can this dysfunctional organization be saved?

A reader writes:

I recently took a job at a large nonprofit. The org does very good work on the ground, and helps a lot of people. I was hired as the fundraiser, and they were really looking for someone who could help shift organizational culture. (I have about 14 years of experience as a fundraising director, and I’ve done some successful culture-building in the past). There weren’t many red flags during the interview, everyone seemed very open and responsive and framed the organization (and their management style) in a very positive light.

I have only been in the role for about a month and a half, but the org’s challenges are so immense I am freaking out – because I cannot figure out where to start.

The CEO and the head financial guy are both from the government, and this was their first job after 20-30 years in state department/military. The culture is one of a huge, slow moving dinosaur. There is no management or basic accountability, because the CEO believes that “people working at this level should be able to handle their workload” and refuses to manage. Every task we try to do involves creating a half a dozen processes, work plans, and flow charts, but nothing really seems to get done. The CEO is a classic “wimp” example from your book – scared of confrontation, tries to make every decision collaboratively, and there is zero accountability. Everyone is super busy trying to manage their “workload” that is mostly extra bureaucracy… for example, the agency’s work plan has 59 objectives. Most of them should be basic responsibilities of team members, but because there is no trust between the Exec team and the rest of central office, they have created an independent “project management team” for each objective – which means we now have 59 concurrently running project management teams, 42 of which are supposed to be led by the CEO. There is no willingness to prioritize or make tough decisions. On my first day working with an HR clerk, I made the comment about a situation that would lead to being fired, and she gasped, looked at me like I had said something shocking, and said “we don’t ever fire people here!”

The other very obvious issue is that everyone is unhappy. In my many meet-and-greet one on ones with team members, all but two people spent half of the meeting bitching about each other, even when I tried to redirect the conversation. Every discussion of a challenge or core departmental function turns into “this is all Jane’s fault, because she won’t talk to us about our teapot production budgets” or other fingerpointing. When I met with the board chair over lunch, my first question was “tell my why you chose to get involved with Chocolate Teapots” and his response was “because they needed a consultant to fire that idiot in HR, which they never did. God he’s such a jerk…” For a bunch of people who claim to be really busy, the staff sure spends a lot of time complaining/talking about how busy they are/inventing meaningless work/talking about how smart and successful they are. The organization is deeply, fundamentally broken. When I asked a colleague why everyone blew sunshine up my rear during my interview questions, she said “because we were so desperate to get you to accept the position, you’re so smart and we need you so badly!” which… is not good.

But here I am. I am not sure where to start, but while I am here I should try. I need to build some stability on my resume, and the pay is terrific, so I don’t want to run away screaming just yet. I thought about sitting down with the CEO and very gently talking about how the basic management and accountability could change the org. I thought about asking him or the executive team to read your book – which I love, and refer to all the time – to help kick off the conversation. Maybe hiring a good consultant is a better option? Maybe there are other books or resources I should read about organizational development?

Any advice on what to do when the problem feels so overwhelming?


I would love to tell you that a conversation with the CEO — or even a series of conversations — could change this. Or that a consultant could. I would really like to tell you that my book could. But what you’re describing is an organization and leadership so fundamentally flawed that any changes you’re likely to get would be incremental and not change the core problems you’ve described.

You have 59 project management teams.

You have an HR person who gasped at the thought of a hypothetical firing.

You have a board chair who sees the problems but doesn’t bother to act.

You have a CEO who won’t manage.

The job you thought you were accepting was a mirage deliberately created by the people who you’re now supposed to trust as coworkers.

You can’t change this. You can only remove yourself from it.

I’m sorry — I know that’s not the answer you wanted to hear. But this kind of thing only gets fixed from the top, and the top isn’t interested in changing.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 177 comments… read them below }

  1. Stephanie*

    I feel like Alison needs an equivalent to Dan Savage’s DTMFA for untenable workplace situations like these. Something like Leave This Job Already (LTJA).

      1. Jen S. 2.0*


        I read somewhere that culture will always eat strategy. This place is a prime example.

    1. Meg Murry*

      Dear Wendy’s MOA (Move On Already) is applicable too.
      Although the answer Alison has already given before “Your employer sucks and isn’t going to change” probably says it best, even if it doesn’t make a good acronym – YESAIGTC just doesn’t roll off the tongue

        1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

          You should be in marketing. Or have your own daytime talk show.

          YES, GO!

          1. Adam*

            I think this works on another level too. I bet a lot of people who write Alison deep down already known what “the answer” to their question is and are more looking for validation and in cases like this reassurance that they’re not crazy and the the job sucks and the should get out.

            Letter Writer: Do I have permission to leave?
            Alison: YES, GO!

          2. Sara M*

            oooookay, maybe I change my answer to this one. Although I liked the prior choice too! This is clever.

  2. Lamington*

    we had a similar issue in a former job, a change management team was brought in to streamline the processes. Without leadership support, the change team was let go 1 year after and everything remained the same.

  3. Pearl*

    I’m just coming out the other end of a situation like this. It took me a couple of months to realise just how appalling things were, and then another six months to find a new job. I leave next month, and oh my goodness I’m relieved. I too was trying to build stability in my CV, and I wanted the ego boost of being the one to “fix” things, but I eventually had to accept that it just wasn’t going to happen, and the personal cost of staying in the situation was just too great. The last thing I’m trying to figure out is how honest to be in the exit interview I’m requesting with HR!

    1. Clever Name*

      Honestly, I wouldn’t bother with an exit interview, especially requesting one. It’s clear they have no desire to change. They didn’t want to change when you worked there and they’re not going to want to change after you’re gone. Such an interview would serve no purpose, and could possibly burn a bridge/have negative repercussions for you.

