This post is part-two in a four-part series titled “Reimagining the Non-Profit Workplace”

This moment has been called “The Great Resignation.” Front-line fundraisers are leaving in droves for better work – leaving non-profit causes they love. And the non-profit sector needs to look inward at why people are leaving. Rather than wringing our hands about it, this is a great opportunity to create a non-profit culture and workplace that will honor and bring joy to staff.

As I stated in my last post, the majority of front-line fundraisers are leaving because they don’t like their manager, or they are not managed properly.

However, I also suggested that what creates bad management is bad leadership and a toxic culture that allows it. A toxic work culture will suck the life out of your fundraising staff, leaving them demoralized, hurt, and abused, and it’s a contributing factor to why they are leaving.

How do you know that you have a toxic non-profit culture? Well, you probably intuitively know, but here are some signs of it written by the 6Q blog that specializes in workplace culture. I’m going to highlight 4 of the 7 signs they write about. (I urge you to read their blog because it’s spot-on.)
  1. Low morale at work — A positive attitude and high morale to accomplish tasks is contagious. When people smile, speak politely to each other and share jokes (not insults masked as humor), it quickly catches on. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. If you observe that the entire office exhibits low morale, then a toxic workplace might be to blame. Forget the Monday blues and occasional bad days, we’re talking about a situation where there seems to be a black cloud always hanging over the office, consistent low energy, and joylessness at work.
  2. Lack of communication — A key sign of a toxic work culture is that communication normally flows one way, from the higher-ups to the staff. Staff are afraid to ask questions because they will either be singled out for not understanding quickly enough, or nothing will be done. This, amongst many other things, can lead to repetition of work and loss of time.
  3. Employees are afraid of the boss — There is a difference between a healthy respect for the boss and downright fear. When no one but the boss speaks up in a meeting, when people avoid going down the hallway where they might bump into the boss, there is a problem with the culture, and it needs to be addressed immediately. A bad boss can make a toxic work culture even worse because they give cues to others about how they can behave by tacitly endorsing bad behavior and providing precedent for rude interactions. In short, if the top boss yells, it won’t be a surprise to find department heads and team leaders yelling.
  4. Insistence on policies over people — Policies are put in place to support people, but an organization that constantly puts policies ahead of people can breed a toxic work culture. Whether you like it or not, people make mistakes. Even the best employees will not be able to do everything right all the time, so you need to make space for that. You are in a toxic work culture if management follows every infraction or deviation from policy with punishment because this usually leads to employees constantly being stressed and afraid to take risks.

These are the signs and contributing factors that lead to a toxic workplace. From the stories that Richard and I hear from front-line fundraisers all over the world, this is happening everywhere, but the good news is that a toxic non-profit culture can be turned around.

I’ve been doing a bunch of research and in the last four months, there have been tons of articles on this because many companies and non-profits are evaluating their culture due to this “Great Resignation” going on.

As I stated in my first blog post on this subject, I think this has been a real gift to us in the non-profit sector because we are “waking up” to understanding our fundraisers and the rest of your staff makes your mission happen.

One of the best articles I read in how to improve a toxic workplace was written by Scott Mautz, who wrote for Inc. 

Scott interviewed and surveyed more than 3,000 employees and leaders toiling in toxicity. You can read the entire article, but here are the main points coming out of his research:

  1. Start pushing work down into the organization. — An astonishing number of workplaces suffer from a command-and-control culture, with leaders dictating what to do and micromanaging how it’s done. Poison. You’ll make fast cultural improvements if you start granting large swaths of autonomy and let people do what they were hired to do.
  2. Address underperformers, immediately. — Don’t let cancers linger a day longer. Nothing frustrates high-performers more than watching problem-children clog up the workplace without retribution. Ensure that underperformers understand where they are falling short, give them a short window to fix it, and don’t hesitate to move on from employees as warranted. Beyond this, institute a spirit of accountability, holding everyone accountable to deliver what they’ve been asked to deliver and to be a positive contributor to the culture along the way.
  3. Step up and resource the racehorses. — Fight to secure the proper resources for your biggest priorities. Stop making more with less the default for everything. Employees who feel they aren’t set up to win and don’t have the resources to succeed at what they’ve been asked to deliver eventually become so frustrated they’ll actually do less with what they currently have.
  4. Take a stand for openness. — This includes openly sharing information (versus hoarding it to maintain power), keeping an open mind, and encouraging others to share their opinion. It also means being transparent, vulnerable, and honest in your communications. If employees don’t feel comfortable speaking up, they’ll feel less comfortable keeping it bottled inside. And, they’ll start having meetings after the meeting and spend a lot of energy commiserating and complaining. They need an environment that fosters the opposite, pronto!
  5. Replace callousness with care, authentically. — When people fundamentally feel undervalued and underappreciated, the culture has no chance. So much toxic behavior can be traced back to people feeling like nobody cares about them. So much cultural progress can be made quickly by leaders taking a genuine interest in employees, their personal growth, and their career development by giving praise and recognition and simply making employees feel valued. This is the most unlike-rocket-science thing on this list, but also the most under-executed.
  6. Clarify promotion criteria. — A big source of toxicity comes from leaders playing favorites and promoting only a certain type of employee. This leads to a pervasive sense of unfairness and “Why bother trying?” sentiment. Or it encourages something worse – acidic behavior in a desperate attempt to get noticed and get ahead. Stop this behavior by re-establishing clear, fair promotion criteria and communicate that criteria to all.
  7. Circle the wagons to craft a clear vision and communicate it about 1,000 times. — Toxicity comes from a lack of direction; in its absence, employees are forced to fill in the blanks. This leads to a lack of cohesion, competing priorities, and individual agendas and motivators. Pull key leaders together to create a clear and compelling vision (leveraging organizational input) and then share it more times than you can stomach. Employees need to hear a vision constantly to believe it and follow it.
  8. Interject reality and hope. — Work environments dripping with toxicity likely have employees who feel a sense of hopelessness or are operating in a manner detached from the reality of their competitive environment or internal challenges. Fix this fast. Provide a clear state of the union while giving genuine reasons for hope (without blindly overpromising.)
  9. Establish the rules of risk-taking. — I’ve seen so many leaders talk a big game about the need for employees to take risks, but when the risks don’t pan out, employees get hammered. Avoid this by establishing and broadly communicating what the rules of risk-taking are. What constitutes a good risk? A bad one? Who needs to approve risks to be taken? You get the idea. Act fast to fix your corrosive workplace. It’s eating at your employees.

Wow, that is good stuff. What I love about this is that these are things that not only leadership can do, but managers and staff can help contribute to so that everyone is working toward a better, life-giving culture.

In my next post, I’m going to talk about being the manager people WANT to work for!


Other Posts in This Series:

  1. Front-line Fundraisers Are Leaving… And It’s Your Fault
  2. How to Deal With and Change a Toxic Non-Profit Culture (this post)
  3. How to Be A Manager People Want to Work For
  4. Hiring and Retaining the Right Fundraising Talent