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Unhealthy dependence

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A leader with too much power puts a nonprofit at risk.

By Margaret Henderson

If these symptoms apply to your favorite nonprofit, it may be too dependent on one leader:

* One person manages most responsibilities.

* One person imposes an agenda on the board and on the community the nonprofit serves.

* One person retains critical information only in his or her head.

* One person controls the nonprofit’s activities, through action or inaction. At any stage in a nonprofit’s life, the effort, resources, or personality of one person can hold it together.

The centralization of authority and energy may be temporary, due to circumstances such as several key employees leaving at once, or essentially permanent, based on personal characteristics or practices, like the founder being strongly charismatic or the director not liking to delegate responsibility.

If a nonprofit organization primarily depends on the strength, the influence, or the willpower of one person, it risks a crisis if that person disengages from the organization.

Also, the whole organization may be operating under the unacknowledged biases, natural habits or personal preferences of one person.

It may be inadequately positioned to listen and respond to the community it is intended to serve.

Evolution of a Nonprofit” is a two-part article available online in Popular Government, a publication of the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Part 1 discusses the symptoms that indicate whether a nonprofit is unhealthily dependent on one person.

Part 2 proposes a process of change for the nonprofit to use to diversify its strength.


Margaret Henderson is associate director of The Public Intersection Project at the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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