Call Outs in the Nonprofit Sector

Laura Pierce
May 10, 2021

In the last few months, I see turmoil and conflict erupting in a number of nonprofits. These conflicts involve equity concerns, generational differences, disaffected staff members, and legitimate frustrations regarding how we sometimes manage our organizations in ways that aren’t fully aligned with our values and the type of world we are seeking to create. I am aware of some because the organizations’ executives reached out for help to navigate difficult situations. Others are more public conflicts where stakeholders are airing their concerns on social media or via open letters signed by staff and/or community members. These conflicts are tearing at the fabric of our communities and in some cases causing the resignation or firing of nonprofit executives.

At this point, I am just beginning to discern a pattern and seek to understand it. Are these small uprisings a positive development that will lead to needed change in our sector, or divisive and counter-productive campaigns that sap organizations’ energy and detract from our ability to meet our missions? How do we reduce nonprofits’ vulnerability and increase our capability to address and resolve conflicts before they get to a boiling point? How do we find a restorative justice approach to these challenges so that we are calling people in and making meaningful change, not splintering our communities of common purpose?

No matter how you view these conflicts, we may be able to agree that they are difficult to prevent, address and resolve with the tools we have at our disposal.

  • Many nonprofits have under-developed human resources systems as a result of the nonprofit starvation cycle. They have unclear or non-existent grievance procedures and feedback mechanisms. Executive and management staff may have very little training regarding how to supervise staff well or how to establish a healthy organizational culture. These organizations are vulnerable to making mistakes that have legal consequences, and they are also very vulnerable to letting conflicts fester unaddressed.
  • Many traditional human resources practices are intrinsically inequitable, or at very least reductive, treating workers in standardized ways that are not appropriate for all people. They have been developed within our capitalist, white supremacist culture and reflect our nation’s racist and anti-worker history. This problem is not specific to nonprofits. Thus, even a manager with extensive human resources expertise may implement solutions that, while legal, do not measure up to our values or our aspirations as organizations committed to social justice.
  • Boards don’t know how to handle these situations and sometimes make things worse. Whether they err on the side of a legalistic, pro-management approach or a knee-jerk desire to believe the alleged victim, boards may not have the skills to conduct an appropriate and balanced investigation. They are also apt to blame staff leadership without realizing their own contributions—through their actions or inactions—to the situation.
  • We often fail to see these issues as systemic and instead focus blame on individuals. While individuals may make serious mistakes and should be held accountable, a focus on individual actions will tend to result in turnover of leaders without actually changing underlying conditions in our organizations. Over time, a pattern where executives are taking the fall for organizations that have failed to address equity adequately or are treating staff members poorly, could lead to good candidates being reluctant to take executive positions.

At this point I have more questions than answers regarding these types of situations. I recognize that each one is different, and that I have very incomplete information myself and am not in a position to pass judgment. Yet, I am seeking understanding and tools that may help. I want to learn more about the history of call outs as “necessary technology” and a last option for marginalized people to hold people in power accountable and interrupt oppression. And I want to learn more about how to resolve conflict within our organizations and movements in ways that call people in to learning and growth and result in durable shifts to harmful behaviors.

To date, the most valuable thing I have read is adrienne maree brown’s We Will Not Cancel Us, a short book published in 2020. brown shares her observations about discord and call outs in social movements. She calls for a transformative justice approach in these circumstances and provides some guidance about how to distinguish between a legitimate call out and a punishing action “to shame and humiliate people in the wake of misunderstandings, contradictions, conflicts and mistakes.” She also is a keen observer of human behavior and the predictable ways that we react to these situations, including avoiding conflict, avoiding accountability, using the “master’s tools” to lash out at others, and performative behavior on social media. Like brown:

  • I want our movement to feel like a vibrant, accountable space where causing harm does not mean you are excluded immediately and eternally from healing, justice, community, or belonging.
  • I want us to grow lots and lots of skill at holding processes by which we mend the wounds in our communities and ourselves.
  • I want satisfying consequences that actually end cycles of harm, generate safety, and deepen movement.
  • I want us to live in this world, in this time, together.

I will move forward in my work with humility and attempt to slow down and take the time to be in right relationship with colleagues. I expect to make many more mistakes, while holding out hope that I can learn and unlearn what I need to in order to make a useful contribution to building a more just and joyful world.

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