are nonprofits more dysfunctional?

A reader writes:

I’ve been reading Ask A Manager for a long time, and the advice I’ve seen on there has been extremely helpful to me. It seems to me that a large number of the questions you answer come from people who work at nonprofits. Honestly, after seeing all their questions it makes me wonder why anyone would work at one, but that’s not what I wanted to ask about. Have you ever done any data mining on your questions to see where they’re all coming from (i.e. non-profit, technical, business, government, etc)? If you have, would you mind sharing your insights?

I haven’t done any sort of official analysis, but I want to address the nonprofit thing, which is something that has come up in the comments a lot too: I don’t think that nonprofits are disproportionately represented in the letters here. It’s just that you notice “nonprofit” more because people tend to use that label, so we hear a lot of “I work for a nonprofit” whereas people rarely say “I work for a for-profit business.”

(And since 10% of Americans work for nonprofits, that’s a huge portion of potential letter-writers who will describe their work that way, whereas few of the others will use the “for-profit” label.)

I also want to push back on the idea that nonprofits are more dysfunctional. Based on the letters here, it’s small employers that are more likely to be dysfunctional, in any sector. (And nonprofits are more likely to be smaller.) Dysfunction is more likely to flourish when an organization is small; when a place is larger, (a) the impact of incompetence or craziness is usually far more contained, and (b) things tend to have more oversight and review.

So it’s size, not sector.

There are nonprofit organizations that are rigorous and well-run, and there are nonprofit organizations that are poorly run … just like in any other sector.

You want to due your due diligence on any potential employer, because horrible management can lurk anywhere. In fact, as a commenter pointed out recently, all of the “worst boss of the year” nominees in the last two years have been at for-profits (or at least weren’t noted as being at nonprofits).

{ 180 comments… read them below }

  1. INTP*

    Also, if nonprofits were disproportionately represented in the letters, that could be because Alison has a background in nonprofits and specifically attracts letter writers from the same industry. (Obviously the site is intended for all industries and there is great advice for any kind of work environment, but having a similar background can contribute to a writer resonating more with you and seeming like someone who is well-equipped to answer your question.)

    1. MsM*

      Also also, because a lot of nonprofits are too small to have formal HR departments, there are fewer places to turn if you’re having a conflict and need objective guidance.

    2. Kita*

      I was thinking something along these same lines. Some of the other workplace sites I read have a very business-oriented approach. Whether they’re talking about start ups or the owner of the company, a lot of their content isn’t as applicable. Ask a Manager really handles day-to-day subject matter that translates well whatever your workplace. Also, we get a lot of the small office kind of stories, which are much more relevant to me than articles that assume I work in a huge department.

  2. Snarkus Aurelius*

    And people who are happy at their jobs aren’t going to write in.

    Couple that with the concept of people saying “for profit” and that’s why things look the way they do around here.

  3. NickelandDime*

    There’s dysfunction everywhere, but I have to put in another vote for “small businesses.” All kinds of crazy things happen, and it usually starts from the top and trickles down.

        1. Felix*

          Agreed! I’ve worked at several small family businesses and IMO they are to be avoided at all costs. I have a list of crazy longer than my arm. There’s the one that went through 5+ managers in less than 2 years and accused each of them for fraud? The one I got fired from after the two week probationary because I used to much paper towel when drying my hands? The hotel that required the chamber maids to buy their own dish soap to hand wash the water glasses? The one where the manager promised paid training and then when it was complete demanded us refund him or loose our shifts….
          Thank god I landed into a different more corporate path, I’ll take beauracracy over the insanity of family businesses ANY day.

      1. AMT*

        Yeah, especially if the founder is still involved! So much ego and emotion can get tied up in a business. On the subject, does anyone else absolutely love Kitchen Nightmares? There are *so* many restaurants on that show that would function pretty well if the owners and their families were out of the picture.

        1. Dynamic Beige*

          OMG, I have been watching episodes of Bar Rescue recently. Each episode is an object lesson in poor management and head-up-assery. Amazing transformations of the bars, but I may never go out for a drink again.

        2. AMT*

          Actually, this reminds me of the crazy, tiny, scammy nonprofit that employed me for a week just out of college. They had started a few years prior as a cancer charity after the founder’s son died. It was run out of a basement in Brooklyn. They spent most of their funds on the director’s and his brother’s salaries and paid tens of thousands to shady for-profit fundraising companies. They have a Charity Navigator rating of 1 star and still apparently pay a six-figure salary to the founder/former president.

          1. Artemesia*

            I lived in a town where one of those ‘save the children’ type organizations was exposed as being primarily a vehicle for providing 6 figure incomes for the founder, his wife, his children and their spouses. Very little went to ‘children’.

            1. RR*

              Although I don’t doubt this is true, I do feel compelled to point out that Save the Children is actually a generally well-regarded organization. They also post their financial info (including senior exec’s pay) on their public website. So this other organization would not be a “save the children type organization”

              1. Merry and Bright*

                It’s true about Save The Children. But I think Artemesia just meant that this other outfit was pretending to provide aid for children in the developing word while the founder was lining his pockets instead. Genuine charities like Save The Children provide the aid for real.

        3. Ezri*

          I actually haven’t been able to watch Kitchen Nightmares since that one family business where the parents took their son’s inheritance (from a grandparent, I think) without asking him, to fund the restaurant. That episode had so much drama it scared me off the show.

          1. Nerdling*

            From his grandfather. Without his knowledge or permission. I about lost my mind watching that one because I basically sat there going, “You just admitted to stealing thousands of dollars from your only child on national television AND don’t think you should have to apologize for it!” It was appalling.

            Most of the time they aren’t that bad when it comes to fiscal malfeasance. That place just took the cake.

            1. Artemesia*

              A guy I dated in my 20s had been seriously injured in a farming accident as a boy and still has quite a bit of damage to his arm which prevented him from pursuing his original career choice. He had been granted a settlement that should have paid for his college education but his father decided to ‘invest it’ in buying a boxing bar — this is back when TV was first beginning to destroy most small entertainment venues. This bar had ‘always been profitable’ but never was after his Dad bought it and all the money was gone when he needed it for college. Worse even than an inheritance lost — this guy paid for it with his blood and the use of his arm and it was still stolen by his parent.

              1. Panda Bandit*

                Yes, and also if you take out credit cards or loans in a family member’s name.

              2. The Strand*

                Not to mention a civil suit.

                Unfortunately the type of parents who will steal from their own children have usually brainwashed the kids to feel guilt over rectifying the parents’ crime. These kids would feel guilty about splitting from the family to get what’s theirs, despite the unbelievable breach of trust. People think that Gary Coleman was nuts for suing his parents, but they, like many stage parents before him, looted his accounts.

                Perhaps if a lawyer could weigh in on any protective mechanisms for kids who aren’t in show business?

