Culture of Fear in Non-Profit Organizations

I’m not sure if this is strictly a non-profit issue, but today I’d like to discuss what I call the “culture of fear” in non-profit organizations.

Maybe it’s my personality, maybe it’s from living in Israel for over 5 years 🙂 (probably the latter … or a combination of both!), but thank G-d, I’m not really afraid to talk to anyone. However, I have noticed that in the non-profit sector there exists among certain people/ situations a culture that feels that certain people in high-ranking positions can only be addressed by people of the same rank. I completely disagree with this.

Let me give you an example to better illustrate my point. In 2011 I was successful (thank G-d) in procuring $40,000 for my organization through a grant that I wrote. This was from a US foundation, so the money was sent to our office in the US. The foundation had some changes in staff, and recently contacted us because they could not find the letter of acknowledgement that we sent them for the donation. My manager asked me about this, and I told her that the letter of acknowledgement would have come from our office in the US, as they were the ones who physically received the funds. My manager asked me to urgently contact the US office to ask them to re-send the letter. When I looked through my files, I saw that the contact person in the US with this foundation was our Executive Vice President. I sent him an e-mail asking him if he (or most likely his assistant 🙂 ) had the letter of acknowledgement. I also cc-ed the person in the office who handles the general thank-you letters. This person e-mailed me back and was absolutely furious that I had dared to e-mail the Executive Vice President about this. I see the following problem with this situation:

1)      This person assumes that I know exactly who does what in the US office

2)      This person seemed to imply that she thought I was intentionally trying to get her in “trouble” with her boss

3)      She did not think that I had the “right” to “go to the top” and e-mail the Executive Vice President … even though according to my records he was the contact person in the US with the foundation, and my manager had asked me to get this information urgently (and this was on a Sunday, when our US office is not open)

I do not want to turn this into a rant about who was right or wrong in this situation. That is not important in terms of this discussion. However, what really bothers me is what I see as a “culture of fear” within the non-profit sector. I understand that top-level management are busy and should not be bothered with mundane details, but for example, when something is urgent, I do not see why someone like myself (whom I would classify as mid-level) should be told that I should not “go to the top” and contact a high-level employee.

I also do not think that this is simply an issue of American workplace culture. I have seen things like this happen in Israel as well. I have witnessed situations where employees were not treated respectfully by fellow co-workers, and there was no one with the courage to say something to the director of the organization. (As I mentioned in a previous post, I work in a satellite office, so in this respect I am more removed from office politics, but issues have a way of getting around in an organization). I don’t believe in “sticking my nose in other peoples’ business”, but if I was involved in a situation like that, I would have no qualms to talk to the director. It doesn’t matter that s/he is in a higher position than me. We are all human beings and are all working toward the same cause.

What do you think? Am I a total chutzpanit (how to translate that … someone who oversteps the boundaries of accepted behavior)? Or should I be proud of my ability to speak my mind? What are your experiences with this “culture of fear” that can exist?

Chava Ashkenazi

Jerusalem, Israel

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2 Responses to Culture of Fear in Non-Profit Organizations

  1. Joe Brown Leer says:

    This is common in many nonprofits, both in Israel and the US.
    Due to their “amorphic” nature, quite often issues are not placed on the table clearly upfront, and people are expected to know quite a lot of politics.
    I think you were fine, especially if you did not BLAME someone, but rather just ASK if there is a copy of a letter somewhere…

  2. chavaleh1127 says:

    Thanks Joe! I appreciate your support 🙂

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