At first glance, being the head of a nonprofit may look easy…

You put together a team of passionate individuals that believe in the mission at hand, lead them in the right direction and let them do their thing. As a whole, egos are not an issue, no one has a secret agenda, and nobody is joining to get rich. Everyone is there because their heart, passion, dedication and drive calls on them to serve. 

On the surface, it all seems pretty simplistic. Colleagues like each other; everybody is on the same page and all see things the same way because they are all there for the same cause. Right? Well, unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Although the people on your team may all have the same high-level goal in mind, there will occasionally be those that have different ideas about what path to take to get there. So, how do you go about navigating those difficult people?

Acknowledging the issue…

In my past, I’ve been the leader of three for-profit companies and been on the inside of dozens of nonprofit organizations. One of my takeaways from these experiences is that leading a nonprofit has proven it can be much more difficult, partly because of the amount of passion behind it.

Passionate people have the uncanny ability to make the impossible happen. However, there is a downside. Nonprofit staff, volunteers, and board members are the same in that they are all cause-driven. They share significant emotional investment in both their goals and the agency itself. Therefore, the decisions that are made (or not made) are very personal to them. Sometimes, the same passion that an agency can benefit from is also the passion that can make some crucial individuals a challenge to manage. 

Does this make them Difficult People?

As a leader, there may be certain team members with different ideas about how things should be done. They may disagree with decisions, directives, or priorities. Regardless of whether their status is a director, volunteer or staff member, this can potentially create an unpleasant workplace environment or even, in some cases, make people hostile. There are enough things to worry about in day to day operations without having to deal with witnessing unnecessary drama in your offices.

So what’s the solution?

Although they may be right in their intentions and are committed to your mission, it is important to get issues like this under control before they become a distraction and disruptive. How do you deal with difficult people in a nonprofit agency? And more importantly, how do you rise to the challenge, without losing the beneficial passion? I offer you 10 possible solutions.

10 Ways to Deal with Difficult People

When it’s your staff or volunteers

  •  Establish a direct line of communication. If an individual is displaying antagonistic and challenging behavior on separate occasions, you need to sit the person down and have a conversation with them. What is the source of the issue? Why all the disruption? It’s possible they have a valid point to make. Or, they may be unaware that a line has been crossed. If this is the case, an oral warning should suffice.
  • Take a look at your agency’s Values Statement. Is there anything in there that speaks directly to this situation? A reminder of your core values may solve the problem. Explain that the way the type of behavior they are displaying isn’t in line with the organization and that it needs to change.
  • Remember, being straightforward is the best alternative in problems like this. As a leader, you’ll want to be kind and professional in your demeanor, but also be as clear and specific as possible that the way they are conducting themselves is not acceptable and will not be tolerated.
  • Make the consequences known. The individuals at hand should know that repeated displays of hostile behavior will result in their termination or severed ties from the agency.


When it’s your board of directors

  • Inform the board chair of the situation and details. The chairman’s job, along with the governance committee chair, is to address these issues with the offending director.
  • Recount specific examples of the intolerable or unacceptable behavior. Let the person know exactly what is inappropriate about their behavior.
  • Try to understand why. Weed out the root cause of the inappropriate behavior. Does this director make a good point, but just addressed it poorly?
  • Have the director review the agency’s values and how their behavior has gone against them. Be sure to include the damage they have done to the team’s morale.
  • Being straightforward is key. Just as with your staff and volunteers, straight talk with the offending director is always the best option when handling these situations.
  • Are the directors aware of the consequences? Communicate that continuing to act in this way can result in termination from the board.


The primary goal in these situations should be to change behavior, not make the problem worse.


Confronting difficult people can prove challenging in many ways. Oftentimes, there’s a chance — especially in a nonprofit — the person can turn on you and spread malicious information to the community. It is always important to be professional, polite, and courteous when dealing with difficult people.

Remember, whether you agree with them or not, they need a chance to be heard. Even if you don’t share their perspective, creating a dialogue can go a long way towards establishing a more peaceful working environment.

Are you dealing with difficult people or board members in your agency? I can help.

Check out Calibrate — the new virtual Executive Director coaching program coming soon.

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.