                1. Observer*

                  I’m not a lawyer, but I do know that, at least in NY, a parent cannot do whatever they want with money granted to a minor child in a settlement. The court oversees the choice of disposition, and they tend to be VERY conservative. Think FDIC insured CDs or government bond funds level conservative. Invest in a sports bar or any type of eatery? Not a chance!

                  I don’t know what would happen if a parent tried to move the money later, but I think the setup is such the parent would be pushed back into court to get permission.

            2. Minister of Snark*

              That owner was a gumbo of personality disorders. Not only did he not seem to have any problem admitting that he stole from his son, but then denied his son any say in the business, constantly gaslighted him, and then made him feel like an unloving, horrible son for questioning his insanely awful business decisions.

              1. The Strand*

                Hasn’t seen the episode, but when I hear that a parent has stolen from their children, I tend to think of sociopathic or narcissistic personalities. Gaslighting is a common MO.

        4. phillist*

          I know I’m late to the party, but I just have to say: if we’re going to pinpoint *any* one industry that is disproportionately dysfunctional, it’s restaurants. They flout labor laws like it’s no big deal (lunch breaks? Overtime? Hahahahahaha!) and I could not name a single restaurant manager I have ever known that could tell you what EEOC means. The things that are considered perfectly normal for restaurants would never, ever fly in the rest of the working world.

          Of course there are restaurants that are fully above-board, functional workplaces but they’re the exception, not the rule in my experience. I went from restaurants to hospitals to non-profits, and I feel like I can say (with only the slightest hyperbole) that the most dysfunctional nonprofit on the planet has nothing on your averagely dysfunctional restaurant.

      2. MaryMary*

        I think the biggest problems come from organizations who consider their employees “family,” which includes family businesses but also organizations with a strong mission/set of values, like a non-profit. Your coworkers are not your family, and everyone would be better off with stronger boundaries.

        1. Jaydee*

          I think that, again, it can vary. There are functional families and dysfunctional families. So a business that treats its employees “like family” by providing excellent benefits and flexibility and being genuinely happy about their personal accomplishments/concerned about their personal struggles is great. A business that treats its employees “like family” by playing favorites and refusing to talk to each other and having tons of drama and getting all up in everyone’s business is not great.

        2. Avocado*

          “That guy is turning this place into some kind of business.
          “This isn’t a business. I’ve always thought of it more as a source of cheap labor, like a family.”

  4. Not dysfunctional*

    Hi, I’m the LW who wrote in January and then updated in May about my situation–had an impending job offer but didn’t know what to do because I was undergoing tests for cancer, etc. As you can see from my follow-up, both my current employer and the prospective new employer were awesome. Both are nonprofits. To Allison’s point, both are relatively large organizations, both are well-established and highly respected in the field, and are professionally run (though much of the leadership at my current org has activist roots, which I really love). I think it’s a mistake to judge simply on whether an organization is nonprofit or for-profit. You have to look at the particulars of the organization/company itself. There are a lot of nonprofits I’d run screaming from–or wouldn’t even consider because they couldn’t come close to matching the excellent benefits I currently get. But the same goes for for-profit companies (and I’ve personally experienced/heard about a whole lot of corporate dysfunction).

  5. TCO*

    Thanks for addressing this–it drives me crazy to see this stereotype persist. I’ve worked at several nonprofits, and none have been shockingly dysfunctional. Most have been excellently run. Many of my friends also work in nonprofits, and their workplaces are just as normal as for-profits. There might be some cultural differences, but nothing inherently dysfunctional.

    I do think that AAM draws a lot of nonprofit readers–her expertise with nonprofits is one of the things that’s kept me here, in fact. It can be tough to find career and workplace advice from people who understand those cultural differences and can tailor their advice as necessary. Even my college career center was hopelessly out-of-touch with how the nonprofit sector worked.

    1. JenGray*

      I agree. My last job was at a nonprofit and I was there for 5 years before that I worked for two years at a different nonprofit. The reasons that I left could have occurred at any job and had to do with a new supervisor that I got. I also think that there are a lot of stereotypes out there about nonprofits (& the people that work there) but I have found almost none of them to be true. I enjoyed my work at my last job- I tried to get a different job at my last job to get away from the bad supervisor but it didn’t happen so I got a different job elsewhere.

  6. Ann O'Nemity*

    I don’t think nonprofits are more dysfunctional than for-profits are, especially if you take size into account. But I do think there are some specific types of dysfunction that are more common in nonprofits (just like there are other dysfunctions more common in for-profits, family-owned businesses, certain industries, etc).

  7. grasshopper*

    I think that many non profit staff can have a more emotional connection to their work because they believe in the cause they are working for. There is good management and bad management everywhere, but non profit staff might complain about it more because they expect that everyone should be working towards the same cause. Self-identity is also much more tied to the cause. For example at a party if someone asks what you do, you might say that I help cure Chocolate Teapot disease rather than just saying that you work in admin or IT, etc. Doesn’t make it any better or worse than for profit; just a bit more kool-aid in the drinking water.

    1. shirley*

      The emotional aspect is what has made non-profits seem more dysfunctional in my experience, though of course I’m sure this is not universal. For instance, if people brought up HR or finance issues, including wanting to pay people more or rely on less volunteer labor, people would get “personally hurt and offended” and imply you were stealing money directly out of orphans’ hands by even asking.

    2. Olive Hornby*

      I agree with your point about emotional investment, but I don’t think that problem is limited to nonprofits, either. It’s definitely a problem in creative industries, and think of all the insane letters Alison gets from people getting fired from startups for lacking passion (i.e. not wanting to work eighty hour weeks under unreasonable working conditions!)

      1. BeenThere*

        It’s the same in the fortune 500 companyied, they want us to have passion which I’ve decoded to mean available at all hours even if you are in a 24×7 support function. Now they want us to be healthy while feeding us bacon once a week and really bad snacks daily, this has been decoded to mean if we feed you crap food then you’ll fail the biometrics and you can pay for our previously free medical insurance.

    3. Intern Wrangler*

      I agree with this. And I think non profits are more vulnerable to mirroring the issues of the clients they serve: crisis organizations being bad at planning; youth organizations that are distrustful of outsiders or newcomers, etc. I think that employees sometimes feel that they are getting compensated less than other sectors and they are doing the work for the right reasons, so they shouldn’t be questioned about their work. However, all of these issues can be mitigated by good leadership. I’ve worked for some of the best people in my non profit jobs. And I’ve had intangible benefits you would not find in other sectors.

