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Protect Yourself from the Nonprofit Bully

Last week in a post called “The Nonprofit Bully,” I wrote about the phenomenon of individuals or whole organizations in the nonprofit world using many of the tactics of the schoolyard bully as a way to gain power and position among funders, policymakers, and the community at large. A companion piece, “The T-Rex, the Woodchuck, and the Wildebeest,” was written as a fairy tale about bullying. The central theme of both essays is that bullies bully because people let them.

Whether it’s with their naivete, lack of confidence, or plain old unvarnished FEAR, the bullied basically pave the road that the bully uses to run them over. A lot of the time, the bullied have no idea how complicit they’ve been in their own oppression, gathering together to talk about the bully as if s/he is a force of nature, uncontrollable by mere mortals. A tsunami, if you will, or tornado flattening a small town.

Nonsense!

Bullies can be stopped or, if not stopped, seriously hobbled. Here’s how you can avoid being being the victim of nonprofit bullying.

Believe what you see. A nonprofit bully is great at managing the environment so that his/her targets are often caught off balance. Treated as friends one day, they’re isolated the next. They learn not to trust their own instincts, to never really know where they stand. “Did that really happen?” “Did s/he really say that?” Because many of the things a nonprofit bully will do are outside the boundaries of what most people would consider acceptable, the bullied are often surprised and taken aback. Here’s where naivete comes in. Just because you wouldn’t do it doesn’t mean that a bully won’t. A bully counts on you playing by the rules while s/he is stealing the ref’s whistle. Spend the time it takes to really understand what’s going down. Make no assumption of fairness or fair play. Give everything the deep, thorough eye.

Work the process. The best protection against a bully is a transparent process. This won’t stop a bully altogether but it requires that s/he channel his bullying behavior into a structured process. If the bully is operating in a coalition framework, there needs to be an agreed-up process for making decisions and expressed sanctions for going around the process for one’s own benefit (also known as double dealing). If the bullying is happening in a smaller context, then the tried and true approach of laying out decision steps, documenting the process, and having a witness to every interaction is a must. When the bullying is offline – happening in a way or venue that it is very difficult to capture and adress – figure out how to get it online. What’s the process that could be used to bring the bullying in from behind the barn? That’s what you need to think about. How do I shine a process light on this?

Establish your own relationships. In my experience, some nonprofit directors spend a lot of time on relationship-building with funders, elected officials, and policymakers. A successful bully will have very, very strong relationships with these entities and will use them to create an implicit or explicit insider decision strategy. Other nonprofit directors unwisely beg off building these relationships, saying that they don’t have time, don’t want to be ‘political,’ and want their work to stand on its own merits. This is a strategic error. There’s a reason why courtiers fought so hard to be in the king’s privy chamber: they knew the king would listen to the last person who tucked him in at night. Should you be that person? Or the bully? Here, I think there are important gender differences. In my observation, male nonprofit directors spend much more time relationship building (maybe because the elected officials, policymakers and funders are still predominantly male?) than female nonprofit director do. Women, I think, tend to have a stronger belief in the meritocracy; men are more into the great fruits and benefits of the locker room. Just a theory.

Resist the confrontation. Nothing gets bullied folks more jazzed up than the rumor of an impending showdown with the bully. “We’re going to call him/her out on this one.” “We’ve had enough.” Let me tell you – from both my experience as an executive in a bullying organization and as the target of bullying – 99.9% of the time, the showdown is less dramatic than an old man sleeping in his La-Z-Boy rocker. Snooooooze. Orchestrated confrontations, unless they’re invasions of Normandy or the UAW striking GM in the 30’s, fall as flat as the period on this page. Your colleagues? The ones who swore they’d had it and were going to really lay down the law with the bully? Ha! They’ll turn tail like Susie Wildebeest’s scaredy-cat brethren. The upshot? The bully’s power is unwittingly reinforced.

Play the long game. First and foremost, your job as a nonprofit director is to run a fine agency, not to play  mind games with a nonprofit bully. Still, you have to protect your agency and your interests. Nonprofit bullying isn’t about getting a nicer seat at the annual banquet; it’s about money and power and determining the future for the people you serve. That means you need to be tough and enduring, patient and smart, grounded and strong. And you need to be these things over the long term. You need to be a force to be dealt with even when you want to run for the door. When you or your nonprofit colleagues are being bullied, practice saying this over and over until you can say it without going weak in the knees: I refuse to be bullied. I refuse to be bullied.

I REFUSE TO BE BULLIED.

Believe me, I know from experience that it is very hard to stand up to a bully. So much easier to choose another route to school so you don’t have to pass ‘that’ corner or find another funding source so you don’t have to deal with ‘that’ organization. Everytime, you make that choice, though, you’re putting muscle on the bully. Every time you acquiesce, don’t question, don’t insist on a process, and let others define you to the rest of the world, you are putting more and more and more muscle on the bully.

Does it have to be that way? You tell me. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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The Nonprofit Bully

Bullies don’t just hang out on the playground. They live in the grown-up world of nonprofit organizations, too.

They’re in the next cubicle, in directors’ offices, and in the board room. Bullying happens between people and between organizations. Generally, the bully is focused on increasing his/her power at the expense of others. How is this done?

Disinformation campaigns: One of the primary tools of the grown-up bully is the spreading of disinformation. “People don’t do anything but hang out all day at that program. No real services are provided.” “They’re having a lot of financial trouble, haven’t you heard?” “They take all the easy ones; they don’t know how to work with the really tough cases.” The steady rat-a-tat-tat of disinformation is very effective in planting the seeds of doubt and lack of confidence in another organization’s programs – especially among policymakers and funders who lack firsthand knowledge and rely a lot on the loudest drumbeat.

Insinuations about a colleague’s motives or competence: Casual remarks that colleagues lack experience or are not truly committed to the people they serve are a key tool of the bullying nonprofit professional. Because these things are never said directly to a person’s face, he/she often has no idea that this kind of negative chat is going on about him/her. And, of course, because the insinuations are indirect and amorphous, it’s nearly impossible to confront the bully.

Control over money and process: Much like the abusive husband who cuts off his wife’s access to their bank acount, a bully finds ways to control others’ access to funding. This can be through the vehicle of being a fiscal agent or by controlling the design and implementation of the process by which funding decisions are made. Very often, bullied programs have no idea that they are being controlled financially and programmatically until after the fact. Or, if they do see it happening, they feel powerless to intervene or advocate on their own behalf. They fear the repercussions of speaking up.

What happens when a bully goes unchecked? He/she is emboldened. If the playground bully gets a little kid’s lunch money on Monday, he’s going to take it Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, too. Compliance with a bully brings immediate relief and long term oppression.

Next week, I’ll talk about some strategies for dealing with bullying in the non-profit world. Meanwhile, if you have experiences or suggestions, be sure to share them in the comments.


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