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The Bureaucrats vs. the Teenagers

Why Your Administrative and Program Staffs Annoy Each Other, and How You Can Fix That Permanently

I can't believe it! ANOTHER stupid form those bureaucrats in Admin want me to fill out. If we don't get this project moving faster, the funder is going to go ballistic. And we've already got REAL problems to deal with. I don't need this BS paperwork on top of that. ... And besides, they never help me with hiring or getting vendors paid on time, just tell me we CAN'T do something. ... What are they THINKING over there?
OMG! I hope I'm not right about these receipts—or rather lack of receipts. There's no way this project fits the funder's accounting requirements now. If we get audited on this one, we're TOAST. And if they think we're fiddling things, they'll run audits on everything we have with them, and who knows what else they'll find. They could bar us from future funding. What's the MATTER with those teenagers in Programs?

Sound familiar? It's not just in your organization, it's in just about every nonprofit organization. I see it in my consulting work. Your administrative and program staff may be the nicest people in the world, even get on famously with each other on a personal level, but then butt heads over the same things again and again. What's going on here?

The Problem

It's not the people, it's the structure. It's a "people in a dark room describing the elephant" problem. The program people know the substance of the project and how it relates to mission, but unless they've been admin people, they don't know, and usually don't care, about the infrastructure (accounting, HR, IT, etc.) that makes accomplishing the project possible within the law and the funder's rules. So what's in their faces, from their standpoint, are inconvenient but mandatory rules that are an unnecessary drag on getting the mission accomplished.

The admin people know that the project is important and helps fulfill the mission, but they don't know and don't have the time to learn exactly how it gets done and what kinds of invisible problems the program people have to surmount to get it done. What they do know all too well and in detail are the consequences to the organization of breaking the law and the funder's rules. In THEIR faces is that breaking those rules, as in HR or accounting, could produce at best a series of questionable actions and at worst financial penalties, loss of trust from funders, and legal repercussions as well as shutting out of admin staff from program planning and current news because they're seen by the program people as the "cops."

Some Factors That Increase the Problem/Friction

  • Highly educated staff. People with advanced degrees all have different temperaments, but their training pushes them in certain directions. Professional degrees—MDs, RNs, MBAs, JDs, MAs, Ph.D.s—signify that people are trained to be professionals, and along with things such as mastery of a complex body of knowledge, application of that knowledge for the benefit of your client rather than yourself, and performing at a high level of competence even when you're miserable or sick, goes something else: the expectation of both the degree-holder and the rest of us that the professional both has the right to a lot of independent judgment and will indeed exercise that judgment consistently at work. Result: a lot of feisty, opinionated folks. If you doubt that, do a thought experiment: how likely are you to get quick consensus in a room full of doctors, lawyers, or Ph.D.s?

    Your admin staff likely have advanced specialized degrees (accounting, law, advanced HR credentials, etc.). At least some of your program staff likely do, too—plus there's the "cause effect": people who are attracted to the program side are likely to be believers in the value of your nonprofit's mission—that's one reason they're willing to sacrifice salary (staff) or time (board) to serve the organization. And when people see themselves as making sacrifices, they're much more likely to insist on doing things their way.

  • Highly entrepreneurial staff. If your organization depends very much on grants and contracts, and if there's an expectation that program staff will bring in the money to support their own salaries, they are going to see themselves as social entrepreneurs, see that they're valued for that, and try to make sure that no one and nothing gets in the way of that entrepreneurial activity that the organization is sending clear signals (money and position) that it values.
  • High degree of dependence on government grants and contracts. Private and corporate foundation funding and support from individuals may or may not have a lot of formal rules attached; government funding at any level (local, state, or federal) virtually always does. The higher the percentage of the organization's funding that comes from government, the more likely that the admin staff is going to be all over those projects, and that it HAS to be.

What You Can Do to Fix the Problem Permanently

You're not going to be able to get everyone to see the whole elephant because:

  • it would take too long;
  • even if you could, the trained people would move on; and
  • most important, you couldn't create the motivation to learn all sides of the problem—people do what they like to do, and they tend to ignore what they don't like to do.