    4. sam*

      My dad is long-time friends with Bill Shore, who founded Share Our Strength, and who consults non-profits on how to run more effectively *as businesses*. He’s written a few books on the subject (The Cathedral Within; The Light of Conscience). His general view (and I’m generalizing greatly) is that non-profits are still corporations, and need to be run as such. They’re not generating profits for shareholders, but they still need to be run as efficient and effective organizations, and to a significant degree, many non-profits are run by people who, while deeply and passionately committed to the mission of the organization (which is great!), don’t have the completely separate skill set need to actually *run a business*.

      The best organizations recognize this and essentially separate the “mission” arm from the “business” arm. They also recognize that attracting talented and competent people requires paying people a competitive salary. Many people are certainly willing to take a pay cut to work for a non-profit with a worthwhile mission, but peoples’ jobs themselves should not be considered “charity” to the organization.

      I think much of the dysfunction specific to non-profits, and in particular the small non-profits that pop up here, is precisely dysfunction related to the fact that people expect “employees” to function as de facto “volunteers”, and that the wrong people have ended up in management roles.

      I say this as someone who came from a completely different, yet entirely similar dysfunctional environment…law firms, by law, can only be owned/managed by lawyers. Let me say right now that 99% of lawyers, no matter how fantastic they are at being lawyers, have no business trying to actually run or manage a business.

  8. Amber Rose*

    That said, it does seem to me that people complaining about non-profits have very similar complaints, usually related to sketchy wages and payments and fanatical bosses.

    1. Kita*

      I’ve written questions to Alison a few times, and I don’t think I’ve ever (or rarely) identified as working at a non-profit because it wasn’t relevant to the question. It’s more about “how do I handle co-worker X” or “I’m confused how to navigate interdepartmental problem Y”.

  9. NJ Anon*

    I am working at my second non profit. Culture is a huge difference in my book. But agree, non-profit, for-profit, either can be great or suck.

  10. sjw*

    I think it depends on the nature of the services provided by the non-profit. I worked for 10 years for a non-profit that provided services to abandoned/abused/neglected kids. 90% of our staff were folks who majored in a clinical service area such as social work, psychology, etc. Some of my observations about my time there:
    1. Most of our managers were social workers/clinicians by training. Social workers make terrible managers. Instead of addressing an employee’s behavior, they wanted to make them feel emotionally safe. (sort of kidding)
    2. Many, many of the employees I worked with had a big ol’ whopping case of their own bad-childhood baggage. In fact, I came to believe that their experiences drove them into that profession.
    3. We were truly a charity, with limited funds and very low pay. Yet, for regulatory reasons, staff were required to have bachelor’s and even advanced degrees. So we kind of got what we paid for.

    I saw so much dysfunction there, but I also saw tremendous compassion and committment. And the organization did really good things. But, I do think many things about non-profits can lend themselves to some quirky workplace stories. And some downright crazy ones. I should write a book.

    1. HRManagerNW*

      Heh, I had to learn to clarify the type of safety I was referring to when I started working with social workers.

    2. Tobias Funke, Analrapist*

      I’m a social worker and I’ve found the opposite regarding the management abilities of other social workers. They’re raging lunatics who use their clinical knowledge to gaslight you to death. I would love a benignly bad manager!

  11. Tim*

    It’s interesting to me that AAM’s impression is that the worst offenders in workplace dysfunction more closely correlate with small size than any other structural indicator; my impression has always been that larger organizations are least navigable because more likely to be swallowed by bureaucracy. It’s easier to speak to a person actually empowered to address concerns at a smaller organization — elsewhere the answer may be a finger pointed to a policy manual. Think “Too Big to Fail” kind of stuff.

    True, smaller businesses may be practically constrained in some instances by lack of resources, but larger businesses seem to conveniently act as if they are too, leveling the “what if everyone … in the aggregate” excuse (despite that a hypothetical request is not being made on behalf of everyone but on behalf of one employee). Some seem to treat their employees as indistinguishable payroll IDs rather than actual individuals with potentially differing priorities or areas of interest in flexibility/accommodation.

    That said, I opine abstractly, and have no idea how representative my one data point’s worth of experience is or isn’t. AAM certainly has had plenty more opportunities to see what others report when seeking advice.

    Perhaps the lesson is just variance across the board heavily influenced by particular bosses regardless of the companies they work for more generally?

    1. CaliCali*

      I’ve worked in three different industries at four different jobs, ranging from 100K+ employees to 30 employees. I think part of the issue is that in larger businesses, you have a much larger resource pool in terms of answering your questions — whether it’s processes that have to be documented per that bureaucracy, or just a LOT of other people in your boat who have been there, done that, and can answer the kinds of questions that Alison gets. At a 30-person company, you’re more likely to be the only person in your role (or on a very small team), without a lot of documented structure, and so you need to look externally to find your answers.

      1. Kelly L.*

        And if you have a horrible boss, they might someday get fired, or at least you can get transferred to a different department where you don’t work with them. A lot of times at a small company, the horrible boss is somebody’s uncle/sister/college roommate and no one will ever make them accountable, nor will you ever be able to get away without leaving the whole company.

        1. Artemesia*

          This. I have a close relative who basically watched a very promising startup with high initial success be pissed away by an inept CEO Founder who couldn’t build business when opportunities presented themselves and a COO who was a vicious bully and incredibly incompetent at getting the job done. With better leadership the place would have been a shining success. The terrible COO was the college buddy of the founder so even when it was obvious to everyone that keeping him was the end of the business he stayed on and in the way of success.

          1. Editor*

            Yes on the founder being the horrible boss. A couple of my family members worked at small businesses that were family run and very disfunctional. The three worst were run by people who had either invented something to meet a niche need or met a niche service area when they were just out of college. Because of the unique product/service, the business continued to grow despite terrible management style that included tantrums in the office and sometimes downright awful customer service. Because they had never had much outside work experience and the money kept coming in, they never experienced a reality check at work.

      2. Tyrannosaurus Regina*

        …and in a larger organization there’s a better chance that something like “90% of the staff are illegally classified as salaried/exempt when they should be hourly/nonexempt” will get caught…instead of merrily chugging along for ~six years until a board member who HAPPENS to be a human resources professional HAPPENS to review the relevant documents and lets management know that, um, actually…we need to reclassify, like, everyone. Now. (This was a nonprofit with less than twenty employees.)

        (They laid me off, but as far as I know they’re still illegally allowing employees to work for free and log their hours as “volunteer time” during lean times.)

        But yeah, although I know there are perfectly functional businesses of every size, for- and nonprofit, I personally have vowed not to work for any place that isn’t big enough to have a real H.R. department.

        1. Anonym*

          You may never come back and see this, Tyrannosaurus, but your vow has found a new home in me. Thanks for that wisdom!

    2. Colette*

      In my experience, it’s harder to get to a decision maker in a large company – you may have to talk to multiple people who have to talk to other people before they can say yes or no. In a small company, it’s easy to talk to the decision maker, but the decision they make is more likely to be based on personal preferences.

