My Industry is Failing: Non-Profits Edition with Nicole Washington | Crooked Media
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May 10, 2023
Work Appropriate
My Industry is Failing: Non-Profits Edition with Nicole Washington

In This Episode

We’re diving into the wide, wondrous, and often deeply messed up world of non-profits. Nicole Washington returns to join host Anne Helen Petersen and answer listeners’ questions like, “Were my expectations too high?” “How much of my industry can I personally fix?” And “How do I quit without the whole organization collapsing?”

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Anne Helen Petersen: Hi, everyone. This is Work Appropriate. And I’m your host. Anne Helen Petersen. [music plays] So we’ve been doing this series here on the podcast, very loosely titled My Industry Is Failing. And each of these episodes, we’re looking at a specific field where it feels like the actual structure of the industry, the way workers are recruited, trained, compensated and treated is broken. But so what? What do we do with that information? Does everyone try and fix it? Does everyone flee only to be replaced by other workers? Put differently, when is the brokenness too much? And you need permission to get the hell out of there before you’re hurt in a way that might not heal? And when do you stay and fight? In the first two episodes in the series. We focused on academia and writing for money, two areas with which I personally had a ton of experience. But now we’re expanding outward into your most requested industries. That’s right. We’re doing the wide, wondrous, often deeply messed up world of nonprofits. And I’ve asked the host of one of our most popular early episodes to come back to join me. [music plays]


Nicole Washington: My name is Nicole Washington. I am an operations manager at the Neighborhood Funders Group. I am also now a proud member of CWA because Neighborhood Funders Group has unionized and I am here to talk to Anne about the horrors of nonprofit work. 


Anne Helen Petersen: [laughs] I am so excited to have you back. You were on our third episode, which was just about surviving shitty work culture generally, and it’s a very popular episode. You have a big fan club, and that episode, unsurprisingly, also had a lot to do with nonprofits. So today we’re looking specifically at nonprofits. In broad strokes can you tell me about your various nonprofit jobs? 


Nicole Washington: So I have always worked in some sort of like executive assistant scheduler administration role. I have done it at so many different organizations. I have worked in philanthropy. I have worked for a labor rights organization. I have worked for an anti-hunger organization. It wasn’t a nonprofit, but my first job was working for like a consulting firm that was owned by a former union secretary treasurer. So it kind of felt like a nonprofit. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Hmm. 


Nicole Washington: Especially my salary. [laughter] I’ve worked at a media company, like a magazine. I was commenting to you earlier that every time you talk about something terrible that has happened in nonprofits or terrible things in the workplace, I’m like, oh, wait, let me tell you about this job where I fill in the blanks. So yeah, I feel like I have the full spectrum of nonprofit experiences. 


Anne Helen Petersen: [laughs] So you’ve told me, though, that you’re really happy in your current job. So what makes it different than other nonprofit jobs that have come before? 


Nicole Washington: I’m very happy, number one, because I get to work from home with my dog. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Nicole Washington: Which is delightful. And this position was always a remote first position, which is something that I had really been looking for, because to be perfectly honest, I live in New Orleans. I love living in New Orleans. The pay scale in New Orleans is very different from the pay scale that I came from in Washington, D.C. And while it is cheaper to live here, it is not that much cheaper to live here. So being at an organization that have like a national pay scale was really important to me. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Nicole Washington: I also really like this job because I have a four day workweek, which is great, and it’s not a 40 hour work week. It is a 32 hour, four day workweek, which is great because it forces you to prioritize. And we were not great at upholding those boundaries when we first decided on this. But we are now as a matter of fact, I volunteered to just send an email out tomorrow. Today is Thursday and the person I’m working with was like, no, don’t work on Friday. We’ll send it out on Monday. It’s okay. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Wow. 


Nicole Washington: Yeah, It’s the workplace where I have been paid the most that I’ve ever been paid in my life and also where I felt the most respected. 


Anne Helen Petersen: You know, one thing that afflicts a lot of nonprofits is this understanding that like and I think it’s a very old understanding that the people who work there don’t need to work necessarily. It’s oftentimes work that was done by women who just wanted to do something outside of the home. So the salary was a second thought or like, you know, it’s kind of part time, whatever. Like, do you feel it sounds to me like this organization has very much distanced itself from that understanding. 


Nicole Washington: Oh, yeah, absolutely. One of the things that’s pretty cool about most of my colleagues is that all of us have other caretaking caregiving, familial breadwinning, other responsibilities that run all sorts of things, like people supporting siblings or other family members or caring for parents or other family members or kids or stuff like that. And it’s very much assumed that you are hiring a whole and complete person. You are hiring someone who is skilled at what they do, whatever that job may be, and you should pay them accordingly. I will also add that we have a lot of pay transparency. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Nicole Washington: We have a couple of salary bands for each set of positions and so everyone in the organization, you can tell within a couple thousand dollars exactly what they’re making, which is great. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So our first question today is the perfect illustration of so many things that are going wrong in nonprofit work. This is from Jocelyn. 


Jocelyn: I’m in my mid-thirties and I have worked at nonprofits for the last decade at every job. I’ve seen the same patterns play out. High turnover due to overwork and low pay, overpromising on grant applications paired with underperforming and misleading on grant reports. Shame on workers who are asking for any type of work life balance or resources to get the job done and an emphasis on how we are all a quote, “family that all cares for each other and equally contribute to decisions in a nonhierarchical workplace.” When in reality a small, undefined group at the nonprofit actually makes all the decisions. In opaque ways. Plus, there’s often personal infighting. On the bright side, I’m in my last week at my last nonprofit job and will be going full time at a business I founded with some other like minded people. We support each other as human beings with lives, but we also care about our work. But I can’t help but feel distraught over the last decade. Were my expectations too high? How can we counter this narrative in the nonprofit world that lower overhead is better? I wish that nonprofit leadership would acknowledge that how you treat your employees impacts the quality and impact of the work. Whenever I get frustrated or angry, I wonder if the sector is just too motivated by a scarcity mindset to be able to take risks. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So part of the reason we did this question is because I think it outlines a lot of the problems, but then also is coming from someone who is feeling this mix of like regret and anger at like, is this system ever going to change because the only solution to get out of it. So my question for you, Nicole, is, first of all, is this familiar? 


Nicole Washington: This is uncomfortably familiar. Yes, absolutely. 


Anne Helen Petersen: I guess if we can go backwards, let’s address some of the structural questions first. So Jocelyn says, how can we counter this narrative in the nonprofit world that lower overhead is better and that the sector is motivated by scarcity mindset? So how do you think about this in terms of especially like the lower overhead question, because that ties directly to salaries. 


Nicole Washington: It ties directly to salaries. And as somebody who is had a position that qualifies as overhead, it ties pretty directly to me and my salary. It’s interesting being in philanthropy now because I kind of get to see how donors they can see sort of like the other side of things. And it does go back to that scarcity mindset. So the place where I work, we give unrestricted grants with one exception, which is where we gave out wellness grants and we were like, you are not allowed to use this money for your operations. You have to use it to take care of your staff. Other than that, we don’t give any restrictions on how folks use the money. Part of the reason why the Amplify Fund exists is to help move philanthropy towards that, because the problem is that donors want to they almost have like a business mindset and they want to be able to see a return on their investment. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm. 


Jocelyn: And if you’re spending money, let’s say you’re an anti-hunger organization. If you are spending money on the person who organizes the schedules for everyone at the food bank, well, like that’s not actually like direct service. So that’s that’s overhead. That’s a waste of money. I honestly wish I had a better answer, but it really is that scarcity mindset. People think that you can do more work for less money by like cutting out the people who also are traditionally jobs held by people of color. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Nicole Washington: Or by women. The people who keep the trains running on time, the people who make sure that everyone gets paid, even if the amount is low. The people who handle the scheduling, who make sure that the plumbing works in the office if you have one. All of those things are not valued and we can. That’s a whole other episode. On why that sort of administrative behind the scenes work is not valued, but because those things aren’t valued both by the organization and from a donor perspective, then people are always like, well, why should I fund? You can talk to any number of nonprofits and they will tell you that it is always harder to get unrestricted gen ops funding than it is to get funding for specific projects. Never mind that to do a specific project, you have to have an infrastructure in place. But we don’t want to fund infrastructure anywhere ever in this country. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So is this like a matter of even just like the basic way that giving is structured? To me, if you’re funding an anti-hunger program and you’re trying to get people to donate to that program, yeah, you want you know, a lot of that money goes to like stuff on the ground or actual food, you know, different things like that. But you also need the people who make the program happen. That should be part of the funding. Is that just not how it works at a lot of places? 


Nicole Washington: In my experience, for a lot of like programmatic grants. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Nicole Washington: People will do their best to try and work in a certain percentage of the operations spending of the overall organization into the grant. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Got it. 


Nicole Washington: But yeah, it goes back to if you are going to donate money, you should just donate it and say, all right, if I want to donate to this anti-hunger organization, I am donating because I trust the work that they do and I think that they are going to be a better steward of this money towards this cause than I could be. And that should be where it ends, right? Like, you don’t need to be like, well, I want to make sure that you’re not paying people this much or that you’re spending this much on food and this much on outreach. Like, no, just giving with all of these sorts of restrictions implies a lack of trust that then filters down through the organization. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So when like my $100 a month to the food bank goes through, that’s unrestricted, right? 


Nicole Washington: Sometimes. It depends. Sometimes when you donate like that, the funds are just sort of depends on how it’s set up. A lot of places you can decide to donate to specific programs and then that money can only be used for that. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Nicole Washington: But yes, let’s say you’re 100 bucks is unrestricted. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And but there is a contrast with at least what I’ve seen and what I’ve talked to with other people in nonprofits. When people with a lot of money donate, that’s where it gets really targeted. They’re like, this is what—


Nicole Washington: Absolutely. 


Anne Helen Petersen: —this donation is going to. And that’s where you see people who are like, If I’m going to donate $200,000, I want to see something. And it doesn’t necessarily go to that larger fund. So in some ways, it all goes back to this being like a rich people problem. [laughs]


Nicole Washington: It goes back to it being a rich people problem, and it goes back to the kind of people who have the kind of money to donate like that. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Nicole Washington: And their feelings about their say and what should happen. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Nicole Washington: And their control over what is happening. When you give money away, it’s not your money anymore. [laughter] And that seems to be really hard for people to understand. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So there’s this personal aspect of Jocelyn’s questions where she says, I’m scared that my expectations were too high. And to me that is just like such a classic. I hear from a lot of women, they’re like, oh, I was disappointed because I expected too much. What would you say to her? 


Nicole Washington: To be clear in expecting too much, she is expecting to be treated like a human being. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. [laughs]


Nicole Washington: And paid accordingly. Like. And so I get it. It makes me very sad. And it’s sort of gut wrenching to hear like, oh, my expectations of being treated like a human in an organization that supposedly works to support humans were just too high. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Nicole Washington: Also, they weren’t you high like because this is the way that the industry is and it shouldn’t be this way. And it’s sort of two things, right? Like, you’ve got to go into it knowing that this is how things are and setting up boundaries for yourself around what you will and will not do and will and will not tolerate. And full disclosure, the older you get, the more money you make, the more experience you have, the easier it is to do that. There are any number of things that are tolerated in the past I will not put up with now. So you should go in with low expectations, I would say, but with the understanding that your expectations should be exceeded if that makes sense. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm. 


Nicole Washington: Like I just, I don’t want to encourage people to get into non-profits thinking that everything is going to change because it could. It’ll take a lot of work and it will take a lot of effort, but I just don’t want folks to be disappointed from the bat, like know what you’re getting into. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Nicole Washington: Right. And know the pathways for maybe how you could change it. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Nicole Washington: Rather than going in un seeing. 


Anne Helen Petersen: The path that Jocelyn is taking is something that I’ve seen a lot of other people in non-profits take, which is they work at it for ten years or 15 years, get as far as they can, like survive as much as they can put up with as much as they can, and then they go corporate. 


Nicole Washington: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Because there is either because they have a family and they’re like, I have to make more money in order to support my family or because they just can’t take it anymore. Right. And I think there’s also a lot of looking back and being like, hmm, I had all this time where if I had gone corporate in the first place, I could have been building a 401(k) I could have been putting this money in savings that would have become like future retirement. And then maybe when I got ten, 15 years into the corporate world, then I could go nonprofit. Like, what if it was switched, you know, and then taking some of those ideas from the profit world and trying to apply them in a little in a non evil way to the nonprofit world. 


Nicole Washington: I can tell you a million stories that are similar to hers. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right, right. This is the pattern. 


Nicole Washington: Also Jocelyn, don’t feel bad. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. Please, oh my gosh.


Nicole Washington: This is not about you, it is about the industry. Don’t feel bad. You shouldn’t feel bad for leaving. Like the whole reason why the nonprofit industry is this way is because it relies on people sacrificing themselves in the name of the work. And you can’t see it. But I am doing air quotes because there is work and yes, that exists, but the work is still being done by people who deserve to be treated like people. And so I have worked in non-profits my entire career with the exception of the very first job that I ever had for like a year. I will never begrudge anyone going corporate to do what they need to do to support their families or just support themselves in the capitalist hellscape that we live in. So do not feel bad. This is not about you, Jocelyn. This is about how the nonprofit industry just likes to chew people up and spit them out, and that is built into the model of low salaries and high turnover. 


Anne Helen Petersen: If someone who’s in their early twenties comes to you and says, I want to follow this path, I want to follow your path, what is the advice that you give them to try to change the system as they enter into it? Especially as a junior person? 


Nicole Washington: It’s hard to give advice like that because the advice that I would give now is not necessarily applicable to folks that are just starting out. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Nicole Washington: For instance, now on job hunting, if you don’t list a salary on your job, I’m not even going to bother to apply. I might even write you a note to be like, hi, I’m really well-qualified for this and this looks really interesting, but for equity reasons, you really ought to list the salary on this. And for that reason, I’m not going to apply. So I think if you are young, like just graduating from college or even if you’re not young and this this is just you’re starting out on this career path. Looking for a unionized organization. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Nicole Washington: Would be great. And there are not that many of them, but hopefully there will be more. And I would say just in the interview, it’s really important to remember that you are interviewing them as much as [dog barks] they are interviewing you. So it’s important to make sure that you have questions prepared and that you’re trying to suss out what sort of environment it is like. I would like to tell you to only go for jobs that pay X amount or where you have very clear opportunities for growth. But frankly, it’s not realistic. And you can set up and like, you know, sometimes you just need a job no matter what it is. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Nicole Washington: But I would say that the interview process is really important because it’s a two way street and don’t let them make you feel like it’s not. I have had some jobs that I knew going into them. Were perhaps not the best place for me. And frankly, I regret it. And I wish that I had listened to my instincts at the beginning and waited for something else. I would also say cultivate another skill, like maybe it’s working retail, maybe it’s waiting tables, something that you can do to get some money in so that you don’t have to take a job that you don’t feel well-suited for. Don’t let them devalue you in the beginning. 


Anne Helen Petersen: I love that you mentioned actual J O B jobs like retail and waitressing, which requires skill to be very clear and also require experience usually to get hired on because I think sometimes the advice is like have enough money saved so that you can wait around for the right job or like find a side hustle when instead you could be like, oh, here’s something that I have skill at. Like for me that would be nannying. Like, that’s something that I can do for a good hourly wage if I was waiting around for the right job. But there are so many other skills, as you point out, that that can be that sort of hold over as you as you look for the right one. 




Anne Helen Petersen: Our next question is from someone who’s trying to plot a course in a field that feels unstable. This is from Samantha and our colleague Reyna is going to read it. 


Samantha: I’ve built a career in an underappreciated intersection of health care and housing in senior living and elder care. I’ve always worked for nonprofits whose values seem to align with my own, and I’m passionate about the field. During the pandemic, I made a pretty big pivot from a human facing to an operational role. Before this, I was aware of the problems in my industry, but I didn’t realize how complicated solutions are to implement. Now I’m exhaustingly aware of how deep these systemic issues run. The economic model of senior living already ran on an unjust model with tight margins, and the margins are only getting narrower. Residential care is unaffordable for many people, and caregivers rarely get a living wage. I’m at a turning point in my career and I’m planning a change from my current role and organization. I want to stay in or adjacent to the industry I’m in now. But I’m not really interested in any conventional role. My question is how to think about my future, knowing I’ll have to forge my own path in an industry that is currently unsustainable and where many of the players don’t have an incentive to change. 


Anne Helen Petersen: I feel like our question asker Samantha saw the Matrix during the pandemic. Like she’s just got enough knowledge that she’s like, oh man. Like, this isn’t something that a slightly different business model is going to change. Like this is intractable. So listening to this, what’s your first reaction? 


Nicole Washington: My first reaction is that during the pandemic, we all saw the Matrix and that’s led to [laughter] a lot of what has happened since then. Yeah, I can feel a lot of I can empathize and understand a lot of this. And I guess my advice is kind of similar to what I said before, which is that there is only so much you can do and you can push as much as you can in whatever role that you have, whatever that looks like with the understanding that sacrificing yourself for the system is not going to work like it will always demand more of you always take more of you. And so you can only you can only do what you can do. And that doesn’t seem like very helpful advice, but it’s something that I try to remember when I feel like I am stuck in a very intractable situation or a deeply unfair situation. There is only so much that I can control and that I can do and. Samantha, you were so, so right about the state of of senior housing, senior care, elder care, nursing homes, assisted living facilities. This is also something that I unfortunately I’m not unfamiliar with just because of some family things. And yeah, it’s a wildly unjust system and it took many people and many years to get that way. And so you’re not going to be able to fix it the best that I think you could do. And the only thing I think you can do sustainably is to try to do what you can, where you can with the understanding that you are operating in an unjust system. And there’s not really a whole lot you can do about it. But at the risk of sounding kind of naive, if enough people are trying to do the little bit that they can, that’s sort of how systemic change happens.


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. Well, and like one person didn’t make the system what it is and one person can fix it. But many people over many years made the system what it is, which is why many people over many years is what it takes to fix it as well. 


Nicole Washington: Also, I would tell Samantha that it’s not her responsibility to fix the system, because I think that is what motivates a lot of folks that end up at nonprofits is that they see a problem in the world. They think that they can. I would say that they can help solve it, but a lot of them, including me at various points in my career, thinking that they can solve it. And so they go in with that mentality. And that is just like the quickest way to burn out because you’re working with such with systems that are so much bigger than you and so much more complex and older and have more people in them than you that there’s only so much you can do. And it’s important to remember that and that sacrificing yourself for a job, no matter what the job is, is not the way to go. 


Anne Helen Petersen: What do you think of the strategy of like taking one corner of the blanket, as it were? I don’t know why this is the image that’s coming into my mind and like trying to make that part more functional, not worrying about the disaster that is the rest of the blanket. I mean, always it’s always visible, but like, okay, here’s my corner. And if I can try to make things right in some way there like, is that still too high minded? 


Nicole Washington: I don’t think so. That is how I operate. And I would argue and as you were saying, that what immediately came to mind to me was Hurricane Ida, which was here in Louisiana and a lot of other places, just a complete and utter disaster, especially here in New Orleans, like just a mess. And I was very lucky and that I did stay through the hurricane. But I had some friends who offered me a place to stay and and much the same way because I had that out and was staying in some place that was fairly well provisioned. I was like, well, I can’t fix this entire terrible problem. I can’t fix the fact that there’s no power. I cannot fix, like the fact that the trash in New Orleans is just never going to be picked up. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Nicole Washington: But the little bit that I can do is make sure that my neighbors on the street have ice if they need it, or that if they need something that I am able to get for them, I can do that. And so I’m a very big fan of sort of deciding what your little corner is going to be and taking care of that one little piece. If that means that you have a team and you are constantly fighting with management to protect your team from, I mean, I guess in this case you would be a manager, but to protect your team from overwork or burnout and making sure that they get what they need even in this like incredibly fucked up organization or system, that’s the way that you start to do systemic change because what you have done is model for your team what it looks like to be a good leader or to care about people or to try and pay them fairly. And that’s something that they will carry with them into their next position, their next job to the other organizations and like, I think that’s kind of the only way that you can do it. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, I think that that’s legacy. Part of the legacy is that change you affect in the world. And part of it is also how you treat your coworkers, the model of working that you offer. And we rarely think about that. I think. Our next question is about getting out. This is from Jasmine and our executive producer. Kendra is going to read. 


Jasmine: I’m about wondering about graceful ways to leave a nonprofit that is semi or fully dependent on you during or after a maternity leave or just in general, is there such a thing or are there work situations where leaving is necessarily burning a bridge, if only because your cries for a more sustainable infrastructure have gone unheard? And also, how will it affect your career if a place where you were recently a director of some kind fails because you stopped propping it up? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Oh man, there’s so much going on here. But as per usual, let’s break this into parts. And first up, is there such a thing as ever leaving gracefully when the organization is dependent on you? 


Nicole Washington: Your ability to leave gracefully is not dependent on you. You can leave gracefully. You can give two weeks or four weeks or however much notice you want to give. You can leave behind all of the notes that you can. All the directions that you can and it can still be taken really poorly. So you can leave gracefully. Whether it is perceived that way is not up to you and has nothing to do with you. Some of the best work advice I ever got from my mother was she was like, listen, if you get hit by a bus tomorrow, they’ll replace you. Although harsh, but it’s true. Like you get hit by a bus tomorrow. They will figure out a way to make this work without you. And that is something that you should always keep in mind. There is nothing at work. You don’t owe your job any more than you owe yourself. So I would say do whatever it is that you need to do. Whatever is sort of accepted in your field. Like if it’s two weeks notice, give your two weeks notice. Say. I’m going to put together an exit memo that contains this, this and this. Have the conversation about it. Do that and then leave. Don’t respond to any entreaties about how you should stay or, you know, you can remind folks like, oh, please don’t schedule me for that. I will not be here anymore. Like, I find that when a person who is feeling overwhelmed and who is usually feeling overwhelmed because they are a critical link in an organization leaves. All of a sudden that they become very valuable and everyone wants to listen to what they’re saying [laughter] which is great. But maybe if you had done that before, we wouldn’t be in this situation and it’s too late now, so you should just leave. Whether it is graceful or not doesn’t really have a whole lot to do with you. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So there’s this question, part of the question where she’s wondering, like, what if the actual organization fails? Because I leave? And I’m reminded of this conversation that we had back in that episode about academia as a broken institution with Dominique Baker. And she said, you’re special, but you’re not that special. 


Nicole Washington: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And I think that oftentimes people who have been propping up an organization on their shoulders have been doing so much work, like, I am not undervaluing that at all. But they also are like, everything’s going to collapse if I leave, which is why I cannot leave. 


Nicole Washington: If everything’s going to collapse, if one person leaves. Then it was never designed to stay standing in the first place. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Nicole Washington: And that is something that a lot of nonprofits have a big problem with, with succession planning, with having some redundancy in roles, particularly if there are smaller organizations to make sure that if one person gets sick or leaves or whatever, that everyone is scrambling. And again, that’s not your problem to solve. That is a bigger, more systemic problem. So I would argue that if it fails, no one is going to necessarily look at you and be like, well, this is your fault for failing. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. [laughs] Right. 


Nicole Washington: And if they do, that tells you all that you really need to know about them. And their perceptions of work and what working at a nonprofit is like. I am very aware, however, that particularly if you are a woman of color or hold any other sort of marginalized identity, that oftentimes you are put in leadership roles with the expectation that you will fail. And so there is an added pressure there to be like this can’t fail, because if it fails, not only does the organization fail, but they’re never going to have somebody that looks like me in a leadership position again, which I’m not going to lie is true. That is unfortunately how our world works. What I will say is that you can’t take that on. Again, it’s a systemic problem [dog barks] which needs a systemic solution, which means that you leaving to protect yourself is not going to change much. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Nicole Washington: At least not systemically. But what it will do is change your life, hopefully. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, well, I’m like, what a weight to be like. I am carrying the reputational future of like every person of my identity. Like, that is no one, no one, not even the president of the United States, should have to carry that mantle like it’s just too much. 


Nicole Washington: Yes. No one should have that pressure. That pressure does 100% exist, though.


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. [dog barks] 


Nicole Washington: And I am trying every day to unlearn it and say that is not mine to take on. 




Anne Helen Petersen: Our last question is about when you want someone else to do the leaving. Let’s hear from Liz. 


Liz: I started a nonprofit with my partner a few years ago and has since grown to six full time staff and hiring for two more, which is amazing. We both do this type of work as our full time job and function within the organization as co-founders, advisors, operators and board chairs. We know this is a burden on our staff and we work to be as explicit as possible about where we need to be involved. We have even hired a consultant who did a retreat with us and the team to reset our organizational systems as we grow. Our executive director has not been living up to our expectations for over a year now, and we would like to adjust her role while keeping her in a leadership position. She seems unwilling to come to terms with this, despite broaching this topic multiple times. I am more blunt than my partner, which has drawn out this conversation longer than I’d like. She went on maternity leave a month and a half early and is taking five months off two months longer than the official policy. In her absence, the team is thriving. I’m concerned about her transition back. How can we, in our roles, approach this transition for a new and small but growing nonprofit? 


Anne Helen Petersen: All right, Nicole, I’m going to throw this to you. Where do you want to start with this question? 


Nicole Washington: This question has a lot of red flags for me. [laughter] The immediate she’s taking five months off instead of the stated three, like, okay, she just had a baby. Let her have five months off. Like, the tone of this letter really, really makes me question the expectations that this executive director is supposed to be living up to. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm. 


Nicole Washington: And the fact that the team is thriving and this person’s absence could have to do with them, or it could have to do with an executive director who is tired of being undermined actively by the founders of a nonprofit who are working as founders and advisors and operators. Not entirely sure what that means and board chairs. That is. This. This letter gives me a lot of pause. The person who wrote this letter, I would like to talk to them about how they are structured at this organization, what sort of plan they have in place for transitioning themselves out. Because it seems to me that this is one of those things that is fairly common in nonprofits, where you have a founder in the organization is like very much a creature and tied to there’s its like founders disease there’s a term for it that I’m not remembering right now, but this organization is extremely tied into the personal identity of the founder. And then if anything happens or if that changes in any way, it becomes a huge problem. And if you bring in, let’s say, an outside executive director to try and make that shift to turn into anti-hunger organization instead of Amanda’s anti hunger organization, like that can lead to some real conflict with the founders. And the tone of this letter leads me to think that that might be the case. I would be very, very curious to hear what this executive director has to say. 


Anne Helen Petersen: I would also flag that she puts at the beginning. We know this is a burden on our staff, that they’re functioning as, you know, co-founders, advisors, operators and board chair, she says. We work to be as explicit as possible about where we need to be involved. 


Nicole Washington: That’s not an organization, that’s a fiefdom. 


Anne Helen Petersen: [laughs] I’m wondering if we can flip this question a little bit or maybe give her advice. That is not what she’s asking for, which is how can I as a founder, you not have founder’s disease [laughter] right? How can you try to extract yourself a little bit to give someone like this executive director a little bit more space to operate the organization? 


Nicole Washington: You are running a fiefdom. You are not running a nonprofit. It is important to have outside advisors, to have outside board members if for no other reason than no matter how great of people you and your partner may be, you are going to need additional perspectives to do whatever work it is that you are doing well, it sounds to me like that might not be the most palatable thing to you I’m making a lot of assumptions here. Full disclosure. But what I would say is that you need to think long and hard about what your exit strategy looks like, the term but we do we both do this type of work as our full time job. Makes me think that you started this nonprofit, but you are also doing something else. And I am of the belief that every nonprofit should be trying to work itself out of existence. Right? Like that’s the eventual end goal is that whatever problem you were created to solve does not exist anymore. So you don’t have to do this work. And I think that mentality is important. When you found a nonprofit as well, it’s not about you, right? If it’s about you, then you need to like have a donor advice fund or something like that. If you were founding a nonprofit to solve a problem, then it is about that problem, which means that you need to be able to create an organization that can exist without you. It kind of goes back to our our earlier question about the person who just felt like the organization might fail because they’re shouldering so much. Y’all are shouldering too much. Even if you like doing it, it’s not a sustainable form of organization to have. 


Anne Helen Petersen: I think that this is the sort of advice that is sometimes hard for people to hear. This question asker wanted us to tell her to fire her executive director. 


Nicole Washington: I feel like you need some management consulting or something. This, this. There are lots of things about this that feel very icky to me. 


Anne Helen Petersen: She mentions that they had like a consultant come in and they did a retreat. But if you hire a consultant to come in and like reorganize your operations, they’re not going to be like, oh, you the people who hired me, you should probably take a back seat unless they’re like really good consultants [laughs] you know? 


Nicole Washington: And this is where having a board that didn’t consist of you and your partner would be really helpful. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, and that’s the thing. It’s like surrounding yourself with a board that you trust, but also is willing to say hard things to you is really, really important, I think, in these sorts of situations. So I think that is our advice to this question asker is to think a little less about your executive director and think a little bit more about your position in the organization. Would you agree? 


Nicole Washington: Yes, I would absolutely agree. 


Anne Helen Petersen: But okay. Also, Nicole, if we are going to take this question totally at face value, what advice would you have for the question asker in terms of how could they make a smooth transition when she comes back from maternity leave moving into a different position, not the executive director position? 


Nicole Washington: If we are going to take this question at face value, I would say that yes, you are correct and that you are more blunt than your partner that comes through [laughs] the letter. I would say that while this person is on maternity leave, you need to have a deep and thorough look at your organization, what it needs, how it’s organized, and what your ideal situation is, so that if you want to keep this person and it sounds like you do, you can put them in a place where they are best set and like best positioned to succeed. Right? It sounds like maybe executive director is not the right role for them. Maybe they need to be in a programmatic role, maybe they need something else. But if you were going to do that, you need to look at it holistically and not just be like, I don’t want this person in this role, so I’m going to move them over here. Like that is not necessarily going to solve the problem. If you just do it in isolation without thinking about how that will affect the rest of the organization. I would also still say that you do need to think about an off ramp or at least bringing on more outside advisors and board members just because it will help you do your job and the job of the organization better. 


Anne Helen Petersen: I think that’s a really good, good faith answer as well. Nicole I am just so grateful for your wisdom in this episode. If people have ideas for future episodes where they would like Nicole to be our co-host, please email us. I am so eager to have you back as co-host again and we will figure out other things for you to give advice about. 


Nicole Washington: I mean, Anne has heard some of the most hair raising stories, but you all have [?] a really, really, good and or horrifying things to share. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Awesome. Thank you again. 


Nicole Washington: Thank you so much Anne. [music plays]


Anne Helen Petersen: Thanks for listening to Work Appropriate. If you need advice about a sticky situation at work, we are here for you. Submit your questions at or send a voice memo with your question to Work Appropriate at Don’t forget to follow us @CrookedMedia on Instagram and Twitter for more original content hosts takeovers and other community events. You can follow me on Twitter @AnneHelen or on Instagram @AnneHelenPetersen. You can sign up for my newsletter Culture Study If you like the show, leave us a little performance review on your podcast app of choice. It really helps. Work Appropriate is a Crooked Media production. I’m Anne Helen Petersen, your host. Our executive producer is Kendra James. Melody Rowell is our producer and editor. Alison Falzetta is our development producer. Music is composed by Chanell Crichlow. Additional production support from Ari Schwartz and a special thanks to Katie Long and Sarah Geismer. Next week is all about how to care less about your job. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss it.