turning down an interview at a dysfunctional organization

A reader writes:

I recently interviewed with a nonprofit organization and was asked to come back for a second interview with their chief philanthropy officer.

During the first interview, I found out that a local colleague had done some work with the capital campaign. I followed up with him to get the inside scoop. Unfortunately, he told me about all of their internal dysfunction (board, governance and leadership). I am looking to move to a more stable nonprofit so it doesn’t seem like this would be a right fit for me. However, it’s an organization I would consider working for in the future — if they got their act together.

How do I decline a second interview without burning bridges? Should I mention speaking with someone (unidentified) who gave me more insight into the workings of the organization? Or should I just keep it general — have decided to pursue other opportunities, etc.

Do not say that you spoke with someone who told you that the organization is dysfunctional. That will achieve nothing other than making your contact there really uncomfortable. And, really, what are they supposed to say to that? “Yes, we are a mess”?

It also serves no purpose — because what are they going to do with that information? Someone anonymous said that they have problems. Either they do and they know it, and hearing it from an outsider isn’t going to change anything. Or they don’t know it, in which case this will just be annoying to hear. Or they’re actually fine and your friend is wrong, and now they have to worry about what’s being said about them. There’s no purpose to any of that. And it’s not like they’re going to fix their issues and call you in a year and say, “We’re all cleaned up now, so we’d love to talk to you again.”

Instead, keep it general. You’re focusing on other jobs that seem like a better fit for you right now, etc.

{ 34 comments… read them below }

  1. Beth*

    Another avenue to take would be to accept the second interview and ask questions about the culture. “How does the Board support the initiatives of the organization?” “Does leadership have a clearly defined strategic plan and communicate that plan to the staff and stakeholders?” It is always possible that the person you asked worked with one or two disgruntled people who don’t represent the majority of the organization, or even are, in fact, the real problem at the nonprofit.

    1. Alli*

      That’s not going to be revealed by asking those questions. Interviewer is not going to bad mouth his/her organization in front of a potential employee.

      1. Seal*

        While the interviewer is most likely not going to badmouth their organization to a potential employee, how they answer such questions could tell you a lot about their organizational culture. For example, if the organization has communicated their strategic plan to its staff and stakeholders, the interviewer should be able to easily summarize it for the interviewee when asked. Fumbling for an answer or deflecting such a question would send up all sorts of red flags for me.

        1. Anonymous*

          I think fumbling for an answer or deflecting questions would be a red flag too.

          I also wouldn’t put too much trust in positive answers. I worked at a horribly dysfunctional nonprofit for a few years, and although they’d be able to tell you what their strategic plan was supposed to be and what the board was supposed to do to support it, they didn’t actually follow the strategic plan at all and the board did nothing but get together to socialize.

  2. perrik*

    Honestly, I wouldn’t withdraw from consideration just yet. You’re basing this decision on one data source. Your colleague may have an accurate picture, but it’s also quite possible that there’s stuff she doesn’t know about. She thought the org was dysfunctional from the top down, but there could be changes underway as the org tries to stabilize things.

    It would be risky to ask about specific problems during the second interview (“I’ve heard from a colleague that the leadership here is a bunch of dingbats and d-bags. Your thoughts?”). You could address your concerns more generally, though. “Organizational stability is very important to me, as I’ve seen how internal conflicts can prevent a non-profit from forwarding its mission. For example, it’s harder to keep a positive relationship with corporate donors if they perceive instability in the organization. Are there any issues here which might impact my campaign work?”

    If the CPO is honest and says that there are some issues but they’re working to resolve them, keep that in mind when deciding whether to keep your candidacy active. If the CPO tells you that everything is sunshine and rainbows and nothing to worry your little head over…

    1. Ralish*

      I definitely agree with perrick and Beth. If the first interview didn’t raise any flags in your mind, go on the second interview and ask thoughtful questions about the organization and how it’s run. Don’t call out specific issues, just try to get a handle on the health and culture of the org. Try to find an additional contact or two who can give you their perspective on the organization. Do some more due diligence. And then, if you’re not satisfied with what you’ve discovered, remove yourself from the process as Allison suggested.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      ” If the CPO tells you that everything is sunshine and rainbows and nothing to worry your little head over…”

      If ANYONE tells you this about anything- run. I had a job interview where I was told X never happens. I took the job. Reality: X happened ten times a day. It was brutal.