      1. Sunflower*

        Adding onto that, sometimes the decision maker is not qualified to be making those decisions. We have 30 employees and small business don’t tend to have HR depts (our HR is the accounts payable coordinator and she literally just gives and processes forms, you would never go to her with an actual workplace problem). People laugh when I tell them I’m an event planner and one of my bosses is the Director of Accounting. Our roles are just so incredibly different it can be very hard for us to see eye-to-eye on things.

        1. some1*

          I worked at a small company where the HR Dept was 2 people, the director and a payroll clerk. I didn’t feel comfortable going to the director with ANY concerns because of her personality.

        2. Kita*

          Sunflower, you too! The position for my supervisor was vacant and I got tasked with planning the event. Guess who de facto supervised that part of my role? That’s right, the accountant!

    3. Ad Astra*

      Bureaucracy can definitely be a headache, but in my experience (for what that’s worth) it beats the heck out of situations where one person is doing three different jobs (usually quite poorly), or there’s no oversight to anything, or all your IT and HR help are outsourced to another city.

      Bosses are going to make a huge difference in the functionality (or dysfunctionality) of any workplace, but it seems like bad bosses are far more likely to go unchecked in larger workplaces.

    4. fposte*

      Another possibility is that there’s a sweet spot–a size that is big enough for people to have to know what they’re doing to succeed and to be subject to employment laws, but not so big you can’t take authority for something. 50-500, maybe?

      1. Tim*

        I could buy the “sweet spot” position. Collete’s comment above pretty fairly states the benefit-drawback balance to size of company, and Creag an Tuire echoes the good point that small enough companies can end run around some labor laws.

        To clarify my own point though (re: replies here generally, not really just fposte), it’s not that I don’t get that craziness somewhere small can be problematic because there’s less internal avenues to a remedy. Rather, I question the assumption that craziness at a large organization is therefore inherently less likely or less awful as opposed to even more structurally entrenched via the Peter Principle, say like the additional “oversight” the consultants in Office Space offered. Thus, I’m surprised the prevailing view seems to be that larger companies generally are in fact better.

      2. Stranger than fiction*

        Yep, all but one company I’ve worked for have been around 50-100 and they all had an HR manager and decent benefits. The downside is not a lot of upward growth potential, there’s usually one manager in each dept and unleas they leave or die, there’s no chance of promotion, thus why a management title has always eluded me. But overall it seems to be where I fit in because this size company hires me over and over and large corporations never seem to respond to my resume (probably in part because i dont have a bachelors)

      3. MaryMary*

        I’d prefer organizations with more than 50 employees, closer to 100 or even 150. Under 100 employees, the “HR” person is often payroll/HR , admin/HR or someone else who is not an HR professional but magically inherited HR responsibilities. Some of these folks step up and become really good, but even those with the best of intentions tend to make mistakes with things like FMLA, COBRA, and HIPAA, or don’t have the time, expertise, or political capital to do things like create job descriptions or develop performance evaluations/performance management.

    5. Creag an Tuire*

      I think it’s that there are fewer checks on truly outrageous behavior in small companies — many of the worst stories we see on AAM are coupled with “we’re too small for an HR Department/HR is the owner’s wife”, not to mention that in the U.S, businesses with less than 50 employees are exempt from a lot of labor laws we take for granted because mumble mumble backbone of the economy mumble.

    6. Stranger than fiction*

      I’ve always thought this too, just the sheer volume of management layers you’d have to go through to get something to change can be daunting. But I’m saying that from my one time working for a giant corp and I left after 6 months because the pay was barely market rate.

  12. Ygritte*

    I think another issue may be that there’s a tendency for people running a nonprofit to be passionate about what they’re doing, and probably not as passionate about HR or business or management. The world’s pre-eminent teapot restoration advocate is probably not spending a lot of time reading up on HR.

    1. Three Thousand*

      “Well, I was in the Seminary for a year and dropped out ’cause I wanted to have sex with this girl, Cathy. Followed her to Scranton. Took the first job I could find in H.R. Later she divorced me. So no, I wouldn’t say I have a passion for H.R.”

  13. anon for this*

    I think there is potential for more dysfunctional in the non profit world in specific circumstances because there are dynamics in non profits that don’t necessarily exist in the for profit world:
    * Money has to be spent directly on the mission, little should be spent on overhead. Antiquated systems and processes exist. The nonprofits would be so much more efficient and save more money but there is an initial outlay and their hands are tied because of grant funding, donor mandates, etc.
    * People do things “for the mission.” A lot of actions and inefficiencies are excused in the name of the mission. People are retained for their love of the mission and not their competency. People are paid WAY less to sacrifice for the mission and I think this can really hurt our economy. Nonprofits traditionally pay lower wages and some people even take pride in the non profit wages because it is a sacrifice they are making on a personal level for something they feel strongly for… but some agencies have taken advantage.
    For example: our state government funds several mental health nonprofits instead of hiring professionals to treat patients in the state mental hospital. These mental health non profits pay PhD level psychiatrist very substandard wages ($12-$15 a hour). If the government actually hired these people directly, they would actually have to pay them a livable wage and these workers would be unionized, all in the name of providing mental health services as a nonprofit. The state also removes any responsibility / liability for providing for the care of these individuals. This would be okay if people choose to work in the nonprofit but the state and now private insurances are seeing that using non profits are cutting costs and are exclusively using these nonprofits. All this to say that there is a lot of stuff that people are willing to excuse or look past because there is a mission.

    1. AndersonDarling*

      I’ve actually had a different experience. I think the factors you mentioned depend if there is a steady revenue stream or if the non-profit is depending on donations and grants to stay open.
      My non-profit generates it’s own revenue, like a hospital or university, so we have the financial backing to pay market rates and have top of the line equipment. Excess funds are returned into the community we serve in the form of projects and grants.

      1. Anonsie*

        My non-profit generates it’s own revenue, like a hospital or university, so we have the financial backing to pay market rates and have top of the line equipment.

        I would definitely contest the idea that either of those* tend to pay market rates for a lot of things. For work that’s only hospital-based, I guess there’s no comparison; for work where you could be in a hospital or at, say, a drug or device company, you better believe they’ll pay you better than the medical center will. Not always, but generally.

        *even with universities I’m thinking of medicine, since they tend to have their hands in that pie

    2. Anonsie*

      Re: The money thing, even when your nonprofit has a solid funding source, there is often the specter of “you’re taking money away from the mission” anyway.

      1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

        I had a phone screen with a non-profit that used this as an excuse for their ridiculously low salaries.

            1. Anonsie*

              I worked at one place that brought it up every time you needed anything. We’d be like, “can we get some more foam core to mount the rest of these name cards?” and it would suddenly be all “oh my god no we can’t get any more foam core, you know, I buy these supplies out of my own meager salary, don’t you know we can’t afford all these things, blah blah…”

              And you’d just be sitting there like, ok, well, do you want this job done or not then? What’s your solution, have half the people with name cards and half without?

