Ken Goldstein, MPPA

Ken Goldstein has been working in nonprofits and local government agencies from Santa Cruz, to Sacramento, and back to Silicon Valley, since 1989. He's been staff, volunteer, board member, executive director, and, since 2003, a consultant to local nonprofit organizations. For more on Ken's background, click here. If you are interested in retaining Ken's services, you may contact him at ken at

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Fraud, Burnout, and Getting What We Deserve

Pam Ashlund of the "Non-Profit Eye" blog has posted an interesting piece about the trend of fraud committed against nonprofits by their own staff and volunteers. Pam lists a few samples (all from the last month) and asks:
Are non-profits just sitting ducks? Is it easier to steal from a non-profit? or is it a limit of imagination... our hearts are in the right place so much so that we can't conceive of someone setting out to take advantage...
I agree with Pam's analysis so far (we're too trusting, etc.), and will suggest that there is one more factor at work here: Burnout.

The very nature of the sector is to spend long hours solving other people's problems for less money than our skills would earn elsewhere. Each of us has a limit on how much we can take before things start slipping or we start wondering why we're doing this.

I believe that for some of those committing the fraud this burnout turns to thoughts of, "I deserve this money I'm stealing. I've earned it. It's my turn to benefit." Obviously this is faulty thinking, obviously these people need to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and thankfully it's only a handful of our dedicated staff and volunteers who feel this way.

A handful, compared to the legions of supporters who do the hard work of the nonprofit sector, but a problem never-the-less.

Now let's take a look at the oversight part of the problem. Managers and board members (if they're actively involved) are not immune to nonprofit burnout themselves. Some of the lax oversight that allows these scandals to occur may be from over-worked managers who are already bearing a maximum stress load delivering services to the community.

It's far easier to convince yourself that "nobody would steal from us" than to put more hours in to oversight and fraud prevention. And so, the organization winds up "getting what it deserves" as well.

As "human services professionals" we have to remember to take care of ourselves, and those we work with. Too much selflessness leads to an industry where we open ourselves up to this kind of fraud and theft.

I suggest a new movement today: The Nonprofit Selfishness Movement. We all need to set aside certain times and days to something entirely selfish (and legal). A little "me time" to guiltlessly get away from the stress of constantly being other-focused. Time for our own families, time to take a vacation, and time to recognize our own worth without resorting to embezzling.

Obviously a call for avoiding burnout is not the only step we need to take to prevent the sort of fraud that Pam wrote about. A little more attention to oversight couldn't hurt either. I just wanted to applaud her for bringing the subject up, and add one more point on what should be a long conversation.

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1 comment:

  1. Very good point Ken, Gotta avoid burning out. I think I'm going to take a vacation! LOL