Nepotism in Nonprofits and How to Avoid It

In many ways, nonprofits are vulnerable to the same thorny issues that for-profit businesses face. In an environment with high stakes and sometimes low resources, it is no wonder that there’s a risk of nepotism in nonprofits. Let’s look at why this is a dangerous problem, how it happens, and what to do about it.

nepotism in a nonprofit

Nepotism in Nonprofits Takes Many Forms

Nepotism is the practice of hiring or conferring advantages at work on family members, especially by people in power. It doesn’t sound so bad at first, right? Maybe the program director’s brother loses his job suddenly and she lobbies to land him a contract at the nonprofit. If he is qualified and the nonprofit was spending the money anyway, it’s a win-win, isn’t it?

Recently, an executive director told us about a challenging situation at her nonprofit. One of their biggest donors asked if there was an opportunity for her daughter to intern at the organization. She’s a good kid, so what’s the big deal?

Nepotism Is Fertile Ground for Problems

There are a number of reasons that nepotism is so dangerous not only for businesses, but also for nonprofits. If you find yourself tempted to allow a little “harmless” nepotism at your nonprofit, consider the following possibilities:

  • There is probably better qualified talent if you looked objectively.
  • How will you offer constructive feedback to someone who is protected by a more powerful connection? What if you wanted to terminate them?
  • Morale at your organization will suffer if coworkers see their hard work looked over in favor of someone more connected.
  • Can your staff make objective decisions about operations with conflicting interests and alliances in play?
  • A collection of people with similar backgrounds and perspectives can’t problem solve as well as a more diverse collection of people.

How to Guard Against Nepotism at Your Nonprofit

Like most insidious or ethical challenges at a nonprofit, the best offense is a good defense. Setting a firm anti-nepotism policy in your bylaws and onboarding agreements lays out expectations. You might want to offer examples like the ones above and even do periodic board education on the topic. Be sure that your governance committee is well-versed on the topic and has a clear process for addressing questions of conflict of interest and nonprofit nepotism.

Handle with Care

It’s easy to recognize blatant harmful nepotism, but there may be more subtle situations that arise. For example, you might be hiring for a position, and a relative of a powerful figure at the nonprofit truly is the best candidate. Similarly, the same could occur with contract bidding or selecting a venue for an event. In these cases, look to your bylaws and governance committee for guidance. At a minimum, any connected parties should recuse themselves from any biased discussions.

Another crucial element is to have a formal process for evaluating vendors, employees, and other parties. If you have that set in advance, there is little subjectivity needed in performing routine assessments. In general, the more you can define expectations, protocols, and definitions ahead of time, the less room there is for confusion.

Nepotism in a Nonprofit Isn’t a Given

Finally, remember that your high standards don’t need to be compromised, just because something is common or accepted. Stick to your mission, vision, and bylaws, and you will safeguard your organization from this tricky problem. Keep up the great work!

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