        1. MaryMary*

          And I’ve heard (wealthy) people complain about how much the staff makes at non-profits they donate to. “The new president of Non-Profit Teapots makes almost as much as I do! I don’t donate to pay for a golden parachute.” Uh, yeah, the President does what the CEO of your company does, and you are a VP.

          1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

            ^ This drives me absolutely *batty*

            I feel like this is an uphill battle with some friends/family (or at least I’m always responding to snarky facebook posts). I’m like, if any business out there ran on 20% or less administration costs, they would be heralded for their margins. But at non-profits it’s like, “well, I would donate, but you know, they spent money to replace their dying printer this year.”

            1. Anonsie*

              People are insane about it. I worked with this tiny nonprofit that had an office in an extremely expensive neighborhood and apparently they were considering moving out to the suburbs because it was a frequent complaint of donors and volunteers that they had such a fancy, obviously expensive office and they thought it was hurting their credibility.

              The thing is, though, that the building owner “donated” the space (extremely reduced rent) to them, so it wouldn’t actually save any money to move elsewhere. They had a plaque on the door explaining that the office was available due to the generosity of suchandsuch landlord but apparently that hadn’t done enough to quell complaints.

              1. BeenThere*

                Oh wow, that so sad. Here’s the thing, even if they were paying the full rent you would think being closer to a potential high value donor pool could be justified. I’m just imagine the opposite scenario where they can’t get any wealthy donors because they don’t want to visit the office in the poor suburb.

    3. I'm a Little Teapot*

      Wow, how your state pays mental health professionals is really awful. No wonder there’s a huge shortage of them in so many places – who’d want to get a doctorate, work a really stressful and demanding job, and be paid crap? And that ends up having a terrible effect on people who need services – they aren’t available. :-(

  14. Richard*

    For what it’s worth, I’d say that just about every company is dysfunctional, just in different ways.

    Small companies have no HR department, often have family involved. It’s harder to transfer and stay within the company, so people often stay in a bad position as long as they can get away with it. They often have no systematic training for managers, leaving people to learn on the job.

    Big companies may have a faceless HR department, with re-orgs randomly shuffling people together who never would have hired each other. Incompetent employees are transferred, because it’s easier than firing them, and end up all over the place. They often have training for managers, but won’t give you time to take it. If you do take it, it’s filled with bored people, including the instructor, who mumbles as he reads off a set of powerpoint slides – or, these days, it’s online, and involves looking at a set of briefs.

    For profit companies may do things purely based on what they think will bring profit (possibly based on inadequate reasoning or the good ideas of someone who doesn’t know what he’s talking about), at the expense of their people.

    Not-for-profit companies may do things purely based on what they think will accomplish a lofty goal (possibly based on inadequate reasoning or the good ideas of someone who doesn’t know what he’s talking about), at the expense of their people.

    People are human.

    1. Leah S*

      I was just going to say this, but you said it much better! Each can definitely be disfunctional in their own ways.

      Also as far as small/small family owned businesses are concerned, I think a lack of HR makes a big difference. Or maybe just a lack of knowledge regarding what is legal and what is not. I’m sure there are many small businesses owners that are informed, but so many are not, esp. in stores, restaurants, etc.

      Withholding paychecks, illegal deductions, forcing employees to work of the clock, disability discrimination (in business large enough for the ADA to be enforced)… These things happen in both large and small business, but there’s nobody saying “You can’t do that!” or ensuring compliance in the super small places.

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        You’d think they’d have to take a course in this stuff to get a business license but I guess not

    2. fposte*

      A friend of mine, who’s done extensive consulting to organizations and social services, talks about the concept of “fault lines”–that there’s usually a specific vulnerability within a group that’s where the problems happen. I think that certain kinds of fault lines may be likelier in nonprofits than in for-profits (and vice versa), but I don’t think the overall problem likelihood is higher.

      1. Editor*

        I was talking to someone today who was complaining that their national corporation isn’t planning for and funding properly one of the departments in the trenches that her department depends on. The thing is, all the people at the bottom are aware of this, as are their supervisors, but budgets are set two or three levels up and are targets from management above rather than need-based assessments from below that are analyzed in regard to targets. So there are problems meeting key service needs within the company because the budgeting process is flawed. It’s not totally illogical to set spending limits for budgets, but it is poor management to set spending targets without actually knowing who needs what and why.

        In the small organizations I’ve been in, such budgeting problems don’t occur unless there’s just not enough money or management is pigheaded. But often everyone is in everyone else’s business in other unhealthy ways.

  15. LQ*

    I would love to see a poll about your readership at least, how many people work at for/non-profit or even some other categories that come up, small/med/large companies, or start-ups/family run.

    That said? Thank you so much for addressing this. It always makes me a little sad when some readers lash out about how they’d never work for a nonprofit etc.

    Though I do agree with Ann above that some complaints are specific to some industries. While there are some for-profit businesses who think that because you care about the work you need to put in extra time, that kind of guilt tripping issue is usually non-profit. (Or some specific sectors of the for-profit world like the game or graphics industries.)

    1. Kita*

      Agreed. It’s harder to guilt trip your employees in a small business. “I can’t give you a raise! That’s taking money away from myself!”

      1. MinB*

        Oh, no, not at all. I’m making $13 an hour with basically no benefits at a teeny tiny nonprofit (under 10 people and mostly part time teeny tiny). Even though our drastic understaffing is making everyone ineffective and actually loses money for us at this point, my ED basically told me that I couldn’t go full time or avoid taking on another giant, pointless, off-mission timesuck of a project or it would mess up the budget so badly she would have to do furloughs or lay people off. And a week after she forced me to basically double my workload for little to no gain, our finance guy announced that revenue’s actually 20% above what we’d budgeted for the year. But, you know, FURLOUGHS!!!

        So it’s not guilt trips about the leadership team, necessarily – it’s guilt trips about your peers.

        1. MinB*

          But I will say that 99% of the dysfunction in my current workplace is due to my ED. We’re just so small she’s able to stick her fingers into everything even though she never listens to staff, consultants, or anyone else about what would actually be good for building a stable organization moving forward. The rest of the staff is great and if we were just allowed to actually focus on our jobs, we’d be fine.

      2. Ada Lovelace*

        You would be surprised. My BF is a manager in a small business IT consulting firm. CEO refuses to give raises and if he does, he expects you to be available at his beck and call. He says there’s no money for raises but he is always on vacation or buying systems clients don’t want to use.