  3. Matthew*

    I wouldn’t pull out of the process based on the word from your colleague, who did some work. Go for the second interview and try to find out more about the culture and fit before making your decision.

  4. FiveNine*

    I’d be very careful about assuming you want out at this point if your concern rising out of what your friend says about the management and governance structure is actually focused on instability at the organization. There are some very large, extremely well known and respected nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations that are widely known to have governance and management structures like you describe — and that nevertheless have outstanding reputations for the work they do, and provide contract work at levels of pay off the charts. (I know that sounds strange talking about a nonprofit, but depending on the nature of the organization, it might have billions of dollars in assets to devote to its mission.) Of course, the group you describe might just be awful. And then again, it might just be internal high-level politics either very much like what you’d find at most large corporations or, alternatively, of the sort you’d find inside a large government bureaucracy. That is, the word nonprofit doesn’t always magically make the management and governance structure unlike any other you’d find elsewhere, but despite that you still might have more personal, professional, and financial reasons to give it a go there for at least some time.

  5. OP*

    Thanks for your feedback. I did graciously decline a second interview saying that I am pursuing other options. There were some “red flags” in the first interview – almost 100% turnover in the development department, not meeting the capital campaign goals ($5M instead of $15M), and downsizing. My colleague, who is very well respected and has 25+ years in development, sort of confirmed many of my assumptions about the organization. I was worried about their relationship with their parent organization (a similar problem I have in my current organization) and the sustainability of the organization. I thought about going for the second interview, but I also had to factor in the commute to the interview (4 hours) and taking off from my current job that doesn’t know I am looking elsewhere.

  6. OP*

    I’ll also add that the board issues I heard they are having (not wanting to put up cash for the capital campaign before making it public) is one of my pet peeves. It’s frustrating as a development staffer to see people with the capacity to give and make a huge impact think that their service on the board is enough. No donor is going to give to a campaign without the board giving at significant levels.

    1. SMCR*

      I feel your pain. In fact, as a development person, I live your pain. I know of very few NPOs who have ever said, “Our board is exactly the way we want it. Everyone gives at their maximum capacity.” But what if the PTB (the Powers that Be) are recognizing that lack of commitment from board members is a serious barrier to success and they are now trying to hire people who can be part of a culture change? But maybe I am just quixotic ;-) If you haven’t read it already, I strongly recommend the NPQ’s response to research that reveals just how unrealistic expectations of DoD’s can be. You can see it at http://nonprofitquarterly.org/management/21635-firing-your-development-director-join-the-club.html

    2. PuppyKat*

      I hear you on this issue, OP. Been there as well (although I don’t work in the area of development)—and it made me very frustrated and even resentful. I gave what I could, and they sat on their wallets.

      It was one of the reasons I decided to move on after 15 years. That board changed the environment of a place I loved for the worse. I now work for an organization that is very clear up-front about what service entails for board members—and it’s not just time.

      I think you made the right decision for yourself.

      1. Anonymous*

        This is very interesting to me. I just joined a board, and know others who sit on boards, and really, the personal funding requirements are a major deterrent to participation.

        1. PEBCAK*

          True, but it’s also something that foundations look for, or at least, the types of foundations I have worked with. One thing on the grant application is “amount of board support”.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            Is it jut me? I see that as HUGE opportunity for corruption/manipulation/etc.
            Bottom line: Board seats are for sale to the highest bidder.

            To me this sounds like the start of many, many problems.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              But they’re not for sale. Funding is one of many expectations of boards — but not the only one. Lots of nonprofits have a huge problem with board members who don’t give; it really is part of the job, generally.

              1. Andie*

                I agree with AAM. I have worked in the nonprofit world for over 1o years now. It is a big problem with board members do not donate money. They don’t have to give millions or thousands but they need to give something to show they support the organization with their time and their money.