      1. Zuckerman's Famous Pig*


        The fact that YOU had to request the exit interview versus HR requesting that you have one really speaks volumes on how much they care what you think. Nothing good can come of this.

    2. Bend & Snap*

      I was SUPER candid in an exit interview about a former boss and I regret it. He’s been very clear he pretty much wants me dead.

      Look out for yourself…your testimony won’t help anyone else.

      1. GrumpyBoss*

        Yup. I watched an evil boss destroy the reputation of a former coworker after said coworker gave a less than flattering exit interview. So when my time came, I lied through my teeth. The problems were so obvious there, it would be naive to think that hearing about the problems from an exiting employee was the missing link.

        1. The Other Katie*

          I really regret being candid in my exit interview 2 years ago for the very reasons you mentioned. I burned a bridge that will have consequences if I ever need a reference from that job. Some places just don’t want to change, no matter how huge the issues are.

          1. Kelly O*

            Same thing happened to me. I was honest and a bit blunt in my exit interview with HR. Found out later the old boss went on the proverbial war path and no one since has had an exit interview.

        2. Anon Accountant*

          Yes. When I left a previous terrible job in my exit interview I told them the new job was an opportunity that fell into my lap and seemed like a great career move. Plus a few lines how much is miss the company and enjoyed my time there etc.

          1. GrumpyBoss*

            I didn’t trust myself going that route, even though that’s how I wanted to sell it. Instead, I chickened out and made up a sick family member I was moving to be closer to (my new job was a relocation). It was bad karma, sure, but I just didn’t think I could resist to say, “I had a new opportunity that is more inline with my career goals…. UNLIKE HERE!!!!!”

    3. Esra*

      I see a few people have had trouble with being honest in exit interviews. I was honest and solution-oriented in an exit interview a few years back, and it ended up turning into an opportunity later when I needed it.

      So I think you can be honest, but also be upbeat and offer potential solutions. As long as you seem positive, or at least neutral, you won’t come off as bitter etc.

    4. Pearl*

      Thanks for the advice, everyone. I think I’ll skip the exit interview, unless HR surprise me by requesting one!

  4. LBK*

    59 project management teams!? So…what the hell do most of the employees do all day? Do they even have responsibilities or roles? It doesn’t sound like anyone here works…

    I just threw up in my mouth a little reading this.

    1. Bill*

      OP Here – yeah… learning that there were 59 teams (on day 4 of my employment here) was the first major “aha” moment where I realized that these folks had absolutely no idea what they were doing.

  5. Anon Accountant*

    Wow. This situation is a huge clusterfudge. It doesn’t sound like it’s going to change without the board willing to make change or the CEO willing to manage. It sounds like you were deliberately mislead during the interview process to get you to accept.

    Sorry OP. Sending you a virtual hug.

  6. Ash (the other one!)*

    Sigh. My org is differently dysfunctional but similarly a disaster. And they wonder why they have high employee turnover…

    OP: Agree with Alison — cut your losses, as quickly as you can.

  7. Adam*

    This sounds like a nightmare. It must be a borderline miracle anything gets done. Short of strapping on a combat helmet staging a coup I have no idea what you can do in this place.

  8. Questioner*

    Had a friend hired at VP level whose job involved recommending and implementing changes that management claimed they wanted. They fired her when they didn’t like what they asked for.

    1. Clever Name*

      Ouch. What people say they want, and what they actually want, are sometimes actually 2 different things.

      1. ser4ph1m*

        Yup, husband got hired partially because he has a business degree and they wanted his input as they grew their small family business. Once he started suggesting things they weren’t comfortable with, they stopped trusting him and now he can’t say *anything* negative without worrying about them using it against him later.

        1. ser4ph1m*

          Example: “tell us if you’re having problems fitting everything in!”
          Hubs: “13 jobs in 3 cities really isn’t doable”
          Emp: “you’re just being lazy, we’re not *really* saying this but remember that your breaks and lunches are your responsibility to take *hint hint*”

    2. Not So NewReader*

      This. OP, part of the dysfunction is to shoot the messenger. In a twisted way that gives them all something they can agree on for once. They all finally agree that they hate the messenger.

      This is the adult work place version of nursery school. If you try to fix it you will end up holding everyone’s hand and walking them through the simplest of processes in order to keep the peace.

      All that complaining and backstabbing, they actually enjoy it and it is an integral part of their work day.

      Your message here is an important one because there are many work places out there like this.
      If anyone has any clues how to detect this type of dysfunction on an interview I am all ears.

      Just curious, Alison, if a company like this came to you for help what would you tell them? Would you even take on this mess?

      1. Ruffingit*

        In a twisted way that gives them all something they can agree on for once. They all finally agree that they hate the messenger.

        Nothing unites people like a common enemy.

      2. Gmac*

        Thank you you put into words something I had been thinking how to verbalise for a while..

    3. Janis*

      That’s me. Welcome to the world of process improvement — as long as it’s easy, doesn’t cost anything, doesn’t upset the applecart.

  9. Kelly O*

    Dysfunctional organizations that don’t seem to want to change are the worst (especially when they don’t see a problem with how things work.)

    I’m on the tail end of a year in one of them. I made myself a promise that I would stay a year to avoid the appearance of job-hopping, but that year is almost up and I am so grateful.

    Although a nonprofit almost feels worse. There should be a greater good in the goal, and that’s getting mixed up in all the bureaucracy and probably not allowing them to effectively serve the community (or whatever group they’re working with/for.)