  16. Courtney*

    I worked for a small business that had been started by a father (who ran a great company and grew it from the ground up) whose sons took it over. They hired family members, were terribly political with favorites/friends of the family that were hired although very unqualified, and kept employees who would’ve been fired for their antics if they worked anywhere else. Combined with the best way to get a promotion or gain favoritism was to flirt with one of owner’s sons (who were all married). It was a disgustingly unprofessional workplace.

    I’d have to think long and hard before I’d ever work for a small family owned business again.

    1. esra*


      If any of you recall the garbage gift post from a while back, it’s a small family business much like the above. Except the father is still there and completely bonkers.

    2. MaryMary*

      I work with a lot of small businesses, and second generation owner/CEOs are frequently The Worst. As one of my coworkers says, they were born on third base but think they hit a triple.

  17. JC*

    I’ll add my anecdata-point that the nonprofit I work for is the most functional place I have worked. People have high standards, and even the pay is good! There are a few things that possibly contribute to this, including:

    1) our funding source. We have dedicated funding from a for-profit industry, and our board is made up of executives from for-profit companies in this industry

    2) our size. We have about 100 employees, which is small enough to be nimble but not too small that things get weird.

    3) our mission. While our mission does involve doing good in the world (since we are a non-profit after all), we’re a research organization and not a do-gooder activist organization. Since we’re not activists, there is no “sacrifice your personal life for the good of the cause” mentality.

    1. AndersonDarling*

      Agreed 100%! And I can’t word it any better…my non-profit is also the most functional place I have worked. It has won many operational, employee satisfaction, and quality awards and we train other non-profits in the same industry to be top performers.
      I feel like I won the lottery to work here!

    2. Dan*

      My employer and yours have some similarities and differences.

      1. Similarities: We’re both at non profits, get paid well, get treated humanely, and have a research focused mission, not an “activist” mission. I work 40 hours a week and sacrifice nothing. This place is functional.

      2. Differences: My org is 7000 people, and gets funded directly by the federal government to do research directly for the federal government.

      We win awards for being a top DC employer.

      1. JC*

        Dan, I’m also in DC and used to be a fed, so I have experience with non-profits that primarily are government contractors, too. When I used to manage contracts, I could never tell the difference between firms that were non-profits and those that were for profit. It seemed that the only difference was the “profit” line in the for-profits’ budgets.

        The government agency I worked for was far less functional than my current non-profit…but that’s a whole different story :).

        1. Dan*

          Oh, when we have this kind of discussion, I always feel the need to make it clear that I don’t work for a contractor. I’m not a fed either. My org has a line item in the congressional budget and has a special type of charter (of which there are about 40 in the US).

          When I say I’m not a contractor, you will never find my org responding to an RFP or writing a proposal.

          The for-profit contractor I came from was far less functional, and paid less to boot.

          1. JC*

            Ah, okay. The dedicated congressional funding must make life much less chaotic than having to be a slave to the RFPs!

  18. Dawn*

    Great point about the size of a business being a factor.

    I heard it on a Friday open thread first: “Ain’t no crazy like small business crazy!”

  19. Shannon*

    The most dysfunctional offices I ever worked in were government offices (US). Short of actually murdering your boss or a coworker at work, there is virtually no way to get rid of dysfunctional individuals. Consequently, they get transferred or promoted (yes, promoted. Like a transfer, it gets them out of that particular office).

  20. Gene*

    I’ll throw in a government data point here. I’ve worked Federal, County and Municipal, and worked closely with all three levels as well as State. I’ve never quite figured out why, but County governments seem to have the dysfunction part of government down pat. The others have crazies, to be sure, but there seems to be a nutcase attractor built into County-level government.

    1. City Planner*

      My government experience is entirely municipal, but I have to agree – Counties seem to attract crazy.

    2. Mimmy*

      Honestly, I think it varies by state. I have no Federal experience but have worked with state and county government (as part of mandated volunteer councils), and I gotta go with the state-level folks edging out the county ones on the crazy meter, lol.

  21. Sharon*

    I agree that it’s more about size of the organization than type. I’ve never had a paid job with a nonprofit, but I’ve sat on the board for a couple of little “mom and pop” charities and they are breathtakingly dysfunctional. I think the issue is that anybody who develops an interest in something can easily file the legal paperwork to become a 501c3 and then after that they stop bothering with anything like professionalism or organization.

    This is timely because yesterday I wrote up a tentative question for Alison and y’all to help me confirm a decision to step down from my current seat. I’ve just had enough. I may post it in Friday’s open session.

    1. Kita*

      Sharon, that sounds really interesting! Maybe you can share a bit about how you end up being on the Board of a place that turns out to be dysfunctional–did you know?

  22. HRG*

    I work at a nonprofit with about 400 employees. I love the work we do and feel passionately about our mission, but unlike most mission-driven employees, I work in administration (HR specifically.) I care about what we do as an Agency but I’m not cut out to be a therapist or social worker. I also truly love working in HR. One thing that was difficult for me coming from a large for profit to a mid-size nonprofit was realizing that most of the individuals working in administration were originally social workers or therapists who had moved over to finance or HR or fundraising because they were asked to fill in and never left, or they got burned out working with clients but wanted to stay at the agency. There’s nothing wrong with changing careers and this isn’t a jab at social workers at all, but having all or most of your administrative employees not be professionals in those fields is a risk and lends itself to dysfunction. The Director of HR that left shortly before I was hired had been with the agency for 30 years so had a lot of institutional knowledge, but had been a social worker for 28 of them and then moved over to HR. As I delved into some of our processes and policies, along with the new Director, we realized they had not been compliant with many federal and state laws and were not using up to date best practices. They were also still operating as a 1980’s personnel department. As I got to know the organization better it became obvious that many of our administrative functions were staffed with non-finance, non-HR, non-quality assurance, non-fundraising people. That’s not to say a social worker couldn’t come into HR and do tons of research and join a professional organization and make contacts and go to seminars and totally kick ass – they absolutely could. More often than not though, I’ve noticed it happens more like, an administrative person leaves and they shuffle anyone into the role temporarily and next thing you know, 6 months or a year or two goes by and they’re just trying to scrap by because they don’t know much about this role or care about the field particularly and things drop by the wayside and things are missed and the problems just compound and the department becomes dysfunctional. I think the reason nonprofits so often fall into this trap is because of money and a general disinterest in anything not tied directly to the mission. It’s expensive to source and hire strong professionals in the administrative functions – you’re competing with for profits for the same pool of candidates but yet, it’s not exciting and it doesn’t impact your mission in a tangible way. The interesting part though is that having a finance or HR department that isn’t running smoothly can have a huge impact on the viability of the organization and I think causes a lot of the dysfunction that people experience in nonprofits.

    1. Ama*

      Yeah, I think one of the smartest things my org (about 50 employees) did is to pretty early on bring in a COO with a lot of experience, and she in turn found an outside vendor to handle most of the HR/payroll issues (not only giving us better purchasing power with benefits, but putting people who really knew what they were doing in charge of those issues). This is one of the best places I’ve ever worked, largely because they understand and value having experienced administrators in administrative roles.

