toll it takes on you. You too can consider saying no. Or finding a job in which there is an opportunity for better self care.
    Take care and good luck.

  5. After a few months as a first-time supervisor early in my career, I was stressed and overwrought, working long hours and feeling put-upon. I went to my then boss (who I refer to with 20/20 hindsight as my career mentor) to talk about the situation. He asked me two questions: 1. What time are you leaving work to go home? 2. What time are your staffers leaving work to go home? The next morning, I began to delegate to my staff — which also made it clear to them that I both trusted and entrusted them with responsibility that they were seeking.

  6. Joanne, I am in central Washington and it seems to be the trend here. I left with the excuse that I had to finish my thesis, which was true, but not the real reason for my leaving. Because of my experience similar to yours, I am starting a nonprofit and trying to do it right by creating the strongest board structure that I can, putting job descriptions and expectations in place for everyone and every committee, ect. We will have goals, objectives and time frames and they will be reviewed quarterly. I never, ever, want to put someone in a position that I was put into. It is just plain wrong. I was new to the industry at the time and they used my passion for the cause and my drive to see the organization succeed. I walked away saying I will make things different. I also determined to ask more questions up front with any position that I take. I want to know what my specific duties and responsibilities will be, what their expectations are and who I answer to and who I do not answer to. I weigh things very carefully. I have no problem telling a prospective employer that what they are asking for is very ambitious and to walk them through the reality of what they are asking for. I have no problem with telling them yes but not yes for everything. It has taken me a long time to recover and I never want to have the feelings that I had again. I want to make a difference in a responsible way from the beginning. One that benefits the organization and myself. I am sorry you had such an experience. I wish organizations would put themselves in the position they are hiring for and ask the question, “What is reasonable, to task someone with?” And, “Would I be willing to do that job? If not, why not?” and then change things.

  7. I came upon this sight by chance and today of all days! I received an email titled Sabatoge the New Executive Director? and my interest was peaked – but not because I’m the new Executive Director — because I feel the new ED is sabotaging many of the staff after 8 months. Background – I will have been here for 25 years in November, my Aunt started this agency 44 years ago – I have a vested interest in this agency and the mission (child abuse prevention) is my passion – keeping children safe and healthy. After my Aunt stepped down about 10 years ago, I served as Interim ED (3 times now). I did throw my hat in the ring unsuccessfully each time, but the agency always comes first – I don’t have an ego that stands in the way of being able to work with a new ED. The first 2 EDs were terrific – we had a cohesive leadership team. We all trusted each other, respect was a given and the agency thrived. Well, not this last time. The new ED has a huge ego, has no value for what I bring to the table and has successfully shut down an amazing leadership team and there is no longer any transparency to be found. Staff are afraid to speak up for fear of what will come out of the ED’s mouth – or they do speak up because they should be able to and they are degraded in front of anyone around. It was clear to me that she had no use for me – especially so when she told me her plan included the elimination of my position and she offered me an administrative position at half the salary – yep, it’s time for me to go. My biggest concern, however, is leaving the staff who made this agency was it was with someone like the new ED. She effectively made herself the only person anyone can go to with concerns, and they get no further. I could go on, but I won’t. As I leave, I feel it is my responsibility to be sure that the board is aware of the total culture change within the agency so they can decide how they want to handle it (or not handle it). We have already had 2 supervisors leave with a total of 24 years with the agency and numerous line staff, and others in the process of finding a job elsewhere. She explains these departures to the board as leaving for more money when in fact they left because of the change in leadership. I know she didn’t take this job to run the agency into the ground, but I just can’t walk away without at least asking the board to be aware. Any advice?

Leave a Comment