This tongue-in-cheek headline raises the question of just how effective progressive advocacy and social change organizations can be when a good part of their staff energy is focused on battling each other rather than advancing the group’s mission at this critical moment in history.

This is particularly true when it comes to reproductive rights organizations in light of the Roe v. Wade reversal.  Or environmental and conservation organizations in the existential battle to save the planet from climate change.  Or civil liberties and civil rights groups faced with the rise of white supremacist and authoritarian extremism.

There couldn’t be a worse time to form internal firing squads.

One of the most frequent descriptors in US politics these days is “tribalism”. For the cable pundits tribalism is the blind group loyalty tearing our country apart. Mindless tribal affiliations, they say, drives polarization and prevents us from finding common ground. The greatest danger of tribalism, they claim, is that it changes political leanings into social identities, creating political morass, gridlock, and decay.

But what if the more serious issue is a lack of shared tribalism within some progressive organizations?  How so?  Tribes exist for lots of positive reasons: to make rules together, to develop consensus, to work out difficult problems and avoid forming a circular firing squad. Real tribes provide a great deal of shared identity, meaning, community and connection in advancing the central values and objectives of the tribe.

Despite the burning need for all hands on deck and a laser like focus on external threats too many women’s health groups – Planned Parenthood, NARAL, Choice America-  are facing drag out fights between competing factions within their organizations.  Sometimes as staff vs. management over efforts to unionize, sometimes over diversity and equity issues, sometimes over policy disputes and sometimes simply because of lousy management or leadership.

One former executive director says, “”So much energy has been devoted to the internal strife and bullshit that this has had a real impact on the ability for groups to deliver.”

The infection of internal conflict has also come home to roost in environmental and conservation groups.  Among them, the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife.

As Politico reported last August,  “following a botched diversity meeting, a highly critical employee survey,  resignations of two top diversity and inclusion officials, the 600,000-member National Audubon Society is confronting allegations that maintains a culture of retaliation, fear and antagonism toward women and people of color, according to interviews with 13 current and former staff members.”

Last month the environmental newsletter Greenwire,quoting a source within the Defenders of Wildlife employee union, reported 123 people have quit or been fired from since 2019.  This includes 30 people who have already left in 2022 with another four planning to depart in the coming weeks.

According to Greenwire, “the environmental group – – widely known for its work to protect wolves and other wild animals – –has a reputation as a terrible place to work. Staffers referred to it as a “nightmare” workplace and a “motorized revolving door.”  Nearly all of them said the organizations management issues are affecting its ability to function.

Current and former staff interviewed by Greenwire broadly described a workplace where turnover is rampant, questioning leadership isn’t tolerated, staff don’t feel like they’re paid fairly, and employees worry they might be fired without notice. Nearly all of them said the organizations management issues are affecting its ability to function.

The reason?  According to Greenwire,  “current and former staff blame Defenders CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark for setting the tone in establishing a “culture of fear” within the organization. Upsetting Clark over even minor issues, they say, can result in getting fired.”

“Clark, 64, has been at the groups helm since 2011. Previously she worked for the National Guard Bureau in the U.S. Army as a wildlife biologist before she was picked by Pres. Bill Clinton to lead the Fish and Wildlife Service’s service in 1997. One former Defenders employee who worked in leadership had considered Clark a mentor and thought they had a close relationship. But “she will turn on a dime on you,” that person said you go from having reviews that are spectacular to being out the door.”

Over in the civil liberties and civil rights sector,  the American Civil Liberties Union, Color of Change, the Movement for Black Lives, Human Rights Campaign, Time’s Up, the Sunrise Movement, and many other organizations have seen wrenching and debilitating turmoil in the past couple years.

As The Intercept, a pro-progressive news organization noted last week in its must-read Elephant In The Zoom  , “…it’s hard to find a Washington-based progressive organization that hasn’t been in tumult, or isn’t currently in tumult.”

Why is this happening?

Of course, there’s no single reason why internal conflict is arising at this critical moment for progressive movements.  Among the reasons offered.

  • “Generations coming up or expecting progressive values to be reflected in what they consider to be a progressive organization, and I think that’s forcing generational conflicts”, said a former Defenders Staffer.
  • When it comes to unionization the folks I’ve talked to with first-hand experience at several progressive groups tell me it seems the organizations running into the most problems are those with leadership unable to adapt or transform because of unwillingness or inability to listen or share power.
  • According to Loretta Ross, author and founder of the reproductive justice collective Sister Song “we’re dealing with a workforce that’s younger, more female, more people of color, more politically woke – – I hate to use that term in a way it shouldn’t be used – – and less loyal in the traditional way to a job, because the whole economic rationale for keeping a job or having a job is change.” That lack of loyalty is not the fault of employees, Ross said, but was foisted on them by a precarious economy that broke.”
  • One executive director says it’s all things: “a lot of staff that work for me, they expect the organization to be all things: a movement, OK. Get out the vote, OK. Healing, OK. Take care of you when you’re sick, “ Can you get your loving, healing at home please?”   But I can’t say that, they would crucify me.”

What’s the effect on hiring and management?

Of course, our nonprofit sector isn’t alone.  We all –whether in the for profit or nonprofit worlds –are tangled up with the current society-wide debates about speech, power, race,  sexuality, and gender that have shaken institutions in recent years.

In many ways these battles are forcing organizations to deal with long overdue and persistent problems including equity and poor management. The climate is forcing the question most movement leaders would rather avoid than answer.  One result is that it’s become harder to hire leaders for what may be perceived as an unmanageable organization. A recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy noted that nonprofits were having an extraordinarily hard time finding new leaders amidst unprecedented levels departures among senior officials. “We’ve been around for 26 years and I haven’t seen anything like this.” says the CEO of an executive search firm.

On a more hopeful note,  Dan Cardinali, the outgoing CEO of Independent Sector, told the Chronicle, “It is disruptive and, in the short term, inefficient. In the middle and long term, I’m hopeful that it will be actually a profound accelerator in our ability to be a force for the common good, for a thriving and healthy country.”

Of one thing I’m certain, given 50+ years building and growing progressive organizations, without a strong sense of group identity and shared feeling that everyone in the organization is in it together that group will be going nowhere fast.

What are you seeing or experiencing?


P.S.  I have not dug into how this disarray is affecting donors.  For now, given the high response rates and contributions to most progressive groups involved in front-line advocacy and political battles these internal conflicts seem to have little effect on mass fundraising.   Since none of the watchdog groups like the BBB Wise Giving Alliance or Charity Navigator report on staff morale or internal strife my assumption is most donors are unaware of internal issues for the groups and causes they support.  Of course, should the internal strife turn into external defeats on critical issues like reproductive rights, civil liberties and climate change, a financial reckoning may follow.

For readers –job seekers among you or just the curious –who want to get a sense of internal staff morale and management practices in many nonprofits check out Glass Door.