    1. Carolyn*

      I was just going to say that! Academic departments are basically 25 small businesses all working for the same goals.

      Not to mention, no one receives management training (typically) before ending up department chair or event provost/dean/etc.

      1. fposte*

        To be fair, that’s true just about everywhere–management training is pretty rare.

        But academics do seem to fail at it more spectacularly than many. I think it used to be more explicable, because at least some of academia was very much an individual pursuit, but these days if you can’t work and play well with others you’re going to be in bad shape.

        1. MaryMary*

          Academics, doctors, lawyers, and engineers also tend to think because they are intelligent and educated, they are good at everything. Regardless of if they are actually terrible managers when it comes to people, budgets, and so forth.

          1. non profit worker*

            this is my experience as well. sorry to say that hubby falls into one of those job categories.

      2. Tyrannosaurus Regina*

        Yes! It’s like any given level of dysfunction is exponentially worse because you’re multiplying it by TENURE. Ugh.

        1. Elli in Germany*

          Just need to chime in,
          academia can be really dysfunctional, although even there it depends.
          I worked in one place for a year, where two research heads had been found guilty of scientific fraud, but only one could be gotten rid of (their post was restructured) the other was judged too much hassle to be removed and only had to step down as a researcher (they also held another post in the organisation). It was also geographically isolated, which meant that the recruit pool was limited and there were several husband and wife teams which further complicated processes (for example the director was married to the social benefits rep). Long story short, it was a bit of a nightmare.
          I currently work in a well-set-up organisation, which used modern HR methods, is well structured and has all the necessary processes in place and understandable. I can’t write a lot about it, because everything just works. So it does depend.

  23. GlamNonprofitSquirrel*

    I’ve been working for the last 26 years and while most of my time has been in the nonprofit world, it was state government that was hands down the most dysfunctional of them all. My favorite example was the administrative support team member who “couldn’t be fired” because her rampant alcoholism was part of her cultural heritage, according to our HR department.

    One of the truths about the nonprofit sector is that it has historically been one of the few places where women outnumber men in leadership (CEO/Executive Director) roles. It’s also a sector where people of color, the LGBT community and other marginalized populations have found opportunities that might not have been available in the for-profit sector. (I like to point this out when our jerkface municipal officials like to pontificate that the nonprofit sector doesn’t create jobs. My response? “Bitch. Please. Tell that to the 10 people on my staff and the 20 subcontractors who work on our housing projects and oh, btw, the 300 families we house.” I have opinions.)

      1. GlamNonprofitSquirrel*

        According to one local, highly ranked official, we’re “succubi”, leaching resources from the large industries that just can’t get a break. In his strange world, charitable contributions should be pooled and given to businesses to invest and that will create jobs which will pay people who then won’t need charity. (Yes, my head exploded when he offered his theory.)

  24. Kellya23*

    I totally agree with Alison. I worked for a small for profit for 3 and a half years and it was the most dysfunctional place I’ve ever seen. I have now been with a large non profit for three months and it is a very well run place and everything is a lot more smooth and ordered here. The dysfunction was easy to get away with at my previous company because it came mainly from the owner, and there was really no one for him to answer to. We didn’t even have a dedicated HR person to deal with him or the director of operations’ nonsense.

  25. T*

    I wouldn’t say I’ve worked anywhere that wasn’t somewhat dysfunctional. It often seems like most companies are successful despite themselves. The amount of obvious waste and poor decisions is just tremendous.

  26. Jenna Maroney*

    Personally, I’ve (almost) exclusively worked at nonprofits, and liked it that way, because I don’t believe that the type of work I wanted (and still) want to do – elementary education and youthwork in high-needs communities – can ethically be done in a for-profit model. I am in a for-profit role now (but not much longer!) and although the job is fine I hate spending my days feeling so disconnected from what I do. And there is some dysfunction, although not much.

    Obviously many people feel passionately about their for-profit jobs and that’s great, and others don’t care about passion and that’s great too! I can imagine that if I felt passionately about a different line of work I wouldn’t rule out for-profits. But for me doing work I care about is my number one priority not just career-wise but in my life – it keeps me grounded and staves off my depressive tendencies – and the work I happen to care about is work I could only feel comfortable doing in a non-profit (or government, but I’m not there yet) context.

  27. businessfish*

    I have worked at small nonprofits, large nonprofits, and a stint at a Fortune 100 company, all with varying degrees of dysfunction (Fortune 100 was probably the worst, honestly)

    One thing nonprofits have against them is that they often pay below market rates, so it can be hard to get and retain superstars, especially for support functions that are present in the for-profit sector as well, such as IT, HR, strategy, finance. In my current organization, this manifests as mediocre people sticking around forever (often with union seniority – I’m in education) and rock stars getting poached with fairly high turnover. I actually think we’re run pretty well, but we’d be in a better position if we could pay at or above market from a talent perspective.

    1. Jenna Maroney*

      I do think this can be true, and wish it were something people would take into account before deciding that any org with overhead as a significant percentage of their costs must be greedy or using their money poorly/in shady ways.

  28. James M*

    If non-profits invoke their mission as an excuse to cover various shenanigans, that would contribute to the stereotype OP is asking about. Stereotypes don’t exist in a vacuum, they’re just correlations sharing a confirmation bias.

  29. AnnieNonymous*

    I’m so glad Alison responded that small businesses are problematic, since I was going to make a similar comment. I’ve had the bad luck of working for a few very small businesses, and now I have nothing but terrible feelings toward the kind of setups where someone started a business because he had the money but never took a single business course (I know that education doesn’t always trump experience and overall intelligence, but these days I think it’s irresponsible for a business owner to stay uninformed. We’ve seen 2828282882 questions regarding bosses who simply have no clue when they’re violating fairly obvious labor laws). Even worse, since they tend to come from money, they don’t have much experience being someone else’s employees. They think that since they started the business out of their garage and paid their kids’ friends in pizza, it’s okay to treat their “real” employees like idiotic children when the time comes to expand the company in a more official way.

  30. Ash (the other one)*

    I’ve worked government and now 2 different non-profits (not including time as a graduate RA and fellow in academe). The two non-profits could not be more different. The one I’m at now actually supports its staff, has an HR, and is rated as one of the best places to work in the area. My last one? Let’s put it this way — mass exodus every year and a half by staff.

  31. Kyrielle*

    I think it is also in the perception of the reader! I’ve only ever worked in for-profits, everyone whom I chat with about work *except* here doesn’t work in non-profit. (I know a couple who do, but they don’t chat about their work life.)