    1. sunny-dee*

      That’s me. There was a reorg, and I took a new position in the company hoping I could help — and that the reorg would make it a better environment for me and I wouldn’t have to leave (I really love some of the people I work with). Well, new management is the same as the old management. I’m hoping to last through the end of the year and then move on. Especially if it goes like I think, and the change team crashes and burns.

  10. MR*

    I could have sworn the OP was talking about a non-profit that I worked for two years ago. Most things mirrored my experience and the only differences were where the two top people came from (completely different things, but that being said, who spends 20-30 years in the military and they turn out to be a wimp?).

    After a few months of being there, Alison’s advice to me was the exact same as she gave here. Nothing will change, and nothing I do will change that.

    At some point, the great pay won’t make it worth going. You will hate things. If there are people around you who are good/competent/self-aware as you are, they will leave before long. Much as you will. Much like I did.

    Start your job search today. If possible, maybe Alison can chime in with some phrases/ways as to how to diplomatically address why you are looking for a change so soon.

    An organization like this will not last. It’s best to not be around when it collapses.

    1. PJ*

      In the military, if you give an order, it’s followed without question. In civilian life, people push back. This can be scary for some folks, making them ineffective managers.

      1. Steve*

        Not in my experience. Orders in a tactical military environment are followed (you don’t want a helmsman on a ship saying – “right 15 degree rudder? No, I think it should be a 20 degree rudder instead, let’s discuss it. ” Oops Crash) however in the vast majority of operations the military works just as any large organization does. Lots of discussion and a wide variety of management types, although there does seem to be a lower (but not zero) concentration of wimps with jerks perhaps overrepresented.

  11. Joolsey woolsey*

    Alison, if you find yourself in this situation what, if anything, can you say to interviewers about why you’re leaving after such a short time?

      1. T*

        In that case, how would someone account for having left a previous position (assuming someone quit one job to accept this position)?

          1. Crazy Cat Lady*

            Same here! I was recruited for the new position, and was only at the last position for less than a year so I don’t want to appear like I’m a job hopper.

  12. Mallory*

    As I was reading this letter, I thought, “Wow, this sounds like the lead-in to an episode of Kitchen Nightmares, except for the fact that it isn’t a restaurant.”

    Too bad there isn’t a Gordon Ramsey for situations like this. Even on Kitchen Nightmares, though, none of the changes work until Gordon convinces the owners to get on board.

    1. MR*

      There was kinda-sorta a show like this on Fox a year or two ago called ‘Does Someone Have To Go.’ It was just as bad as you could imagine…

      1. Mallory*

        I saw that — I could not BELIEVE that those bosses were throwing their hands up and exposing their employees to that.

        Going on such a show is dysfunction of its own kind.

    2. Kay*

      Ooooh! I would totally watch a show where Alison went to dysfunctional businesses and whipped them into shape! :-D Can we campaign for this?

      1. BRR*

        That’s what I thought when I read it. I just read 40% of restaurants on Kitchen Nightmares have closed though.

        1. Stephanie*

          Not Amy’s Baking Company! Although I think that’s just staying in business because people want to see if it’s as bad as it really was portrayed.

          1. sunny-dee*

            I ran to Hulu just to see what that was about. I’m 20 minutes into the episode and … HOLY CRAP.

        2. Elizabeth*

          Considering about 50% of restaurants close within their first year of business, that isn’t a bad statistic, though.

      2. holly*

        “I would totally watch a show where Alison went to dysfunctional businesses and whipped them into shape! ” i’m not really a fan of reality tv or game shows, but i would watch the heck out of that.

      1. BRR*

        I believe it’s still in purgatory. It hasn’t been cancelled but it hasn’t been renewed. The ratings are higher than the shows that were cancelled but not as high as any of the housewives.

        1. StarHopper*

          Oh, I hope they get more episodes! Every time I come across a re-run, I get excited. Love Tabatha!

      2. Jen S. 2.0*

        I LOVE Tabatha Takes Over. I do wish they would stick with the formula, though. It got weird when they felt the need to “freshen” it so quickly and had her making over hotels and bars. (Unless there just aren’t a lot of failing salons left, and they needed to branch out?)

    3. Persephone Mulberry*

      All y’all who want to watch Alison Takes Over need to check out The Profit on CNBC (next season starts in Octover, but previous seasons are on Hulu).

  13. Joey*

    I’m of a little but different mind. My attitude and discussion with the CEO would be this “you brought me in to change the culture? Okay, now that I’m here I realize i won’t be very effective doing it as a fundraiser. If you’re serious about changing the culture I’m going to need the authority from you to change policies, hold people accountable, transition out people that aren’t a good fit, and to be able to make decisions that will result in some drastic changes without a lot of red tape. Is this something you can commit to?”

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You’re describing a COO or CEO role though, which isn’t what the OP’s job is. But even if they were willing to move the OP into that type of role, I don’t see those changes happening without the CEO on board with a massively different culture and style, which he’s shown no signs of embracing. People often say “I want to change the culture” when they really mean “I want to change the culture magically, without firing anyone or making changes I find uncomfortable or unpleasant.”

      1. Joey*

        Not necessarily CEO, but higher level absolutely. I agree I don’t see the CEO getting on board, but I absolutely think you should put his feet to the fire and tell him the tools you’ll need to do the job. Id much rather hear a reason for leaving that goes like this: “they brought me in to change the culture, there were lots of drastic changes that needed to be made, but they weren’t willing to give me the tools to change anything.” Otherwise the reason for leaving is “it was worse than they described and I didn’t believe i could change things.” Ones giving up ones up for the challenge.

