NPT Blog: Winning The War Within

Under siege, that is how many human service providers are feeling. And, they have good reasons. Two huge issues we are facing can have cataclysmic results if we do not prevail.

Saving the charitable deduction is the first issue and the second is the trend in which all levels of government are responding to legislative budget cuts by shifting their responsibility to provide services to underfunded nonprofits. We must resolve these issues while surviving in an environment of unprecedented political vitriol and the vilification of the people needing services as lazy and coddled by liberal do-gooders.

However, the “family secret” in our sector that no one really talks about is going to take us down before either issue if we don’t deal with the war within nonprofits.

The war is between the internal program staff and the external staff in communications, marketing, public policy and fundraising. There is often a lack of communication, cooperation and a growing divide between these two factions in many organizations.

The program staff is being asked to do more. They are on the front lines dealing with the ravages of cutbacks, sequestration and the economy. I am talking about the people who staff the night shift at the homeless teen shelter, counsel pregnant veterans fighting addiction and take care of adults with Down Syndrome and Alzheimer’s.

In some organizational cultures these staff members are almost treated like the servant class by a few executives. Program staff are extolled as self-sacrificing, heroic servants, but nonetheless servants. There is a class divide between the program staff and leadership. Often the only time we are all in the same space is at a holiday party or staff picnic.

Diversity is also a festering problem. Some 75 percent of staff in nonprofits is women but 21 percent of the executive staff is female. The same statistics regarding African American and Hispanic staff demonstrate a more staggering disparity.

The fundraising, communications, and public policy staffs mostly engage the direct service staff in our programs when they want something — a tear-jerking story for a fundraising appeal, a photo session for our website or a well-spoken, attractive client to meet with a politician. Don’t get me started on the program tours. Some executives stride into the programs with donors, reporters or legislators and pretend that this isn’t the first time they have been there in a year.

On the other hand, the program staff members sometimes express the frustration that the external staff is a frivolous waste of money. They don’t see communications, marketing or public policy staff bringing in resources to fund their programs. The ongoing conflict between fundraisers and program staff is legendary. The folks working in the trenches sometimes confuse those of us in external roles with the enemy.

CEOs and the executive teams of nonprofits have to pay more attention to this ongoing battle and bring about a truce. There is no way the new software for impact analytics is going to mean a thing if the program staff at all levels is not brought into the process early and often. Some of the best legislative advocates for clients are the program staff members who go to the same church or temple and live near the legislator you have been trying to meet. The program staff needs to understand why the charitable deduction needs to be saved and how it supports their work. They should be involved in strategy sessions about dealing with the cutbacks of government contracts.

The executive leadership in the nonprofit sector must become more intentional about sharing the big picture and strategy with every single staff member.

We must end these self-inflicted wounds by paying attention and addressing the issue of the war within through an authentic and transparent sustainable strategy. This will enable us to focus our united efforts to win the war on the real enemies: poverty, injustice and despair. The environment in which nonprofits must operate is so precarious that we need a collaborative, trusting and diverse internal culture now more than ever.


Jatrice Martel Gaiter is executive vice president of external affairs at Volunteers of America and is vice president of the board of directors of the National Human Services Assembly. Her email is JMGaiter@voa.org