On the surface, leading a nonprofit might look like a piece of cake.

You assemble a group of people passionate about the mission, point them in the right direction and get out of their way. For the most part, there are no ego problems, no hidden agendas, and no one joins to make a lot of money. It’s a heart thing instead; their passion for the cause drives their desire to serve.

It seems pretty straightforward. Everyone gets along; everyone’s on the same page, everyone sees things the same way because the same mission statement unites everyone. Right? Ok, maybe not…. Just because everyone might have the same high-level shared goal — and this assumes they do — they will all have different ideas about how to get there. 

But The Struggle is Real…

I’ve led three for-profit companies, and I’ve been on the inside of dozens of nonprofits. From these experiences I’m convinced leading a nonprofit organization can be much more difficult, due in part to that passion. Passionate people have a unique gift for making the impossible happen. But there’s a downside. 

Nonprofit staff, volunteers, and board members are cause-driven.

They have significant emotional ownership in the mission and the agency itself. They take most decisions very personally. The passion that can help an agency run so smoothly and deliver significant impact is also the passion that can make some valuable individuals challenging to manage. 


Are They Actually Difficult People?

Some team members may have other ideas on how things should be done and might disagree with decisions, directives, or priorities.  Whether a director, volunteer or staff member, taken to extremes, this can make the workplace unpleasant and even hostile. Everyone already has enough to do without the discomfort of witnessing unnecessary drama in your offices.


So What Do You Do?

How do you handle a well-intended person — committed to your mission — but who has become a distraction and disruptive? How do you deal with difficult people in a nonprofit agency? And more importantly, how do you deal with the challenge, without losing the passionate gifts. 


10 Ways to Deal with Difficult People


1. Open the lines of communication. If a person displays antagonistic and challenging behavior more than once, you need to sit the person down and ask. What seems to be the problem? Why all the disruption? Maybe they have a point. Or, he or she may not realize they have crossed the line. In this case, an oral warning should suffice.

2. You may want to review your agency’s Values Statement, especially any that speak directly to this situation. A reminder may solve the problem. Explain that the way they are acting isn’t in line with the organization as a whole. 

3. Remember, straight talk is always your best alternative in situations like this. You owe it to the person to be kind and professional in demeanor but crystal clear and very specific that this behavior is not acceptable and such behavior will not be tolerated.

4. Be clear about consequences. They should know that repeated occurrences of any hostile behavior will result in termination or separation from the agency.

What about board members who become disruptive and difficult?


1. Bring the situation, and all specific details, to the board chair’s attention. It is the chair’s job, along with the governance committee chair, to address the behavior with the offending director.

2. Be specific about the intolerable or unacceptable behavior, and give examples. Make sure the person knows exactly what they are doing that is inappropriate. 

3. Seek to understand. Find out the cause of the undesirable behavior. Does the director have a point, but just chose the wrong way to address it?

4. Remind the director about the agency’s values and how their behavior has violated them, including the damage they have done to the team.

5. Remember, just as with staff and volunteers, straight talk with the appropriate party is always the best way to handle these situations.

6. Be clear about consequences. Communicate that continuing to demonstrate disruptive behavior can result in termination from the board.


Your primary goal in each of these situations should be to change behavior, not create a bigger problem.


Confronting difficult people can be challenging for many reasons. There’s always a chance — especially in a nonprofit — they could turn on you and spread malicious information in the community. Be professional, polite, and courteous when dealing with difficult people. 

Make sure you’ve given them a chance to be heard. Even if you don’t share their perspective, an open conversation can go a long way towards creating a more peaceful working environment.


If you’re dealing with difficult people in your agency — especially challenging board members — I can help.


Strong Foundations can pave the way for more engaged directors and can provide the board training you need to eliminate many difficult situations. Leading for Impact can give you the support you need to make the tough calls in your agency.


Need a bit more insight into dealing with difficult board members? Check out How to Deal with Difficult Board Members or learn how to identify when it’s time to let a board member go.