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Elizabeth Fuss Arnott, SPHR  I have been working in Human Resources for 23 years. Since 2011, I have been certified as a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR).  I have a BA in English and a Master of Jurisprudence in Labor and Employment Law from Tulane Law School. I live in the Pacific Northwest with my husband Luke and our cat, Poirot. I write about HR, non-profits, the art of managing people and Neurodiversity in the workplace. I'm available for employment, contract work, consulting, coaching and training virtually and in the Portland, OR area. Please email me at for more information. 

  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Arnott, SPHR

Can Non-Profits Have a Toxic Culture?

We often think of non-profits as altruistic islands of do-gooders. Pure in intent with dedicated, passionate workers and leaders. Is it even possible for non-profits to have a toxic culture? Absolutely. Usually, it's the kind of toxicity that turns your organization from purpose-driven to cut-throat and turns your employees from dedicated to the mission to only looking out for themselves. And it happens more often and more easily than we want to admit.

How does this happen?

Non-profits develop toxic cultures as the gradual result of not prioritizing their people systems and strategies. Because the purpose of the organization drives most actions, people get pushed down the priority list. It's not because a leader decides to have a toxic culture. It's the default - what happens when you singularly focus on the mission and don't see the people helping you accomplish that mission. There's not time for training staff because we have to serve the clients. There's not resources for adequate compensation and benefits because we need to grow our services. There's not time or money to invest in training new managers because we have to invest in marketing our services to our client base.

Even though it's not what you intended, employees and managers get the very clear message: You are not important. So employees set out to make themselves important, to show their value. They work overtime "off the clock". They buy supplies with their own money. They resent the lack of resources. They note that their not-as-hard-working co-worker gets promoted. New managers fall back on management skills they are familiar with: telling employees to perform tasks instead of asking; demanding respect because of their job title instead of earning respect by giving respect; not delegating and taking on too much so their direct supervisor can see how hard they work, and how valuable they are. Employees begin to resent their managers. Managers are frustrated and overworked. The organization grows, and these problems multiply. Service to your clients suffer. Quality of work suffers. And gradually the organization wastes more and more money on turnover, ineffective work practices, repairing mistakes, and workplace drama.

How can we fix it?

A toxic culture is not irreparable. It can be rehabilitated with the support and initiative of the executive leaders in the organization. And they absolutely have to be 100% supportive. No wiggle room. Changing a toxic culture means looking at approaches that haven't worked and processes that have held employees down instead of lifting them up. You can't have change if the leaders are not willing to see what is wrong. It means humbling yourself and changing the priorities of the organization.

Once the executive leadership is on board, the possibilities are endless. An objective third party to help you figure out what has gone wrong and what needs to be fixed is essential so that you aren't blinded by your own bias. Work with your consultant to find out where your pain points are. Take time to determine the best processes and culture improvements for your organization. It will be different for every organization. Thoughtfully roll out changes one at a time. It may take months, or even years to completely turn around a toxic culture. But if you invest in changing it, your money will be more efficiently used on the purpose of your organization and less money will be wasted on workplace drama, conflict and poor management.

If you are ready to make changes in your non-profit culture, I can help. Contact me at


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