      2. GrumpyBoss*

        And for these reasons, I’ve always viewed the phrases “we need a change agent” or “you’ll be changing the culture” to be red flags in an interview. It means the place is almost certainly a hot mess where change is needed. What’s impossible to ascertain in a short interview is how commited the CEO is going to be.

        1. Anon Accountant*

          Absolutely. In my opinion any of these phrases gives signals that there’s a huge mess the person hired will be walking into.

    2. A Jane*

      My fear is that the pushover CEO says “Of course, I can commit to this!” but then 10 minutes later, they’re back to old habits.

      1. Joey*

        That’s okay though “the CEO committed that I would be able to do x to make changes, but when push came to shove that wasn’t the case.” Still reflects well on you.

        1. Clinical Social Worker*

          Have you ever had to “magically cure” a toxic work environment? The commenters are disagreeing with you as most of them have experience with entrenched dysfunction, it seems like you haven’t yet had that experience?

          You can’t go above the CEO. The CEO will agree to make changes then when OP starts implementing them decide that’s not what they want, tie OP’s hands and then let her go.

          1. Joey*

            Absolutely. Obviously you don’t let it get to the point of being fired. But so much of it can be calibrated up front. For example with most drastic change comes hurt feelings and posturing. If that’s anticipated you prime the CEO for it up front. That way when it happens its an expected part of the change plan instead of an unexpected problem you’ve created. But I don’t think it will even get there. Personally I don’t think the CEO is prepared to give any sort of power to change anything. But then that’s a failure of the CEO , not of you.

          2. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I think Joey is pointing out that by making a good faith effort, when the CEO ultimately won’t budge you’re able to tell future interviewers “the CEO committed that I would be able to do x to make changes, but when push came to shove that wasn’t the case.”

  14. Anonathon*

    Holy wow. I have been there, but definitely not this bad. In my case, the organization had some great ideas/programs, but everyone from the top down willfully ignored the dire financial situation. This was years ago, and I’m fairly certain that the same problems continue. Maybe consider the next 1-2 months like a fact-finding mission, and then plan your escape if you don’t uncover any positive options? Much sympathy!

  15. orange roll*

    I’m curious how this scenario appears to future prospective companies, when an applicant just started his current job, say, 3 months ago and is already looking for something new. Is it a good justification to say the old company was dysfunctional and beyond repair, or does that just make the job seeker look flaky or like he’s seeking greener pastures?

    When a new job is clearly a bad fit, does it reflect better on you to move on immediately, or to try and stick around a year or so to “honor your commitment,” so to speak?

    1. Ash (the other one!)*

      The advice I’ve received is to never badmouth your current employer and to find another reason for the move. If nothing else “bad fit” works better than “they were dysfunctional.” It really is hard though because no matter what you do in a situation like this you do look somewhat flaky wanting to move so quickly.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        In this case, if you’re going to put the job on your resume at all, you’d need to be willing to talk about the fact that the job wasn’t what you thought it would be — there’s no other reason that makes leaving after so short a time sound reasonable (aside from moving, health problem, etc.).

        1. Jennifer*

          Yes, but how explicit are you allowed to get without “badmouthing the employer?” What would you say instead?

          1. the gold digger*

            There is also the, “I was unaware that the organization faced such difficult financial issues. My position was a new one and I was concerned that it might be cut in an effort to reduce costs.”

        2. Kelly O*

          This is how I plan to address my move after the year. It’s just not what I thought it would be, and after spending a year trying to make it work, I realized it was best to move on.

          Leaving out, naturally, all the promises of change that have not come and do not appear to be anywhere on the horizon.

    2. Joey*

      It’s certainly going to make a hiring manager skeptical if you’re throwing in the towel so soon. If your work history is otherwise stable and a reasonable person would quit you should be okay. Things like compromising safety or breaking the law are good reasons. But just not liking that things are slow and bureaucratic is going to leave some doubt.

    3. Anon Accountant*

      I’d venture to say after such a short amount of time leaving it off a resume but a job application can be a different story when they request a complete job history from the last 5 years for example. It can be very difficult to explain if someone left a job to take a position at a company that turns out to be very dysfunctional.

      Maybe a vague variation of “the actual job duties were entirely different from the position I was hired for”? But then I’d be concerned about follow-up questions about what was so different from what you were hired for.

      Maybe someone that has a lot of hiring experience can give advice on this.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        “I was hired as a fund raiser, but some how the job was actually about coordinating departments/people in decision making processes . I expected a job that included working with donors and other people external to the company. This is where my expertise/strength is.”

        Okay, that needs help. But I think the general drift is a good starting point.

    4. Mike B.*

      There’s really no graceful way to do this–employers are going to see a short stint, a gap between jobs, or both. If you leave before the next job is lined up, you’ll have the bonus problem of ineligibility for unemployment. I personally would not do it absent an extreme circumstance (eg, if the stress were so bad it affected my health).

      But the OP is relatively lucky; in this particular case I’d say that sticking around for a full year is absolutely the best option. An organization whose dysfunction manifests in screaming arguments and unmanageable workloads would be hell for a year, but a behemoth so inefficient that it can’t even fire low performers shouldn’t be. Carry out the duties of the job as they expect, check out mentally and physically at 5 every day, and move on once you’ve served for a respectable length of time.

      1. Seattle Writer Girl*

        I’m dealing with something similar myself, in that my small start-up is having issues with regular paychecks.

        For example, when I tried to cash my check at the bank they put a hold on it due to “fraudulent activity from the routing number” and I will have to wait at least 4 days for the funds to be released (this is especially painful as I am paid monthly).

        I’ve also had to respond to frantic emails/calls from my remote employees about paychecks that never arrived in the mail. My boss is responsive but seemingly unconcerned by this.