                1. K*

                  Out of purely idle curiosity, do you mind my asking how much they are expected to give? I’ve always wondered about that. Is it a function of the size of the organization and/or the perceived wealth of the board member?

                2. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  It depends on the org — its size, its nature, what it aspires to achieve. I’ve worked places where it was 6 figures, either give it or raise it (and had boards that were all high level successful business people who could do that), and there are places where it’s much, much less.

                1. OP*

                  AAM is correct. It depends on the size of the organization and capacity of the individual. We like to say that you should make a “significant” gift or my recent favorite, give until you’re proud. We have budgeted a $1,000 gift per community board member (we also have board members appointed by our parent institution). Our budget is about $600,000. We have board members that give $500 and we have board members that give $5,000. You also should take into consideration what other role those particular board members play – provide a service, represent a particular community, etc. Sometimes that is more valuable than money.

  7. SMCR*

    As the old saying goes, “One [person’s] meat is another person’s poison!” We all have different triggers for what makes dysfunction intolerable versus what makes it just another organizational quirk. The barriers that your friend saw might in fact be specific to his threshold. That is not to say that there aren’t plenty of nonprofits with deep-rooted craziness that will interfere with success. I know there are–I’ve worked for a couple of them! ;-) But we are fortunate in our system that no one ever *has* to take a job when it is offered. A second interview is a request for another date, not a marriage proposal. So go to the second interview, OP, with your eyes open for any red flags, of course, and you just might find that the problems that bothered your friend are challenges that you are up for.

    1. Anonymous*

      This x1000. I worked for a company that I found unbearable. I mean, the senior management was mandated by the board to go to counseling sessions so that they could work together without fighting. During my time there, we had so much turnover that we were known as a bowling alley, due to the number of heads rolling. I couldn’t warn enough people away from there. But a funny thing happened. As I was making my escape, the people who were entering found a completely different situation. All of the disgruntled people had left or were fired, so the only people remaining were of similar mindsets. Suddenly it was this incredibly positive experience for the staff there, and the people from that time period still look at it as one of their best jobs ever. I left another job because the management kept turning over every 6-8 months or so, and many of the managers were really awful to work for. That was in early 2006, and there’s been zero changes since then. An experience can be really awful for one person, and it still can be great for the next person who takes it.

  8. Elle*

    No one is going to reveal organizational dysfunction intentionally in an interview. And non profit dysfunction is like the crack of dysfunction. It’s much, much worse.

    1. SMCR*

      True–while it is standard practice for an interviewer to ask a candidate, “What is your weakness?”, it is not considered standard for a candidate to ask the same of the organization–at least not so bluntly. One question I have asked in second (and third) interviews–and I am currently in job hunt mode, so I get to ask this question a lot–is “What would you change about Org XYZ if for one day you had the power to make anything different?” I sometimes get very candid revealing answers (perhaps in part because the other party doesn’t expect a job candidate to ask this question.) And if you have multiple interviews with different people and the same general answer (say, “board leadership”) emerges, you know that this is a real problem. Also, it is always good to ask, “What happened to the person who held this position previously?” Two real answers I received were “She left after two weeks” and “She had a nervous breakdown and had to leave.” And these were two *different* orgs! “Mishegas? Yeah, we got that!”

  9. Christa*

    Stable and non-profit are rarely in the same sentence in a positive light. Thank you for this question because I couldn’t stop laughing!

  10. Sam*

    I feel your frustration too. It’s a pity that many organizations are lead by folks who are either clueless, off site or simply rotten. Catching this thread late. But, glad you followed up with someone in “the know”. I like this line in the thread – “And non profit dysfunction is like the crack of dysfunction. It’s much, much worse” I whole heartedly agree. Best wishes.

  11. Emilyslrzn*

    So I have a question hopefully someone can answer asap! I got a call for a interview, but I’m in the process of debating whether I would take the job or not, but I don’t know what to politely say if I decide to decline the interview? (I haven’t called back yet, & I need to do it soon as the appropriate time frame is running out)
    Any words of declinement I can use? Thanks!

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