Identify Nonprofit Staff Groups To Help Drive Organizational Change


Identify Nonprofit Staff Groups To Help Drive Organizational Change*

By Eugene Fram      Free Digital Image

Nonprofit executive directors tend to think of the staff professionals as individual contributors. These individuals are persons who mainly work on their own and but increasingly also have to contribute 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 motivated differently to drive change in today’s fast moving social, political and technological environments. Nonprofit board members, working with the ED, can use these groupings in their oversight responsibilities to better understand the bench strength of promotable staff.   

From years of observation of a variety of nonprofits the late Robert Pearse, a Psychologist, 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 motivate 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, for 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  work-values like her own. They are good – but not outstanding – performers. The group gets it regular work done but rarely exhibits creative efforts or critical thinking.  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 any change, expect that mandated by accounting requirements.

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 dedicated to the nonprofit but 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 do only what is required by a job description or 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 “legacy” value system at work in this professional group-all established processes can be successful in he future.
• 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, but can be useful as team leaders if required for time limited projects. Because work output is the core of their existence, they see few differences between their personal and professional lives, sometimes leading to an unhealthy work-life balance.  This can be a larger challenge if work forces are increasingly working from home.   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 motivate 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 and with appropriate rewards .

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 motivate 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 board members will need to provide strong support to their Builders and Producers and their work-value systems. In addition, they must also motivate the Nostalgic and Maintainer groups, using the suggestions cited above.

We hope this blog will spur board members, executive directors and president/CEOs to identify these four groups in their own organizations.
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.

*This post was originally issued under an incorrect title heading.   

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