        I’ve only been here 2 months but am seriously considering taking the hit on my resume.

        1. Kara*

          I know it’s cool to pretend we don’t work for money (which is complete BS, but that’s a discussion for another time ) but I think most reasonable employers will accept “my paychecks didn’t clear” as a legitimate reason for departure.

  16. Ash (the other one!)*

    I asked a version of this during the Friday open thread, but think its relevant and pertinent to this discussion too. What responsibility should the OP have in warning others about the organization’s dysfunction (assuming he’s either about to leave or has left)?

    I wish there was a better way than say bitter Glassdoor reviews to actually find out how dysfunctional organizations are so more of us don’t end up in this situation, but it just seems that there’s no good way to do this.

    1. Anon Accountant*

      This may be controversial but I don’t think the OP has any responsibility to warn others about the organization. A Glassdoor review can help to guide others to determine if the culture would be a good fit or not. If I knew someone who was applying to the organization I’d probably talk to them about my experiences there.

      If someone contacted me on LinkedIn out of the blue that I didn’t know and wanted to discuss my experiences I’d be wary of saying something that would be taken as badmouthing the organization and reflect poorly on me. But I’m strange on things like that so take it with a grain of salt.

      1. Rayner*

        I don’t think she has a responsibility, per se, and I agree with you that people should do their research first.

        But I think if she felt she could share, maybe if a friend or someone in her network considered applying, it would reflect well on her for giving them a heads up of what they’d encounter.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I would feel responsible to people that are close to me. But, the people close to me would already know how I feel.

      I guess, I would not answer any unasked questions. If asked directly, I would probably indicate that I was only there for a short bit. Hopefully, people would draw their own conclusions.

      In short, I think that OP has no responsibility to warn others. It’s nice if he does, but not mandatory.
      OP will have plenty to do to get out himself out of the situation and move on with his own career and life.

    3. Joey*

      Its a personal decision. I don’t think people have the right to expect others to take the risk of “warning others” if they don’t want to unless they’re like beating their employees or something.

  17. MyNewName*

    OP, you are of course not responsible for creating the situation at the company, but I’m gently suggesting there may have been warning signs.

    I was hired as the fundraiser, and they were really looking for someone who could help shift organizational culture. . . There weren’t many red flags during the interview. . .

    Did they describe the position to you as needing someone to “shift organizational culture?” To me, that’s definitely a big red flag, although I’m sure they tried to paint a rosier picture for you. It’s like an online dating profile. . .if someone describes themself as a “mature gentleman” you better brace yourself for an 80 year old.

    1. Adam*

      This was something I wondered about. Are fundraising directors typically involved in setting company culture? I suppose it might depend on whether fund raising is for one facet of what the company does, like a foundation side to a big business, or the whole enchilada, which it sounds like was the case for the OP.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        No, it doesn’t typically fall to the role. I imagine it was presented as something like “We want to change the culture, and bringing in someone action-oriented like you will be PART of doing that” (versus “your job will be to change the culture”).

        1. Adam*

          Makes sense. Fundraising, to my limited knowledge, is all about “selling” the company’s mission and by extension its culture.

          1. Bill*

            OP here – The culture issues we primarily discussed – building a culture of philanthropy, changing the way we communicate both internally and externally, and streamlining work to help engage donors and volunteers in the work, help them witness the mission, and learning to ask for $$$ – are the main pieces of culture work that fundraisers need to do. In the interview conversations though, they explained how they were thinking about a reorganization, and they wanted fresh eyes and an outsiders perspectives on some issues that sounded reasonable – like, implementation of the agency strategic plan and how we communicate across departments to make sure grant budgets and program projections match up. I should have probed more deeply, because I didn’t understand the level of dysfunction re: culture.

            1. Student*

              This might be a way to survive your job until you find something else. Focus on the things that are clearly under your control only, and don’t get overwhelmed by thinking about the big-picture problems that are really out of your hands. I know that isn’t very satisfying in the long term.

              I don’t know squat about fundraising. So I suggest you take the fundraising-related culture problems, put them all on a whiteboard, and start sorting them. Throw issues that you don’t reasonably think you can change due to constraints from above in one bin (the garbage bin) and ignore them or mitigate them as much as possible. Of the issues you can control, look for ones that are “root” problems to address first that will have ripple effects on the other problems. Look for issues that will make the biggest fundraising impact. Start by tackling those kinds of things. Accept that you won’t get to make all the changes that are needed, but you can leave your little corner cleaner than you found it.

              1. Gail L*


                I was just thinking this. To preserve sanity while you look around, see if you can identify some smaller areas where you might accomplish something. Maybe areas where you don’t need anyone’s permission on how to act, or processes that you can take away because they are entirely within your domain and are useless. Focus on those so you have something concrete to work on, and potentially use on a resume if you list this job.

            2. BRR*

              Do donors know the culture and are they upset? I wonder if it might work to say that donors are really unhappy with how you operate and are becoming more resistant to giving.

        2. Jenny S.*

          Agreed. Fundraisers are there to fundraise. As part of a larger team committed to making pre-determined changes from company leadership (CEO/President, board of directors) he or she can help drive a company in new directions, but their main job is to support and sell the mission and the direction of the organization.

          I think the OP needs to jump ship on this one.

  18. C Average*

    It’s interesting to me that the org “does good work on the ground” despite all the organizational dysfunction.

    I’m wondering if there’s a cultural belief that it’s the on-the-ground work that really counts and that everything else is ancillary and will take care of itself (with a few sporadic outbursts of organizational effort by those who get frustrated with the status quo: the whole project management thing seems like a weird one-off effort to organize the unorganizable, akin to the hoarder who goes on a buying spree at the Container Store with the best intentions in the world but then doesn’t actually organize anything.)