Instead, you find a way to get the right people in the room periodically to share their information about the elephant (which is changing its shape over time anyhow) and carry that back to others. You build a structure that is simultaneously a relief valve for gripes and a place to devise solutions for the evolving problems underlying the gripes.

Such situations might be minimized by the following, which should cost nothing except time to plan and execute:

  • Have a frank exchange, with specifics, between representatives of each of these two staffs, followed by recommendations.

    Form an ad hoc committee representing the different program divisions and the admin staff (HR, accounting, IT, and legal, depending on need) to address the sources of friction. Compose the committee not of senior people but of the people who have the most detailed knowledge of the particular cases where such friction has and does occur. Have this committee report its findings and recommendations to your senior staff group advising the CEO, including a summary of the facts of some previous cases and how those cases might have been better resolved had the committee's recommendations been in place. Consider whether, after its report has been presented, this committee might continue indefinitely in existence, meeting as it deems necessary, as a mechanism both for examining particular cases and for keeping each side of the house aware ahead of time of new developments for the program side (new accounting procedures needed for a unique project situation, new hiring due to expanded or additional projects in the pipeline) and in laws and regulations on admin side.

  • Have the ad hoc committee consider, as part of its mandate, the following possible changes in the admin staff/program staff relationship:

    • That the first duty of the admin staff is to protect and promote the interests of its clients, on the model of the lawyer/client relationship, and its clients are individual program staff with particular problems.

      On this model, when presented by program staff with a problem that is important and is not accommodated within normal procedures, admin staff would accept the challenge of trying to create and execute a custom solution that fits the facts, including making exceptions to normal procedures where such exceptions do not conflict with mandatory external laws and regulations. So that people do not seek such custom solutions more than necessary, creating chaos, admin staff would institute, where this does not already exist, orderly procedures for making such exceptions. That would include making their supervisors aware of the facts and the proposed solution. Program staff would also need to make a case for an exception with their own supervisors and get those individuals' approval to proceed. Admin staff would work with program staff cooperatively to devise and execute a solution and would, along the way, explain the limits of what could be done, using the exception as a learning opportunity for both parties.

    • When admin staff have exercised their professional judgment to the maximum on behalf of their client's interest, it is then equally necessary for program staff to abide by the terms of the solution and follow the requirements of the situation, however inconvenient or seemingly irrational.

      Studies have shown that the major areas for both ethical and legal problems for nonprofit organizations are human resources and contracting. Traditions and organizational cultures of autonomy, creativity, and entrepreneurialism create an unusual temptation to ignore inconvenient rules. If program staff honor their organization and the kind of work environment it provides, they will not risk its reputation and financial stability by ignoring the laws and regulations around human resources, in which the organization's HR people are expert, or GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Practices) and FASB (Financial Standards Accounting Board) rules in which the organization's accounting people are expert. Once program staff see that admin staff are committed to solving their particular problems and that they recognize program staff as their clients, then it makes as much sense to follow their advice as one would the advice of an attorney or doctor.

Why This is a Permanent Solution

OK, so we all know that the only permanent things in this life are death and taxes. But this solution is as permanent as most things. Why? Because it doesn't depend on individuals and their intentions; those things come and go. It depends on an ongoing organizational structure that will outlive the tenure of any given individual. When something is built into policies, procedures, and "the way we do things here," it tends to stay in place unless all the people who use that structure leave at once, taking with them the organizational memory of how it works, or the structure is bent or broken by an outside force.

How important is it to face and deal with this friction? That depends on how much trouble it is creating and your risk exposure vs. the time and energy to set up and run this structure. A few questions to your front-line program and admin staff will give you those data.

Jason Hall, Public Trust Strategies
© 2010, Public Trust Strategies

Jason Hall is principal of Public Trust Strategies, a consulting firm specializing in helping nonprofits with branding, organizational development, government relations, and government funding, and a professor at George Mason University. A former Senate staffer, he was both a grants officer and later the Congressional relations director at the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal grantmaking agency, and acting director of Publications and of Public Affairs at the National Endowment for the Arts.

Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice