The Nonprofit(able) mindset

How would you react if you discovered that non-violent leader Gandhi was beating his children?

Credit: Toa Heftiba Shoreditch, London, United Kingdom

Valentina Montanaro is a member of LeadWise Academy’s Practical Self-Management Intensive’s first cohort.

How would you react if you discovered that non-violent leader Gandhi was beating his children?

Impossible. It’s against everything he stood for. That is what I felt the first time I realized the organisation I worked for was replicating some of the same dynamics it was trying to fight.

I have worked for some great non-profit organisations that I am very proud of. I have experienced firsthand how important their work is and how their contribution is making this world a better place. But, ten years and several countries and organisations later, I can’t help but still feeling perplex about some contradictions of the nonprofit sector that I want to articulate and share with you.

Double standards

We want to fight racism and gender inequality, yet most of the senior managers and executives are western white men. We talk about participation and co-creation, yet power dynamics and old school hierarchical structures are everywhere in the sector. We advocate openness, respect for people and human rights and then we mistreat our own staff.

It seems to be the norm to experience fatigue, physical and emotional exhaustion working in this field. Poverty, climate change, gender inequality, war and famine can feel daunting tasks to address on their own, let alone coupled with pressure from your manager, your colleagues, internal politics and life. A report observing the NGO sector in the UK found out that turnover rates in 2015 were much higher than in the private sector with an average of over 20%.

But why is that? And does it have to be like that? Is it only because of the stressful nature of the work?

The cost of (un)caring

In today’s fast-paced life, stress is everywhere. Feeling ‘forced’ to do things in a way that is not yours or that you are giving up something your care about because of work, can build up stress without you even realising.

Unfortunately, charities have a reputation for not taking the wellbeing of their staff too seriously. I have met too many people along my career who went through mental and or physical exhaustion. The reasons were different, but most of the time an indirect or direct demand to give up or neglect your life or values for your work caused this burnout.

Mixed feelings

I personally have experienced it too. I have had several line managers whose general management style was one of relentless pressure and scrutiny to the extent that it could often be interpreted a complete lack of trust or professional respect — including verbal warnings and denial of holiday.

I felt like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: while I was expected to work with people by building trust, using participatory approaches and helping them fight for their rights, I was being mistreated, humiliated and denied of some of my basic rights. When I finally managed to take a break from all of this, I thought I would feel better immediately.

Little did I know…. I started freelancing and it was going very well at first, until the day I froze. I couldn’t write the strategy I was requested to do. I couldn’t function. I felt like everyone was judging me, I felt alone, misunderstood, and ashamed. I wanted to disappear from the Earth and felt lost. I started to realise that my body was finally letting itself collapse from everything I had slowly accumulated and built up over time. Also, the problem was bigger than a particular boss, topic or job. I had to stop and start a real healing process.


In the period after my breakdown, I reached out to the internet to search for help. I found plenty of burnout toolkits to support you. Do this, do that, take a rest, leave at 5pm, try not to care too much, establish boundaries between personal life and work. But aren’t we missing the point?

Why can’t I care? I want to be passionate about my work as I am in my life. Do you not care about your kids, friends and family? Why can’t I demand that what my organisation preach outside is at least not contradicted inside? Why can’t I organise my work around my life? And why does work have to be so hard to the point we give up our life and deny people who we love to prove how committed we are? Last time I checked we were only allowed one life, and I intend to live it to the fullest.

It’s the whole mindset around the way we work and organise that needs to change. I started to read and learn about different approaches out there that are already changing the way things work.

Time to join the conversation

There are people experimenting with new work environments, allowing for humans to flourish and thrive both at work and in their personal lives. I discovered about Semco style, Teal systems, and Holacracy among others. All these approaches have something in common: they are based on accountability, transparency, trust and freedom instead of fear and control. Most important of all, they are designed around people (rather than procedures and structures) to amplify the possibilities of human potential and the organisation as a whole.

I have read many stories of these models successfully applied to the corporate sector and startups. However, in the NGO’s world, realities like these seem to be only rare exceptions.

Isn’t about time we join the conversation too? In today’s fast-changing and uncertain world, the way we manage and organise has proven to be inefficient. It wastes talent, creativity, happiness and energy of most people in these organisations.

I do not believe in magic wand solutions and I know that change is a lot of effort. But I am convinced that this is the right path to explore. Imagine the potential of a happier and healthier non-profit sector centred not only on the people we are trying to support, but also on the people who do the work.

Let’s start with the biggest and more difficult change of all; the one that begins with looking into the inside of our organisations. As per Gandhi’s words… Let’s be the change we want to see in the world.

Did you like what you read? Are you interested in telling us your story and joining the conversation? Reach out to Valentina here.

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