Letting People go in an NGO

May 23, 2008 Published under Entrepreneurship and Management

Related to and independent of the prior posting, I’ve noticed that letting someone go in an NGO (when that is the right and necessary path) is much harder for Executive Directors than it is for CEOs of a company.  Why is this?

The most immediate reason may have to do with the culture and mission of public service that NGOs have.  Organizations want to do nice things.  Letting a person go can be done in a nice way, but it is not a nice or pleasant thing to do.

But I think this also is harder on Executive Directors because there is less inherent incentive to control costs – as the entity is not trying to maximize profits, but to maximize impact.  Executive Directors are not going to get paid more for saving the organization funds.  The money saved is not going to their pockets – and should not (or it could create perverse counter-incentives).  So why should they take the painful step of removing someone they may personally like and consider a peer or friend, even if that person may no longer be optimally serving the needs of the organization? "Optimally" is the key word here, because I doubt many Executive Directors are incompetent and irresponsible enough to not take steps that are patently warranted – i.e., when the person is just truly unsuitable for a job.  But gray areas may prompt far less managerial rigor.

You can then fast-forward and understand how, 10 and 20 years later, you end up with lethargic institutions with under-performing employees whose tasks or missions may no longer be societal priorities, but who scramble by with a sense of passive entitlement.

This is not only not good for society or for the bloated and unproductive organizations, but it is also not good for the employees whose professional growth has been stilted.

Unless they are running a program whose very objective is to generate job opportunities (with mediocre jobs and opportunities if that is the best they can achieve), heads of NGOs (and those who report to them) have a responsibility to remember they are not employment agencies, and they have a fiduciary duty to those who donated the funds to ensure these are used effectively for the stated mission.  With kindness and professionalism, they can achieve a more dynamic work environment that ultimately works best for all.

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