When I was in university, I studied psychology. I was particularly interested in the intriguing, sometimes astonishing, professor Philip Zimbardo - the scientist behind the Stanford Prison Experiment. Zimbardo’s work argues that there is no such thing as ‘good apples’ and ‘bad apples’. In fact, it is actually more dangerous to perceive oneself as a ‘good apple’ who could never [insert vice]. It is exactly this type of person who will trip into the pitfalls of cognitive dissonance - either justifying or completing erasing the memory of the sin they have committed because it does not accommodate their sense of self. By contrast, those who are humble and willing to admit their faults and flaws are much more likely to live good, moral lives. As I get older, I have found this theory rings especially true for institutions, and not just individuals.
I have spent the last few years working in the non-profit sector. First, for a now dissolved non-profit organization focused on international development, and now for a public health organization.
Before I go any further, I’d like to say that this is not a free-for-all critique of the nonprofit sector. I worked very hard to become a member of this community (many positions in non-profit institutions require master’s degrees) and I still believe that non-profit organizations serve a vital role in society and do important work. But I believe what is most dangerous about non-profit organizations is their unwillingness or inability to confess that nonprofit organizations are not immune from sin. In fact, the belief that non-profit organizations are made up of inherently good people with good intentions often prevents these institutions from taking responsibility for real problems impacting the lives of real people.
In the last ten months I have spent working at this organization, I have seen cognitive gymnastics that would make your head spin. Shortly after I began working for [Anonymous Organization], a former employee publicly claimed that she had been harassed, discriminated against, and wrongfully terminated by my manager. Shortly thereafter, dozens of employees signed a letter to leadership demanding reforms within the organization, including a commitments to pay transparency, improving equity in hiring, re-establishing a Human Resources position (the organization had been functioning without one for months), and acknowledging the history of oppressive, unjust and racist practices within the organization, as well as externally with a focus on decolonization and anti-racism.
Despite the organization’s acknowledgement of the letter, it is difficult to feel as though much has changed. Myself and other employees have taken up initiatives of our own to foster a sense of community and belonging, including the creation of employee resource groups and the celebration of ‘non-traditional’ holidays such as Juneteenth, Hispanic Heritage Month, and LGBTQ History Month. However, after organizing these events without feeling as though the more pressing issues have been addressed, I feel almost complicit in ‘Pinkwashing’ - or helping the organization promote a facade of diversity and inclusion. Hosting Hispanic Heritage Month is less empowering knowing I, a Hispanic Woman, am being compensated less than my peers…
Although several employees participated in an investigation into the former employee’s accusations against my manager, the investigation was closed. Shortly thereafter, I came forward with my own concerns regarding my supervisor’s management of people and programs. In addition to making inappropriate comments in the workplace, including disparaging remarks about black colleagues and a rape joke about me, she was reporting inaccurate data to the organization’s stakeholders.
Her mistakes had caused the organization to publish that it had mobilized approximately 200 million dollars more in assistance than was actually the case. When I became aware of this, I was instructed to “cook the books”. Sometimes “cooking the books” meant reporting millions of ‘beneficiaries’ had been treated for diseases whether or not the data existed to support this. Finally, during the COVID-19 pandemic she was responsible for creating a tool for assessing the risk of restarting activities in countries across the team’s portfolio. I realized the tool did not work when I was asked to manually change the score of an assessment before sharing it with the head of our department for approval.
My experience sharing this with senior management was, at best, terrifying, and, at worst, demoralizing. I was asked if I understood “the severity of accusing someone of fraud”, all the while continuing to work on her projects. Thanks to another supervisor at the organization, I was transferred to another team. Within a week of being transferred from my manager’s team, I was replaced with a consultant. A few months later, the CEO arranged for my manager to apologize to me, especially in reference to the rape joke she had made (a comment she apparently maintained she hadn’t made during the course of the ‘investigation’). See what I mean about cognitive gymnastics?...
It is difficult to feel as though real change is taking place when a part-time manager who is responsible for managing approximately a third of the organization's funds, and who has been ‘investigated’ twice for workplace misconduct and fraud, is allowed to replace employees without so much as completing a sensitivity training. She was so emboldened as to even apply for a promotion during this time and was put in charge of the organization’s ten-year strategic plan later in the year.
Is is difficult to feel as though we are decolonizing development when we cannot afford to properly remunerate our community drug distributors (the men and women who risked their lives to distribute medications during the COVID-19 pandemic), however the organization’s financial statements indicate that the CEO is earning over $400,000 annually (her bonus alone, it is often argued, could have compensated the HR employee the organization so desperately needed).*
It is not enough to say that non-profit organizations, and the people who work there, are well intentioned. In fact, it is dangerous to assume so. If the Oxfam scandal has taught us anything, I hope it is that. Today, companies and organizations across America are reckoning with its history - a history uncomfortably marked by racism, prejudice, and inequality. I implore the leaders of these organizations to meet these times with humility rather than defensiveness - to admit their faults and flaws, their sins and vices. They are much more likely to lead good lives and better organizations if they do.
There is a need for renewed hope in the humanitarian sector and this starts from within - with self-reflection and accountability.
* This is a pseudonym to protect the author’s identity.
* At the time of publishing this piece, the organization has hired an HR professional.