Okay, We Need to Talk About Toxic Non-Profit Workplaces

Over the past few months, I’ve coached too many non-profit employees who are in what they’re calling “toxic” or “abusive” non-profit organizations. It’s no secret that non-profit staff are underpaid, overworked, and always expected to go above and beyond. Self-care is difficult when you have domestic violence survivors looking for safety and homeless families needing shelter for the night. But the stress is even more compounded when staff are struggling emotionally to go to work every day. I should know. I’ve worked in toxic non-profit organizations.

First, let’s define what a toxic non-profit workplace is. I talked to twenty non-profit staff members who have experienced it and asked what toxicity means to them. Here are some of the responses.

“I was in a toxic environment where my voice wasn’t heard. I was bullied every day.”

“It wasn’t safe for me – emotionally or psychologically. I was always thinking, when and where will the next verbal attack come from?”

“Being in the office is like sitting on eggshells. You never know when something is going to happen. I never felt safe, and sometimes I hid from my boss.”

“I’ve never worked in a non-profit that wasn’t toxic. That’s why I left the sector. I figured if it was going to be like this, then I might as well go into corporate.”

In other words, toxic meant being attacked or bullied (verbally, emotionally, or psychologically). They largely felt unsupported. Almost all of the non-profit staff I spoke to had told their supervisors, Executive Director, and/or the Board of Directors about what was happening. The result was that nothing changed so they quit their jobs. Some left the non-profit sector altogether. A few said their leadership was just as abusive and were fired for even raising the alarm.

I was surprised by how pervasive this issue is. The cost to the non-profit sector is that we are losing intelligent and highly capable employees. These are individuals who truly believe in the mission of the organizations they work for. They go to work every day in order to make the world a better place. The 2016 Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey, published by Nonprofit HR, puts the average employee turnover rate at 19%.  We’re not talking just burnout here. In fact, we’re past burnout. We’re talking about the need for collective care and radical healing.

Organizations that build a culture of collective care and radical healing looks internally as much as they look externally. I strongly believe it is the lack of healing from our own traumas, self-care, and the constant working in a place that triggers us is what contributes to the creation and building of a toxic environment. Organizations that are willing to take on this hard work of healing and care do the following:


1.     They hold spaces for staff who are dealing with their own problems.

2.     They offer generous and flexible work schedules so that staff can take care of themselves.

3.     They have dedicated areas for reflection, meditation, massage, etc.

4.     They implement a shared leadership model.

5.     They take the time to check-in with one another in staff meetings.

6.     They create spaces for healing because they know that the work they do is going to trigger them and each other.

7.     They also write the costs of implementing a collective care culture into the organizational budget!


Non-profits that have made collective care a priority and put their staff first often end up with less turnover, higher staff morale, and better service delivery.

I know it seems like it’s going to be a lot of work. It might be, and it’s worth it. It is possible to create a non-profit culture that puts its people first. After all, we know that a lot of non-profit employees are there because they have personal experience with the issues they’re working on. And in that way, they deserve to be treated just as well as we treat the people we serve.


If you’re a non-profit leader looking to create a culture of collective care, contact me. I’m happy to offer a free hour of consultation to help you get started.