    To really change, there would need to be a top-down recognition that organization and structure and administration isn’t just ancillary fluff; it’s key to enabling the continuation of the successful on-the-ground work.

      1. Natalie*

        Interesting, I volunteered for a DV shelter that had similar issues. It’s actually why I quit volunteering for them and will not donate to them, even though I believe they do pretty good work for their clients.

    1. grasshopper*

      I work in a similar non-profit. So many staff are willing to overlook the dysfunctions of the organization because they believe in the cause as their motivating factor.

  19. Dany*

    Ooof I’m getting flashbacks. You’re in a really tough spot. I’m so sorry :(

    I was in a nonprofit that had most of these problems and my mentor gave me the same tough but much-needed advice. It was good advice then and Allison’s advice is good now.

    I thought I could push through – since I also needed some stability in my career (and didn’t have the luxury of just quitting) after making a cross-country move to care for a terminally ill parent.

    One thing that really helped was taking on freelance work (I networked the hell out of conferences) where I could apply the innovation and creativity that I was good at (and hired for, but was wasted at the nonprofit I worked for full-time). I got some successes under my belt to boost my resume, and then got outta there as soon as I could.

    Best of luck out there.

  20. Jeanne*

    I’m so sorry. It sounds like you’re in a real mess. But maybe you could take a stab at changing things. Start making new rules and trying to streamline things. They’re so afraid of confrontation you might get away with it. Sounds like they won’t fire you. Don’t ask for permission. Just go for it.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The problem with this is that you can’t have rules without consequences, and this place isn’t going to impose consequences. There’s also the issue of people’s time being spent so horribly, and as a fundraiser, the OP isn’t in a position to change how time is spent in other departments.

      1. College Career Counselor*

        To that, I would also add that the person who is perceived to be bucking the culture may very well get disciplined/fired as a “bad fit,” particularly in one’s 90 day probationary period. (assuming they have something like this.)

      2. Jeanne*

        Well then the OP could just refuse to go along with it. If OP is called to one of these unproductive meetings, just don’t go. If they are this disfunctional, just don’t go along with it. If things suck this bad, why make the effort to go with their standards.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Well, it’s complicated by the fact that the OP is in fundraising. It’s very difficult to fundraise with any degree of integrity for an organization run like this one.

  21. Noelle*

    The CEO and the head financial guy are both from the government, and this was their first job after 20-30 years in state department/military. The culture is one of a huge, slow moving dinosaur.

    I am not at all surprised that some of the leaders of this organization are alums of the bureaucracy. As someone who works in government, this description is all too familiar. I see it in my own organization all the time, where we acknowledge that there’s a problem (such as lack of productivity), bring in a specialist to help us with the problem, but then refuse to follow the advice of the specialist we just paid to help us. I agree with Alison that there is only so much you can do in this situation. Bureaucracies are inefficient at almost everything except continuing the bureaucracy.

    1. Windchime*

      We had a guy that actually left after a couple of months at OldJob. He was brought in to be a Director-level person who was starting up a new team. He had previous experience and was a dynamic, smart guy but when he had the audacity to propose roles for the new team, he was shut down by Admin. “We don’t need an ‘idea guy’, we just need someone to do the work.”. He could see the handwriting on the wall; fortunately, he hadn’t yet sold his home and moved his family here from halfway across the country.

      They ended up hiring a guy who knew nothing. The project went about as well as one might expect.

      1. Noelle*

        Ugh, that sounds terrible. Please come in and run this new team, but by the way, you do not have permission to run this team.

    2. Joey*

      Its just a negative stereotype that gets used way too often. Yes there are bureaucratic inefficient employees in govt but to buy into the stereotype is misguided. There are plenty of incredibly effective anti bureaucratic folks in govt. And for the record a bureaucratic mindset isn’t limited to govt, look at the airlines, auto and every other field with large complex organizations. The larger an org is the harder it becomes to avoid bureaucracy.

      1. Gail L*

        Agree. I work for a small non-profit that desperately needed more bureaucracy when I joined. The year before, it took them 3 months to find scan copies of all the contracts they had during the year. After I joined, I put in place some processes for getting this paperwork shared and backed up. There were still hiccups, but it only took 3 days to get everything. The year after THAT everything was in place and it took 20 minutes, most of which was confirming that everything was there before emailing. Regular processes are really important to avoid mistakes and lost information. It gets a bad rep with huge organizations or when mistakes are made or when processes interfere with each other – but that’s just because anything can go bad given enough time and bad management.

      2. Noelle*

        Absolutely there are plenty of people within a bureaucracy who are incredibly talented and hard working. But that doesn’t mean the institution as a whole is working. In fact, sometimes I think it makes it worse because these people tend to leave because they get burnt out. It’s very hard to change the system.

      3. Natalie*

        Indeed. I work for a privately held company that is incredibly bureaucratic. It’s a wonder to behold when we end up having to work with a similarly bureaucratic client. The worst thus far have been the GSA (federal government) and telecoms (all of them).

  22. The Bookworm*

    On a related note, I currently volunteer for the small local office of a national non-profit. I learned there was a lot of turnover before I started volunteering. Since I started one person was hired & left (quit/fired – I don’t know) in a short amount of time.

    I’m not there often, but the culture appears to be ok. However I’ve wondered about the reason for so much turn over.

  23. Eric*

    I can’t understand how such dysfunction you describe can result in “The org does very good work on the ground, and helps a lot of people.”

  24. Artemesia*

    People who do Development well are hard to find so I would hope the OP might quickly land another post and perhaps kindly point out what needs done on the way out the door.

