Identify Nonprofit Staff Groups To Help Drive Organizational Change

Identify Nonprofit Staff Groups To Help Drive Organizational Change

By Eugene Fram

Nonprofit executive directors tend to think of the staff professionals as individual contributors. These individuals are persons who mainly work on their own and not as team players – for instance, counselors, health care professionals, curators and university faculty. However, many executive directors fail to recognize that these individual contributors can be grouped according to identifiable types, with differing work value outlooks. Each group needs to be managed differently to drive change in today’s fast moving social, political and technological environments. Nonprofit board members need to use these groupings in their responsibilities for  overseeing promotable staff members.   

From years of observation of a variety of nonprofits the late Robert Pearse and I have identified four major groups have labeled “Nostalgics,” “Maintainers,” “Producers and “Builders.” Executive directors  and board directors who do not recognize the existence of such groups and the special needs to mange and evaluate  them differently may not achieve the forward motion or the performance goals that are required in the 21st century.

An identifiable group may dominate a department or it may have members in different departments. In many cases, a single group may include professionals with disparate personalities but whose work-value systems are similar.

Meet, foe example, Sarah Thomas, a congenial department head who has spent the past decade in a nonprofit trade association, and Jack Engels, a brusque cost accountant in the association’s financial division. Sarah is well liked by the members of her department, while Jack is largely left alone in his work.

On the surface, Sarah and Jack appear to have little in common. Closer observation, however, shows that they are alike in one important aspect. Sarah’s department, which she has headed for the past six years, performs at a satisfactory level. Over the years, Sarah has tended to hire staff professionals who have values like her own. They are good – but not outstanding – performers. The group gets it regular work done but rarely puts forth any extra effort. A recurring complaint from Sarah and her people is, “The department has too much to do.”

Jack Engels, the brusque accountant, also gets his work done, even though he shows little enthusiasm for his work. It is just a job, and he is averse to arriving before or staying after his normal working hours.

Both Sarah and Jack are Maintainers, for both are comfortable with the status quo. If the executive director and/or board directors were to allow the Maintainers standards to pervade the entire organization’s performance it would likely stagnate and eventually decline.


Nostalgics are generally easy to recognize because they identify so strongly with the organizations past history and culture. Many of them tend to be long tenured professionals whose performance has leveled off over time. They tend to take pride in being “company people,” and are uncomfortable with changes they perceive as breaking sharply with tradition. The following strategies are helpful in working with Nostalgics.
• Respond to their need to revere and emotionally relive the past
• Encourage the “willing worker” value system of group members
• Show how proposed changes will perpetuate past glory by contributing to organizational longevity and prominence.
• Recognize that Nostalgics lack vision and prefer to avoid direct confrontation about the future direction of the organization.

Maintainers constitute the largest group in virtually all organizations, as illustrated by Jack and Sarah, they are average performers who typically have less tenure but also posses more currently useful skills than Nostalgics. They think and act like members of a large industrial union who “work to scale” . Or they do only what is required by implied contract. Although they appreciate having a professional position, they have not internally accepted the self-directed performance behavior one typically associates with being a professional. Several guidelines are helpful in working with Maintainers.
• Be alert to the strong “union” value system at work in this professional group
• Depend on group members for low to average productivity but be aware that requests for increased productivity or increased self-management are likely to generate resentment and hostility.
• Emphasize the pressures in the organization’s external environment
• that require professional performance improvement. Indicate
how such improvements are important to long-term job security.
• Set modest but attainable performance improvement goals on an annual basis. (Note: If a complete turnaround is essential, for the organizational survival, this slow improvement will not be adequate.)
• Expect some continuing hostility whenever Maintainers feel new standards put pressure on them for sustained higher performance and commitment.

Producers are a varied collection of highly individual “type-A” workaholics who are motivated by their own goals. They tend to work on their own and dislike group activities intensely. Because work output is the core of their existence, they see few differences between their personal and professional lives. Producers will support changes initialed by the executive director that they perceive will enable them to produce more efficiently as individuals. The executive director can try to maximize Producers’ effectiveness in the following ways:

• Channel Producers’ vigorous efforts into organizational priorities by linking Producers’ special interests to the mission and goals of the nonprofit.
• To the extent possible, provide Producers with the resources needed to be self-managing and productive.
• Wherever possible, remove bureaucratic roadblocks to their productivity.
• Agree annually on goals, and let Producers achieve them with a minimum of supervision.

Builders, unlike Producers, are committed to furthering the goals of the
organization, even at the expense of his or own personal goals. A senior nurse, who agrees to become an administrator, even though he or she prefers to care for patients, is an example of a Builder. Builders fall into two categories vague visionaries and organized progressives. The former group’s attention span shifts rapidly from one detail of a purposed change to another. They lack sustained capacity for completing long-term performance improvement. The members of the latter group, organized progressives, are systematic thinkers who think quickly. Once they have a picture in mind, they can provide the executive director with knowledgeable and strong support. An executive director can maximize the value of the Builder group in the following ways:
• Use the vague visionary Builders to help sell others when launching new performance programs.
• Explain to organized progressives how their Builder values can contribute to a long-term systematic improvement plan.
• Give organized progressives strategic follow-up assignments to ensure the new program will move forward.
• Provide Builders with superior performance rewards..

If nonprofits are to continue to serve the nation in the current turbulent difficult time, executive directors and volunteer boardmembers will need to provide strong support to their Builders and Producers and their value systems. In addition, they must also get as much productivity as possible from the Nostalgic and Maintainer groups. We hope this blog will spur board directors, executive directors and president/CEOs to identify these four groups in their own organizations.
Eugene Fram & Vicki Brown, (2011) “Policy vs. Paper Clips, “ Third Edition, Available on
Eugene Fram & Robert Pearse (1991) “The High Performance Nonprofit: A Management Guide for Boards and Executives,” Families International, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Judith Gordon (1991), “Organizational Behavior: A Diagnostic Approach,” Allyn & Bacon, Boston, pp. 205-207, 742.





  1. This article by Dr. Fram can be very helpful to nonprofit executives that wrestle with the kind of workforce they need on the bus. Clearly a nonprofit that is dominated by nostalgics will have a hard time breaking loose and imagining a new and promising future. Producers and Builders is where one should be investing while at the same time finding a way out for those who are stuck in the past or aren’t willing and prepared to change so that the organization can move forward. These personality types can and do exist on the board as well.


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