The future of not-for-profit organisations

by John Gray[1] 


In his song Friday, Joe Jackson wrote of work: ‘It ain’t so bad when you get used to it; once you clock in, you’ll take any shit’. The assumption is that work is a place where we surrender our broader identity, and become someone other than who we really are. Women managers become macho to compete in senior management; Black and Asian people dilute their culture, gay people hide in closets, older people fudge their age.

And this is even before we start surrendering our ideas and commitment - because they've never been asked for; our care about others - because formal boundaries and social defences prevent it; our completion of objectives - because funders want new starts not thorough finishes. Once you clock in, you’ll take any shit.

For many people in many workplaces, leaving these attributes at the door is done for a very good reason: when they’ve been brought in before, they’ve been trampled on, ignored or even used against the person bringing them in. But that fact has for years beggared both organisations and those who work within them.

We therefore say that organisations and the people within them need radically to change their attitudes towards each other. This is particularly true of not-for-profit organisations with a mission to bring about improvements for people and the world.

For the organisation, this change means becoming self-aware. It means accepting responsibility for where it ends up as an organisation – both in the shape it has, and the work it is doing. It requires an organisation to nurture its individuals, not simply in order to care for its employees, but so that it can deliver the highest quality of effective work. We say this because we understand that people at work in the non-profit sector actually feel better if they know their organisation, and the role they play within it, makes a real difference.

Organisations cannot rest on the excuses that they are not big enough to have a voice; or because experts know best (funders principally, but also statutory authorities and government departments); or that they are being made slaves to bureaucracy. The self-conscious organisation must act on what it knows from its own experience.

We need to acknowledge our own longing for change. Yet we are not even listening to ourselves – after all, we surrendered at the door.

Where do new ideas actually begin? They often arise in communities - of women, of the oppressed, of musicians, of the unionised, of the angry. There are many examples: Women against Pit Closures; 80’s pop music from Manchester; the Anti-Apartheid Movement; Stop the War Coalition; Friends of the Earth. People with passion will group into communities of interest. What lies beyond communities and their deep felt need are organisations, and non-profit ones at that.

Membership of national campaign groups in the UK is greater than that of all major political parties. This demonstrates people’s yearning for action and the way in which party politics, once the hotbed of radicalism, is no longer seen as a force for change. Yet many people working in non-profits also feel a deep disappointment that their organisation is not demonstrating transformation. We say that this is part of the surrender.

Of course many individuals are saying ‘No surrender’. People working in communities, movements for change and non-profit organisations are honouring their own truths, bringing them to the table and working with the consequences. In these places, the age of chaotic uncertainty that besets us all becomes less of a force to try and overcome, and instead a context within which to work.

The business guru Charles Handy writes of the existential corporation, whose principal function is to be itself, operating within a ring of forces or stakeholders: funders, employees, customers, suppliers, the environment and the community. The corporation ‘owes something to each of the ring-holders, but is owned by no one. It is in charge of its own destiny, and is immortal or would like to be. It is not a piece of property, inhabited by humans; it is a community.’ (Beyond Certainty, 1996 Arrow)

If this sounds desirable, what then needs to be said about the members of the community within this existential corporation? – for, as Handy observes, a community has members, not employees.

Just as the organisation needs to take responsibility for where it ends up as an organisation, so the individual member needs to bring an acceptance of responsibility for what happens to them within the organisation. ‘Don’t you know who I am?’, said the warlord to the monk who refused to bow the knee, ‘I could cut your head off!’ ‘Yes’, replied the monk, ‘but I am the one who could let you do it.’

Alongside the organisation’s openness to embracing the whole person as employee, comes the challenge to individuals to become willing to bring more of one’s whole self in. It implies a shift from the ‘me’ culture towards the ‘you and me’ culture, where others matter exactly because they are others.

It’s a wonderful yet risky picture, because historically organisations have been stronger than the humans in them, and have often wrought terrible damage to those within and without. Can we begin to manage what we have created? If so, we can fashion 21st century answers to the most fundamental challenges that face us. Organisations can be catalysts for change; and the people within them, bringing their whole selves to work, are the ultimate powerhouses which drive that change.


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[1] Biodata:

John Gray  is a freelance organisational consultant and trainer. His professional experience also includes managing a mediation service, and working at the Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva and with Hutus and Tutsis in Burundi. He originally qualified as a solicitor.

Through his consultancy work, John is interested in the development of organisations and the ways in which they can be encouraged to become both healthy and effective. He endeavours to take a holistic approach to working with organisations and the individuals within them, with an emphasis on encouraging the fulfilment of individual and organisational potential. He is a member of Framework, a network of freelance consultants and trainers, established in 1985 and working solely within the not-for-profit sector.


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Framework comprises the following members: John Gray, Bruce Britton, Moira Halliday, Penny Sharland, Andrew Woodgate - and may be found at