Is toxicity just par for the course in the nonprofit world?

When Matt Damon came to speak at a previous job. Not pictured: Matt Damon.

Last year, when I met up with a friend in Paris who worked in the human rights field, she told me something shocking. “One of Amnesty International’s employees killed himself in their Paris office last year.”

I was stunned. Holy shit. That night, I went on Google and looked up the full story. The man’s name was Gaëtan Mootoo. He had been working as a researcher for Amnesty International for thirty years, and was widely seen as one of the most authentic and authoritative expert voices on human rights in francophone Africa. One night in May, he sat down in his office, wrote a final note to his wife, and took his own life.

Amnesty commissioned a full inquiry into the conditions that led to his death. The report is available here, and it’s very much worth reading and re-reading. There were many different factors that weighed him down and made life increasingly untenable, but there was one common thread running through many of them: toxic working conditions that were a mixture of deliberate negligence, ridicule and sidelining, emotional and physical stress, and lack of resources and support.

The inquiry was accompanied by a separate review of employee wellbeing at Amnesty. The results were damning and sobering. Employees reported feeling more distressed by the bullying and pressure they experienced in the workplace than seeing photos of graphic violence in the field. It doesn’t make sense: how could an organization dedicated to safeguarding human rights and human dignity allow its employees to be treated so — well, inhumanely?

And yet toxicity is astonishingly common in the nonprofit sector. There are many different possible reasons for why this could be. Maybe we’re so committed to the mission and making a difference that we’re more likely to tolerate unacceptable conditions like starvation pay and lack of work-life balance and bullying. Maybe we don’t have the budget or the resources to fund training for managers. Maybe we get emotionally scarred from the awful things that we have to witness and address in our work, especially in the human rights field, and without access to affordable therapy, we allow the PTSD and unresolved anger to consume us and turn us into monsters.

Regardless: it’s fucked up. And it should never be acceptable.

I’ve worked at several organizations in my career, all of them purpose-driven, or at least purporting to be. Here’s a short list of things that I’ve either witnessed or learned through first-hand accounts in the last 7+ years, in no particular order.

  • A woman sued a gay man at the same organization for sexual harassment.
  • A male manager threatened a female subordinate with ending her contract and thus ending her work visa if she didn’t sleep with him.
  • A colleague quit abruptly due to sustained verbal abuse and mistreatment from an external collaborator, whose partnership we needed because they were a prominent human rights advocate in that particular country of work.
  • A manager pushed out a report through deliberate, targeted bullying until the report quit of their own accord, and the manager was able to then replace them with a friend.
  • A colleague was repeatedly bullied by a senior director who attributed their anger issues to PTSD from growing up in a war-torn country.
  • A colleague reported a toxic manager to HR, went through a year-long process during which their testimony was backed up by the accounts of many other coworkers, and ultimately the manager was only given a written warning because it was their first offense.
  • The only person of color on a team was also the only person who never got promoted during their tenure. (Oh wait, this was me!)
  • A report was asked to take a screenshot of every single page on every single website managed by the team and compile these into a PowerPoint deck to be shared with their manager every day, to prove that all of the websites were up and running. This same report was berated in a 10pm phone call by their manager for accidentally leaving out the .html part of a URL. (Uh oh, this is also me!)

I’m not angry. I’m not a confrontational person, and I’ve also seen enough of how the world works to not be surprised by anything more. But I have been thinking: What can I do to change this? Even if I can change one thing — one tiny thing that could make life a little less shitty for even just one person — then wouldn’t that be something?

I’m currently in the process of interviewing different career coaches. “My ultimate career goal is to become a senior executive.” In each conversation, I tell them. “I want to be the director of communications at a big nonprofit. I want to be in charge of people and budgets.”

All of that seems so far away. But I know that when I make it into a position of power one day, then I will do everything I can to create better working conditions for everyone who works for me, because I know that toxic cultures start from the leadership and trickle down. I might not have a budget for management training; I might not be able to afford nice amenities for the staff; I might not be able to offer high salaries. But the least I can do is model and foster an open, honest, equitable and safe environment. I know it can be done; I have already met many women and men who are modeling this behavior at various levels of seniority, across many organizations. They inspire me.

The manager who called me at 10pm recently sent a connection request to me on LinkedIn, after I had quietly removed her several years before. I was tempted to write back something snarky, like, “I’m honestly pretty surprised to hear from you…” but decided to just let it pass and ignore the request. Candid feedback is a gift. For some people, it might already be too late.

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