    So I have no barometer for non-profit and it would be easy (but wrong) for me to decide based on all the weird / icky scenarios in the letters, that they’re worse than for-profit, where I’ve experienced both dysfunction and function, with more of the latter than the former.

    But there’s an equal or greater number of letters about for-profits that are just as dysfunctional. (Because dysfunctioanl environments and messy situations make people want to write in, and also make for letters that are interesting / unusual enough for Alison to publish, because they cover something that hasn’t already been completely hammered into the ground in the time she’s run the site, I imagine!)

    If I say “well yes, but I know they can also be functional” to those, but not to the non-profits, that’s not accurate – just because I totally lack experience in one of the two areas doesn’t mean that what I see on this site represents the whole of the reality. (I think I get closer when I read the comments, or posts like this one, of course – but it’s easy to have counter-examples in one area but not another, based on on personl experience, was what I was trying to get at.)

  32. ThursdaysGeek*

    My spouse works for a non-profit, but almost no-one ever mentions that, and probably most don’t even realize it. It is also one of the largest employers in this area, and has some of the best pay. Within it, there is dysfunction and excellence and everything in between, depending on individual managers.

    So, I agree with Alison that it has to do with size. Small businesses may have dysfunction and excellence and everything in between, but not all at the same time — each is only one of those.

    In addition, if someone wrote in about this business, they’d probably not identify it as a non-profit. So even self-identification in the letters isn’t a clear grouping.

  33. KTB*

    I completely concur on the size of the organization directly contributing to the dysfunction. I have worked in everything from a family business to various nonprofits to a giant teaching hospital, but hands down the worst work environment was a tiny nonprofit comprised of six people. To be clear–the issue was not their nonprofit status, but the ED. She had been promoted from a project manager to the ED position, and while she was still an excellent PM, she was a terrible ED.

    I’ve also worked at a medium sized community foundation that was a bit dysfunctional, but certainly nothing along the lines of the tiny org dysfunction. I would say that certain people/personality types are attracted to nonprofits, and “the mission” gets thrown around as the reason for just about everything, good or bad. In the tiny org’s case, the problems stemmed from a combo of longtime employee promoted to the level of her incompetence, inexperienced board members, and a general disincentive to change things due to the ED’s temper tantrums. I sometimes miss the CF I worked for, but I never miss the tiny org!!

  34. Bryce*

    A previous poster mentioned this a while back, but a key factor in the dysfunction of smaller businesses is that when push comes to shove, no one can really overrule the owner. In larger organizations, the CEO is accountable to the board of directors, and the board is accountable to the shareholders. I’ve worked in a few smaller organizations, and this was a common situation.

    I once worked in an organization where the CEO talked about the need to be “a lean mean efficient machine” and he owned at least three different luxury cars during my time there. In another, we were told that there was limited money for raises, but the CEO’s second cousin twice removed was hired for a “Director of Special Projects,” and no one really knew why he was there or what he did.

    Another reason is that smaller organizations are run by people with a lot of knowledge and passion for the business, but little or no understanding of sound HR and talent development practices. They don’t necessarily know that they may at best be alienating or frustrating their employees, and at worst violating labor laws.

    1. I'm a Little Teapot*

      +100. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. (Or people who were jerks to begin with seek out positions where they can do anything they want, no matter how it affects everyone else.)

  35. KL*

    I’m a lifetime non-profit worker who has served organizations with budgets under $3 million, the smallest being about $550,000. I’m starting to wonder if my career – going on almost 15 years now – is basically doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results (the definition of insanity). Every organization I serve – as Director of Development but I have also had event or marketing-specific roles – has a different set of the same problems, ranging from a difficult workplace, to having to deal with full on crazy people. I’ve wondered if I should change careers? And I’ve thought about writing in for advice many times. Happy to see this topic being discussed.

  36. Not So Sunny*

    Hmm. At one non-profit, I had 4 managers in 2 years. At another, I had the least empathetic employer in my almost 40-year work history. OTOH, 4 weeks vacation for a US company is practically unheard-of.

  37. K*

    LastJob was a large nonprofit that was dysfunctional largely because leadership were trying to run it like a for-profit.

  38. Susan*

    I’d always assumed that the fact that Allison gets a lot of questions about nonprofits is because people know about her background in that area and figure she’s the best person to ask.

  39. B*

    As someone who has worked in for-profit and non-profit organizations, large and small, yes they both have their dysfunctions. However, I am very anxious to get back to for-profit. The non-profits I have worked at were beyond dysfunctional, overworked their employees, showed little appreciation for them, and the money made me cry. But there are people who love it, dysfunction and all. I think it is a matter of who you are and what you are looking for.

  40. Marina*

    I wonder if non-profit employees are more likely to identify that they work for a non-profit in letters to AAM because on some level they see being a nonprofit as a reason/excuse for the dysfunction they’re writing about.

    For instance, a for-profit and a non-profit could pay the same low wage, but I feel like an employee at the non-profit would be more likely to refer to “non-profit wages” where the for-profit employee would simply refer to “low wages”. I do think there tends to be a bit of a martyr culture at nonprofits, where people are proud of dysfunction. Maybe startups are similar?

  41. Techfool*

    Having had front seats at the banking crisis in London, when big companies go bad it’s reaallyyy BAD.

  42. Mike C.*

    After my three year stint, I will never, ever work for a small, family owned business again.

    Never again.

  43. Panda Bandit*

    My vote is for small family businesses. I’m at one where the owners are at each others throats all the time, “we’re faaaaamily” is the leading excuse to get away with all kinds of stuff, and I’m the only person there who can admit that the business is no longer viable.

  44. kelseywanderer*

    I work for a local NGO in a developing country that hovers right around the line between functional/dysfunctional. We’re fairly small (50-60 staff) and our director is an acknowledged, well-regarded expert in his field and well-connected politically, which matters in our location.

    However, he’s not the best manager. For example, when one of our staff members expressed concern about upcoming field research in a location where people have recently been beheaded, he basically laid on the guilt about her not caring enough about the mission.

    Our mission is research. Important? Yes. Worth risking people’s lives unnecessarily? No.

  45. non profit worker*

    I’ve worked for two large well known national non-profits. Totally dysfunctional – for two reasons – lack of funds because of poor economic recovery and substandard leadership at the national, divisional and regional levels. If you can think of one of the most recognizable non-profit logos – read it’s employees’ comments on that popular employer review website.

  46. Ssss*

    I’ve investigated and litigated fraud for most of my career… And an inordinate amount of my cases involved non-profits. Particularly social justice types, some health care and disaster relief charities, too… All kinds of skimming, embezzlement, book cooking and self dealing, in my experience.
    And non-profit management never wanted to ‘be mean’ or take real action against the wrongdoer. Ugh.

  47. L*

    Also, I think when some people use the term “organization,” many people think “non-profit,” but it could refer to many different kinds of businesses.

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