Management in the Not for Profit Organization

Dedicated to Exploring the Philosophies and Techniques of Management in the Non-Profit Sector

Mom used to say:

“Stop Spinning so Much or You’ll get Dizzy”

Spin doctors are everywhere.  What used to be the Public Relations Department of the typical non-profit now more closely resembles Madison Avenue every day.  Part of this is due to the fact that for-profits have waded into funding streams that used to be considered the arena of non-profits.  And when they arrived they brought sophisticated marketing and publicity techniques with them.  If organizations in the not-for-profit sector were to compete, then they had to fight fire with fire, especially for fee-for-service monies.


What may be less well known is the use of refined techniques designed to cover unpalatable moves by non-profits.  That is, their actions would have been viewed as objectionable by key stakeholders.  Instead, the release of information was cleverly choreographed in order to put the best possible “spin” on things.  This is known as Defensive Impression Management.


The following is from an article by Arndt and Bigelow in the Administrative Science Quarterly of September, 2000:


Defensive impression management serves to protect an actor from negative reactions to an event or maintain a desired reputation (Tedeschi and Melburg, 1984; Gardner and Martinko, 1988)


The Arndt and Bigelow article describes some basic techniques of Defensive Impression Management that they observed in a number of hospitals they were studying.  Here is another excerpt from their article:


First, the organizations offered accounts that excused change and justified restructuring as appropriate. Second, the organizations offered disclaimers about the new structure. Third, they concealed that they were innovators with respect to the diversified corporate structure.


The above Defensive Impression Management terms will now be examined one by one.  First, are the excuses and justifications.


Don’t Blame Me

Excuses avoid responsibility for negative outcomes by denying the actor's role in the event (Tedeschi and Melburg, 1984).  How many times have CEO’s used phrases such as “We’ve been forced to…” or “I have no choice but to…”.  They attribute the actions they are announcing to unforeseen circumstances or unfriendly outside forces.  This writer is not aware of a single circumstance in the U.S. in which a CEO said “I should have seen this coming and prepared for it.  Since I did not, I will resign”.


We Might be Better Off This Way After All

Justifications are closely related to excuses.  Justifications are explanations that acknowledge responsibility for the consequences of an event but not their negative implications (Tedeschi and Melburg, 1984).  In this case, rather than just focusing on the circumstances which “forced” the action, the leaders list other positive aspects of the change.  Interestingly, they do not list the negatives with the same emphasis.


Second, the disclaimers.


“Trust Me, I Know What I’m Doing” (Sledge Hammer from the TV comedy Sledge Hammer)

Disclaimers are a device "to ward off and defeat in advance doubts and negative typifications which may result from intended conduct" (Hewitt and Stokes, 1975: 3).  These assure stakeholders that the new plan really is the best way to go.  It will work if everyone gets behind it.  Disclaimers say that the situation has been examined in every conceivable way, with the help of experts.  They may even swamp stakeholders in extraneous details.  These are likely to be topped off with the reassurance that most folks won’t really encounter a drastic change in service delivery anyway.


Finally, the concealment.

Believe Me, You Don’t Want To Know

This is self-explanatory.  The organization’s leaders hide things that might lead to objections to their plan.  Among those who should not expect that they would be told everything are:  customers, the community at large, staff, and donors.  In fact, boards of directors should be quite wary too.  Perhaps the not-for-profit arena has an Enron or two?


Defensive Impression Management, as described here, does not encourage outright lies or malfeasance.  However, it is designed to avoid a balanced examination of the matters at hand.  Its approach is contrary to the mission statements of most non-profits with which this writer is familiar.  Though with good advice one can implement the above strategies without violating the letter of the law, they are very likely to violate its spirit.

Lies?  Maybe not.

Dishonest?  Certainly yes.

Some might say it is unpalatable, but necessary.

But at what cost?  The trust of the stakeholders is only the first casualty.

Your organization's mission may be next.  The stakes are so high they are dizzying.  Perhaps mom was right.  We shouldn’t spin so much.