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Tyranny of the Cause: Toxic Leadership in the Social Change Nonprofit Sector

There’s an epidemic of toxic leadership in the social change nonprofit sector.

Not a week goes by without yet another staff person sharing with us yet another story about their experiences with an abusive and/or exploitative nonprofit supervisor. What’s amazing is how strikingly similar the stories are. From publicly blaming someone for mistakes they didn’t make, to coercing someone to lie during a funder meeting, to demanding participation in activities that endanger people’s lives, the behaviors of toxic leaders follow a predictable pattern.

After over 30 formal, in-depth interviews, plus informal conversations with many dozens of nonprofit staff, we’re finding you could practically copy and paste the language from one nonprofit survivor to another.

Because the social change nonprofit sector has limited resources to invest in leadership development and capacity building, it is critical to examine and address how toxic leadership practices and unhealthy organizational culture not only undermine those efforts, but also jeopardize an organization’s mission and result in the exodus of potential future leaders. Equally important is an examination of how to build people-centered leadership practices across the sector that promote healthy organizational cultures and strengthen movement-building.

With our book Toxic Leadership, we hope to break the silence around this issue, promote a dialogue to discuss the impacts and root causes, and share strategies and challenges in addressing toxic leadership behaviors. Our goal is to support healthy, sustainable leadership practices, build more accountability, and strengthen progressive social movements.

The time is ripe for a set of resources that shares the stories and heartaches of this issue, brings in the latest research on organizational development, neuroscience, and movement-building, and synthesizes the information to forge a new way forward for existing and emerging leaders, funders, and leadership development professionals. We look forward to sharing tools to not only identify toxic leadership, but to heal and build resilience for the work ahead.

To read more about toxic leadership, check out: