Magic Hamper Executives

February 1, 2013       Thomas McLaughlin      

At some point in their development, most children learn about Magic Hampers. These are containers of some sort that the adults in the family put in a kid-friendly location. The formula is simple – put dirty clothes in the thing and eventually, like magic, those clothes reappear neatly folded and clean. The child thinks: How did this happen? That evolves into: Who cares?

The upgrade from dirty and rumpled to clean and folded is pleasant, but it’s not as if the child demanded it. That’s the thing about Magic Hampers. They just, well, happen.

In large and sophisticated organizations of all kinds, Magic Hampers abound. The IT system delivers the email, backs up all the records, tends to the servers, and makes sure systems are integrated. The human resources department hires people, administers benefits, and issues timely memos. All the required tax forms are filed, broken file cabinets are replaced, and the parking lot is periodically repaved. How do all of these things happen? Magic Hamper executives don’t need to examine the question because it’s someone else’s responsibility.

Most nonprofits don’t have Magic Hampers. But, Magic Hamper syndrome can still afflict them. The most important and generic distinction in management is that between executives and managers and their differing time frames. Managers’ typical orientation to time is measured in weeks or perhaps months. The normal business cycle of the entity determines most managers’ focus.

For instance, if a direct care program schedules staff members monthly, the manager’s timeline will usually consist of two chunks of time — the rest of this month and all of next month. Similarly, a university manager will be oriented to the rest of this semester and the next.

By contrast, the effective executive should operate with a timeline of several years. Their job is to help their organization cope with change over an extended period. But in small to medium size nonprofits, which constitute the majority of nonprofit organizations, the distinction between executives and managers is non-existent because the smaller scale and lack of substantive overhead capacity means there are often more urgent demands in the present day than for months or years in the future. Often the executive director will be submitting a multi-year grant application for a new program one minute, then scrambling to deposit the payroll tax payment the next.

Nonprofits of all sizes tend to prize executives coming to them from the private, for-profit sector because they are perceived as having had good experience in management practices. That might well be true, but both parties need to recognize that there could be a significant disconnect. Those professionals spending their formative years in a major institution can easily develop a skewed notion of what it takes to run an organization.

What really encourages the Magic Hamper mentality is segmentation. Large production-oriented entities, which are nearly the only kind of large entities, have no choice but to operate in a highly segmented environment because this is one of the best ways to manage in a complex environment.

Ideally, nonprofit executives who come from this kind of background will approach their new assignment with humility, patience, and a sincere desire to learn as much as they can about the new environment. If instead they show little appreciation for the cultural nuances of the nonprofit, it could be the beginning of a difficult path. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Arrange a board member confidential. Board mem­bers with similar backgrounds might be able to “tutor” the new executive. This is hard for a staff member to arrange, so the best approach is to work through a board member with close ties to the staff.
  • Make no assumptions. New executives might only seem arrogant. Offer guidance to the new culture in tiny little bits.
  • Laugh. A little perspective can help educate the new executive if you can laugh at some of these odd nonprofit tribal norms.

Board members with Magic Hamper Syndrome are problematic in a different way. These are the men and women who push sweeping visions of social change and organizational achievement. They take the mission seriously and they expect others to do the same, but their view of the world sounds suspiciously similar to what they see from inside their large employer.

They’re often not all that interested in efforts that take backroom support, so their magic hampers take different forms. One of the most problematic occurs when the board member assumes that the nonprofit’s network is much like their own.

Even allowing for the differences in size between the organizations, this is a fundamental misperception because of some basic differences between the sectors. For example, linking one’s own company with another through a major joint venture is a coup in this executive’s native territory, but an invitation for related party transactions in the nonprofit sector.

Executives from the public company sector also tend to see legislative activity purely as direct lobbying that is always done by a team of professional lobbyists, so interaction with the government — if it comes at all — tends to take the form of a grocery list. In nonprofits by contrast, organizing is far more important and, for publicly funded nonprofits, this almost always directly involves one’s staff and one’s self.

Finally, public company CEOs and marketing executives often have large networks of contacts that they have built up over the years. These networks often provide business, social, recreational and political benefits that are by now so ingrained that the executive may not realize how unique and powerful her network is. The result is that they expect others in their board role to have the same advantage but they might not end up using their networks as part of their board service because they are so accustomed to operating in a world where these advantages are a given.

To work with this kind of board member, the street­smart nonprofit executive must learn how to see the world from their perspective. Obviously those networks are potentially powerful sources of fundraising, but they can also be entryways to certain types of power, problem solving resources, and important information.

While other board members might be able to buffer this type of executive’s excess of zeal, the board member’s magic hampers can actually be put to work as self-lubricating machinery for the organization. The board member executive with easy access to the best schools, the best health care, political leverage, and access to decision makers — their own mixture of magic hampers — could be an asset if used in very specific and directed ways.

This could be the board member who has a personal tie to the mayor or who knows the permitting process for a new building by heart because they’ve done it so many times. The key is to get the board member executive to use the contacts and information that they take for granted in the service of the nonprofit rather than for business or family benefit.

Magic Hampers — those benefits and processes we take for granted in the context of our professional lives — are powerful shapers of behavior. Nonprofit executives with a background in major companies can bring a refreshing energy and vision to nonprofit organizations if they are willing and able to identify their own in-bred assumptions. And those from a hamper-rich professional environment can find ways to share their advantages with the cause they have adopted, leaving outsiders to think “how did that happen?” NPT

Thomas A. McLaughlin is the founder of the consulting firm McLaughlin & Associates and a faculty member at the Heller School for Social Policy at Brandeis University. He is the author of “Non­profit Strategic Positioning,” published by Wiley & Sons. His email address is