  25. Benji*

    I was at a very similar non-profit a year or so ago, and all I can do is echo the “run for the hills” comments. I took the job because it sounded like a great opportunity to lead on something I care about a great deal, and the organisation had (I thought) a great reputation. The job was a nightmare – so much churn it could have been a butter factory, project management processes that were either non-existent or reinvented at the beginning of every meeting, amazingly inappropriate things going on that HR didn’t do anything about, the works.

    I just about stumbled through a year, but I left with no job to go to, and by the end it had decimated my confidence and, unfortunately, my professionalism. I nearly didn’t get my current (much better) job because of the fall-out from some of this stuff. I wish I’d had the sense to leave much earlier, and take my pride with me, fully intact.

  26. Holly Short*

    This sounds very similar to my current organizations (a state government agency). They’re sending top management staff to leadership training where this training resulted in more control and additional process being implemented, rather than inciting cultural change where initiative taking and creativity can thrive. Top management staff give more orders (because they think they know better) rather than listening to the employees (who actually know the work) on how to make things better. Everywhere people seem to be on edge and feel unappreciated. Alison’s answer to OP’s question validated my effort to leave. I’ve purchased and read Alison’s book about interviewing to help me find suitable good new job (been getting interviews, I understand it’ll be very competitive job search). The book by David L. Marquet ‘Turn The Ship Around’ helped me understand how a good organization leadership should be.

  27. SubwayFan*

    If I were in your shoes, I would start looking, but I would also try and tackle at least one thing, like, say, getting rid of the HR guy that the board member hates. Put together a report saying why he needs to be fired and bring it to the CEO and a few other higher up staff and see what happens. Or just find someone who could be fired and go for it–I’d be very interesting in testing that “no firing people” rule. That way, you can at least be honing your dealing-with-bullshit skills while you find the exit.

  28. AndersonDarling*

    I worked for a dysfunctional family run business that sounds like this. They were contacted by a consulting firm for a free organizational consult. I’m guessing the owners thought that the consultants would tell them they are awesome and doing everything right (because that is what their yes-men said all day). When the results were presented, the consultants were run out of the building.

    When the executives don’t want to change, they think everything is perfect.

    Yeah, the OP needs to run away… or conform and get a fat paycheck while you pursue other projects on the side.

  29. Bill (OP)*

    Once I wrote my letter to Allison, and I read it through… I knew what her answer would be. Which makes me sad, because I was really looking for some stability and a place where I could dig in and so the really good-but-tough work of building a fundraising program from the ground up, over several years. That’s how this was sold to me. I like big picture challenges and organizational development, but… yeah. It’s beyond fixing.

    If anyone has some in-the-meantime strategies, however, I am down to hear them… because I won’t be able to move on until I have another gig lined up. Or at least some good stress-management techniques!

    1. LBK*

      I guess it doesn’t hurt to at least lay out some basics of what would be required to make change in the organization if there are any higher ups who seem even remotely interested in actually following through, but just don’t get your hopes up for it to take hold. At least you’ll feel better about having tried something, anything, even if nothing comes of it.

    2. Stephanie*

      Hmm, consulting or freelance work? Or perhaps get active in local professional organizations such that you could establish some leads there and meet colleagues outside your org who could vouch for you?

      1. ser4ph1m*

        I agree with Stephanie, invest in the rest of your life and create another outlet for what you thought you would get to do with this position.
        Another thought would be to find a good therapist just to talk through and possibly get some stress-management tools, toxic work-environments quickly affect every other area of our lives since we spend so much time there.

    3. Joey*

      Well the bright side is its hard to screw up anything and there should be tons of things that need fixing. Look for any low hanging fruit.

    4. RR*

      Is there a piece of more “stand-alone” type work/product/something? you could work on — maybe they won’t be able to implement, but you’ll have something to point to (and talk about as an achievement of sorts). Having been in a similar position, I’ve found that approach helpful in keeping my sanity.

    5. Gail L*

      I posted this elsewhere, but I think you should spend your time AT work with trying to find some areas where you think you can accomplish something. Doesn’t even have to be something big. Just things that are largely under your control and that you can do without getting permission from upstairs. What might work best is to try to build a good and functional relationship with a few coworkers, and try to discuss with them some goals you can work toward. Even one other person dispensing with negativity and working ON something is a tremendous relief. Isolation is your enemy here. At best, you might get some incremental improvement in the org. At worst you’ve got some good relationships that might prove useful in the future.

      My husband is currently working in a situation a bit like yours. The top is pretty dysfunctional and unlikely to change any time soon. He is in a good unit several layers down, and there are quite a lot of good people scattered in other units throughout the agency. Because his team is good, he’s been dealing okay and taking the smaller accomplishments as best he can – things like getting some good analysis done or getting something published, rather than the much larger goals he’d rather be a part of in a GOOD organization. He’s looking around, but it makes working there bearable to have the team and some modicum of accomplishment.

    6. Not So NewReader*

      Set boundaries. This can mean anything from listening to gossip/backstabbing to listening to other people’s dream of you being the savior of the company.

      “Oh that is too bad Bob was rude. Must be having a bad day. Whoops- my phone is ringing, talk to you later!

      “Gee, I see the problem you are having with that other department. But you know, I don’t have the authority to go there and tell them how to do their jobs. I would not be the one to talk to about that.”

