Don’t Be Bad While Doing Good

Nonprofit leaders face unique challenges; however, it is inexcusable for leaders to treat staff with disrespect, indifference or worse.  Issues of failed nonprofit leadership related to staff management are coming to light along with very serious #metoo types of unacceptable behavior. Similar to how nonprofit folks view fraud, there seems to be a general belief that nonprofit leaders are simply incapable of acting these ways.  Unfortunately, that is not the case and nonprofit Boards and leaders are responsible for uncovering and effectively dealing with these issues as soon as possible.  Bad leadership behavior must be addressed and that starts with the Board.

For a deeper dive into a serious leadership issue, check out this article from the Nonprofit Chronicles:  Emmett Carson’s Credibility Problem


Addressing Bad Leadership Behavior Issues

The Board

Boards have a number of opportunities to uncover and address bad behavior or leadership issues.  They are ultimately responsible for the hiring of the Executive Director and should have interactions with senior leaders and staff members.

Hiring the Executive Director

  • Boards need to be very careful to look for signs of potential bad behavior or leadership issues during the hiring process.
  • Seek candidates that fit into the organization’s culture or are capable to change the culture in line with any new strategic vision that the Board has established.
  • During the interview, members of the interview team should focus on candidate leadership style and emotional intelligence.  They should be asking questions designed to provide indications on the candidate’s temperament and surface any potential areas of concern from past experiences.
  • The Board should involve themselves in the process of reference checking top candidates and reach out to their own networks for information that might not be generally known.
  • All strengths can also be weaknesses.  For example, the best business developer may be less effective in situations that require heavy operational engagement.  Interpersonal styles and capabilities may cause classes that the leader is not able to deal with.


  • There is a lot of information available, so Boards need to prioritize leader and organization feedback on social media.  Boards have regular discussions with leadership on changes in how employees view leaders and the organization in general.
  • Expect regular reports on turnover, hiring issues and employee feedback.  This information may indicate bad actions or serious leadership issues or negative changes within the organization.
  • Staff members should interact with Board members.  While it is critically important to maintain a clear chain of command, there should be opportunities for interaction and relationship building.  These relationships are critical for the more serious leadership issues or severely negative behaviors.
  • Participate in the development and ongoing refinement of the organization’s Ethics policy.
  • Boards need to be proactively engaged and concerned since these issues can seriously damage the organization.

Executive Leadership

The Executive Director and other senior leaders have a dual role in ensuring bad behavior does not occur at leadership levels within the organization.  These folks need to identify issues within the senior leadership team, as well as all other leadership and management levels within the organization.

  • Senior leaders set the tone for acceptable behavior through their words and actions, but must be consistent to be effective.
  • Look for signs of bad leadership behavior at all levels and address it immediately.
  • Establish an anonymous reporting process for behavior, ethics or leadership issues.
  • Leaders need to learn proper ways to investigate and address issues when they are raised.
  • Disciplinary options are not the only alternative and for leadership issues, coaching or mentoring may be very effective.  For serious behavioral or ethical issues, disciplinary methods are required.
  • Apply ethical and behavioral standards to all stakeholders, including partners, vendors and donors.  Set those expectations explicitly and ensure contracts and agreements include exit clauses for bad behavioral or ethical problems.
  • Recognize the damage these issues can cause to the morale and culture of the organization, so be curious and act when issues are found.


Bottom Line

Bad leadership, behavioral and ethical issues happen at nonprofits and can cause serious damage.  Boards and leaders have responsibilities for avoiding, detecting and addressing these problems.  There is a bias that people in nonprofits are inherently good and are less likely to exhibit poor judgement or behavior, but that is not always true.  Proactively prepare to address these issues by setting the tone and establishing clear expectations.  When there is an issue, don’t ignore it or respond slowly or inconsistently.  Deal with the bad consistently and when possible transparently and always with urgency.

Find more thoughts on nonprofits and #metoo in Nonprofit AF’s article; #metoo and the Nonprofit Sector

For more on ethics at nonprofits see the post;  Don’t Let an Ethics Issue Cripple Your Nonprofit



About the author:

Michael F. Cade is a nonprofit advisor and executive coach, taking the nonprofit sector Beyond the Numbers.  He is a leadership pathfinder, helping nonprofits optimize operations and strategy to attain long-term viability and relevance.  His Framework for Fiscal Sustainability is an innovative approach for evaluating organizational health and securing the ongoing ability to deliver on its mission.

Mr. Cade publishes the nonprofit leadership blog  Not for Profit Beyond the Numbers

If you have questions or would like a consultation on a nonprofit leadership or operational issue, contact him at: