The Triumph of Politics Over Practice: A Sad Day for Nonprofits

When staff members express their opinions and question policies and practices, which strengthen the agency’s ability to fulfill its mission; that behavior should be valued and encouraged.

by Stephen G. Donshik

The values and ethics that guide the board of directors and staff members in the development of agency policy and in the implementation of agency programs are of paramount importance in Jewish nonprofit organizations. When political relationships in nonprofits take precedence over values and ethics, it is not only unethical but also a conflict with the fundamental purposes of those organizations that strive to strengthen the social fabric of the Jewish community. Unfortunately it is not uncommon for agencies to invest people with too much power, which can occasionally lead to unethical and even destructive behavior.

Dynamic and creative organizations encourage their professional staff to be critical and analytic in their thinking. The CEO should expect the staff to consistently strive to identify emerging needs in the community. The constructive questioning of the agency when it may be missing an opportunity to provide an appropriate response will provide a system of checks and balances to ensure a quality service.

However, some senior staff may not value line staff – even those who are long-time employees – who raise issues or ask questions. To handle appropriately the questions subordinate staff members ask or the opinions they express, senior staff members have to have sufficient self-confidence to be more concerned with the quality of their agency’s services and less focused on their egos and personal standing among the staff. Many of us have probably had experiences with people who are threatened by others and confuse identifying issues with questioning authority.

It is not uncommon for CEOs to look to one or more individuals to function as a “kitchen cabinet” and to rely on them when thinking through difficult issues. This becomes dysfunctional when CEOs surround themselves with staff who may be less competent or less likely to question their positions. These CEOs find comfort in knowing that whatever they want to do or to be done will be executed exactly as they want. This style of leadership sells the knowledge and expertise of other staff members short. The agency loses out on the staff members’ contributions because the CEO does not encourage divergent thinking and wants everything done his or her way.

At other times the CEO can be led astray by one or more of the executive staff or staff to whom he or she turns for guidance and counsel. That senior staff member’s agenda may not be in the best interest of the organization or the CEO.

That situation may arise for several reasons. Sometimes the CEO is blinded by the unquestioning loyalty of a senior staff person who has been a member of the organization’s staff for a long time. It is also possible that the CEO hired the senior staff person because of his or her commitment to implement a vision shared by the two of them. At other times there may be a longstanding personal and professional relationship that pre-dates either of their positions with the organization and so the CEO has placed unquestioned trust in the senior staff person.

Whenever any of these scenarios occurs and a person is imbued with too much power and begins to function as an extension of the CEO, there is the possibility that the decisions made will reflect more the senior staff member’s personal interest and less the needs of the organization or the clients who are served. It is very short-sighted to see every professional situation only through one’s own ideas and interests, without keeping the agency’s needs paramount and without listening to the input of others. Decisions made that way will be unprofessional decisions.

The most blatant example of an unprofessional decision is the firing of valued employees who may have worked for the best interest of the organization for many years, but who disagreed with the senior staff member. Those valued employees may have found themselves on the opposite side of the table from the senior staff member too many times. It is truly a sad day for a nonprofit agency when a senior staff member has carte blanche and can terminate the employment of people whose contributions have been valued by colleagues, volunteer leaders, and professionals in the field.

It is most unfortunate that these senior professionals do not understand the concept of a win-win situation. When staff members express their opinions and question policies and practices, which strengthen the agency’s ability to fulfill its mission; that behavior should be valued and encouraged. Staff members who identify with the purposes of the organization and are in alignment with its values are a very important asset. Their investment in the agency’s efforts to provide the most effective and responsive services demonstrates a sense of caring – which is captured in the expression, “Our success is their success and their success is our success.”

Unfortunately the situation described above in which senior staff members make unprofessional decisions based on their own self-interest can be found in some of the most creative, vibrant, and successful nonprofit organizations in the Jewish community. These unprofessional practices not only leave scars on the reputation of the agency but also take a heavy toll on the professionals who are treated unjustly.

Due to many agencies’ lack of checks and balances involving professional staff and volunteer leaders, there is no way to expose these unprofessional practices. Perhaps one day there will be a way to hold people accountable for their unethical behavior. When this happens, the ethics guiding professional practice will be restored, and the influence of organization politics will be decreased or even be eliminated.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.