    7. ChiTown Lurker*

      So you’ve been dropped in the middle of a minefield. Your goal is to escape unscathed (without being fired and with your sanity intact). My plan would look something like this:

      1) get my résumé back out there;
      2) talk with the CEO and determine the 2-3 things he most wants you to accomplish (he may or may not be able to articulate this – if not, use your personal judgement);
      3) level set with the CEO based on what you will really be able to accomplish based on the environment (small, manageable tasks are key);
      4) list your accomplishments (no matter how small or seemingly insignificant) somewhere for the sake of your résumé and your sanity;
      5) identify the sane, competent and productive individuals in the environment and network with them;
      6) write down the goals that you established above and put them some place visible to keep you on track and focused;
      7) create a personal reminder for yourself that states something like (“I go to work each day to support myself, provide decent work for decent pay, accomplish above stated goal and to escape unscathed.” Or whatever floats your boat.
      8) shift your mindset and see everything you do within the “how would I present this or talk about this with a potential employer;
      9) don’t let them suck you into the mission (it’s the equivalent of throwing yourself on a live grenade);
      10) treasure your personal time.

      I know that the steps above seem very basic. However, when you are in a toxic environment it is easy to become infected by the culture. Also, in bad environments simple things become difficult and you can forget and overlook accomplishments you need to include on your résumé. People escape from horrible, toxic environments all the time.

    8. Elizabeth*

      If it’s a large non-profit, are there colleagues in your professional network who have worked with (or close to) your organization in some capacity in the past, who might understand the dysfunction and help you get some new leads? It might help to tap people with that insider knowledge, who understand the toxic culture, so you don’t have to openly, universally condemn your current employer in front of potential new co-workers/employers. Even if it’s all true, it could be awkward and seen as unprofessional, so having someone in your corner who understands and can put in a good word for you could be a huge help.

  30. Mimmy*

    Yikes, this definitely sounds like a mess!! I have to say, though…I can definitely understand why the other employees painted a rosy picture so that they could get the OP on board–not quite the same thing, but I remember going through that with my college glee club. During my senior year, we were badly in need of more members, but we couldn’t figure out how to recruit people without warning them of our often-cranky Director, who frequently insulted members during rehearsals. (That was such an awful time :( )

    I’d be curious how to screen for truthfulness in what people tell you about a prospective employer as you’re interviewing / touring the facilities. While I would certainly expect everyone to “sell” the job to me, I’d also want it to be accurate as to potential downsides.

  31. Marmoset*

    On the subject of culture red flags in the interview, I treat it like dating profiles (as someone mentioned above) and assume they are sugar-coating issues whenever possible.

    I had an interview last year where they said two separate times how much they liked my communication style, and they really needed good communicators because you know, different teams have different objectives so they needed someone who could advocate for their team’s needs… Something about how they said it (twice!) my gut feeling was ‘that’s code for hostile relationships between teams, you will be fighting tooth and nail just to get your job done’.

    I turned down their offer so I guess I’ll never know for sure, but yeah, I try to keep in mind that A) they want the job to sound good and B) the truth has a way of weaseling out, but sometimes your gut picks up on it before you do.

    N.B. Point A may apply more or less depending on supply/demand for the role, the more excited an interviewer is about me, the more I ask myself what they could be glossing over.

    1. AB Normal*

      Yes. I think that if something is mentioned multiple times, you need to know how to read between the lines. In a previous job, what seemed to be my “dream job” turned out to be a nightmare that ended with the C-level executive I was hired to help being fired.

      In hindsight, two things should have been raised red flags during my interviews:

      – When I asked what role two interviewers (who I’d report to in a matrix organization) would play in the big program I was joining, they looked at each other uncomfortably, and said something very vague in response. Turns out both were totally out of their league for that program, and at some point most of their work was reassigned to me and others on the team, while they kept their big salary because they were friends with the C-level executive.

      – I was told repeatedly that they wanted me in particular among the various candidates for the job because I clearly had a track record dealing well with uncertainty and ambiguity. While that’s true, later I learned it meant “we have no idea what we are doing, so there will be lots of rework and changing back and forth between approaches until we find something that works”.

      I ended up switching to a different group within the company for a while before finding a better job. In total I was there for 18 months. Fortunately I was able to add some new skills to my background, but not without a lot of unnecessary stress.

  32. MLS*

    AaM, this is why you get so many letters from library employees–this is a perfect description of library management culture.

  33. LibNonymous*

    Especially the “the new guy will fix our broken culture for us while we simultaneously deny that it’s broken and thwart all of his efforts!” aspect.

  34. mdc*

    My thought is for those who (unlike the OP) don’t have an official mandate to try and “fix” things but find themselves trying to anyway.
    I have found myself doing this and have concluded that people from backgrounds where dysfunction was present can be easily drawn into this, taking it on as a personal responsibility and it is utterly pointless. No-one will thank you and the organisation will remain the same.

  35. Ruffingit*

    It’s ingrained from birth for many of us that we can do anything we set our minds to or that if we just try hard enough, we can achieve XYZ.

    Yeah…NO. There are some situations where it doesn’t matter how hard you try, they are simply so dysfunctional at the core that there’s nothing you can change, even with monumental effort. A rotten apple doesn’t become edible through your sheer will. Just move on. It’s really OK to do that. Quitting is not a dirty word. Knowing when to drop your end of the rope and move on will serve you will throughout life. So OP – drop your end of the rope. Seriously, just move on. It says nothing about you to quit here except that you know a rotten apple when you see one.

  36. TP*

    Oy, sounds similar to what I’m going through. Get out, now. Life is too short. I’ve been at my job for 11 months and just rebooted my search. I told myself I would commit to at least a year after realizing quickly how dysfunctional and toxic the dept. is. I actually wish I started sooner as things have only gotten worse and all signs point to a continued downward spiral. It’s just not worth it!

Comments are closed.