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What to Do When You Face a Bully


Lately, we’ve seen a rash of stories about the problem of bullying in nonprofit organizations.

Yes, these organizations meant to make the world a better place can be the place where people are made to feel awful. We’re not at all exempt. Sometimes, I think we might be more at risk.

I recently counted the times I’ve been bullied. It wasn’t something I had ever counted. The more I thought, the more I came up with. Not so good!

Worst, of course, is bullying by someone who has power over you – your boss. Depending on the distance on the organizational chart between you and the bully, it can feel near impossible to deal with the behavior.

I have also found that those of us with less aggressive personalities – especially introverts – can be easier targets for bullies. We shy away from a fight instead of welcoming it. The act of fighting hurts us – why would we want to dive in?

So we often just take it, put our head down, and carry on. We absorb all the anger and abusive behavior and try not to let it get to us. Not the best solution, obviously.

Here are some tips – from my experience and from a variety of articles – on what you can do.

Recognize bullying

This can be hard. But those with management authority also have responsibility. And we need to hold them to it.

Have you been yelled at? Reprimanded in public? (Especially in front of your staff or board members!) Guilted into working until someone else decides the job is done?

So often, our mission can be used as a weapon. “But the {fill in your mission}!” There is nothing wrong with giving your heart to your work. That’s why so many of us have been attracted to the nonprofit world.

But it doesn’t stop us from being human. And humans need rest and relaxation. We need to refill ourselves before we can return to giving our all. If we’re not healthy – physically, emotionally, spiritually – we won’t have much to give.

And playing on our dedication is a nasty trick.

Leave the situation – or the position

This sounds like a rash one. And of course, you’re probably not eager to job hunt right now. 

But even if the bullying has just happened, you can leave the situation. You don’t need to be an audience. You don’t need to stand there and just take it. Go out for a walk. Or move to another room.

Walk away completely

I had to do this. I couldn’t even name the behavior at the time. It was a passive-aggressive type of bullying that was hard to put my finger on. But I did know that my emotional health was quickly deteriorating. I’ll be honest, of all the times I’ve experienced bullying, this is the one that still gives me nightmares.

Leaving was the best thing I could have done.

Turn the tables on the bully

Bullies count on their target being cowed. They’re usually not ready for a calm response – or a direct one. Is the boss complaining about your work in front of colleagues – or worse, board members?

Refute the claims. “No, that’s not actually what happened. Here’s what did happen.”

Now the bully has two choices – get more aggressive (bringing their own temperament into question) or back off (often with one last shot). But you stood your ground and can feel proud of that. And other people around you will admire it, too.

Document everything

A written record can come in handy if you can go above the bully’s head. Or if you want a record to protect your own reputation.

Bullying – as opposed to harassment – isn’t usually illegal. But there comes a point where you want that record. To show a future employer. Or to bring to your board if necessary.

Once my organization had a finance director who refused to share budgets with the development staff. Have you ever tried to write a good grant application with no budget? We documented everything – and put it plainly – “We cannot do our work without this information, and the behavior we’re dealing with is not acceptable.”

This is also important when you come across a frenemy bully. Nice to your face; ready to take you down behind your back. Bring the goods.

Fight the bully with understanding

Sometimes, understanding what’s behind the behavior helps you handle it. Understanding isn’t condoning. But it can make you feel more in control.

“Ah, it’s not me. The organization’s latest financials aren’t looking good. And he’s the one on the line for that with the board and the public. So I’m just the unlucky person he’s dumping it all on. There’s nothing I did wrong here.”

I’m not suggesting you consistently forgive and forget. Like me, chances are you’re not a saint. This world could use more grace. But you also deserve to protect yourself.

Look for help at your organization

If you’re being bullied, it’s likely others have either experienced or witnessed the behavior. Ask for help.

If you have a supervisor between you and the bully, take the problem to them. I did this early in my career. The boss thought he was being funny when he called me a whore.

I didn’t find it funny. So though I was very new, I took it to the person I was working with. He had no problem marching into the boss’s office and telling him to cut it out.

Find a community where you can talk about your experiences

I can tell you, you’re not alone. You can tell yourself that, too. (And you should!) But finding people who can support you and cheer you on can be a huge help.

You might find that in co-workers if you’re lucky. But they might be dealing with their own issues. You might turn to friends outside the nonprofit world. They can be supportive and loving but might not understand all the finer points of your situation.

You could also turn to a group of people from around the world who might have shared your experience. Since you’re reading this on the Moceanic blog, may I suggest The Fundraisingology Lab? 

There should be no room for bullying in our sector

But it’s still going to happen. Because human nature, I guess.

But you are not helpless. And you are not alone.

Mary Cahalane, a member of The Fundraisingology Lab, is a fundraising professional based in Connecticut. She blogs at Hands-On Fundraising.

Join the supportive community that can help you through hard times and build your foundation as a fundraiser: The Fundraisingology Lab by Moceanic. You’ll get the tools, the information, and the supporting community you’ve been looking for. Join the waiting list now and you’ll be the first to hear when the doors open again.

Please share your experience by leaving your reply below. We’d love to learn from your experience. 

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2 Comments. Leave new

  • i am in the throes of being bullied and harassed. I was the founding President and the Volunteer Executive Director for my organization. The bullying started 3 years ago when a disgruntled former director and employee encouraged 4 staff members to accuse me of bullying and harassment. WorkSafeBC states that you only need to believe you are being harassed to complain. They cannot overturn a decision by a private investigator, regardless of how shoddy the investigation is.

    I hired an investigator as required. He was a former police officer and worked for an investigation company. I later found out that neither he nor his company was registered in BC. He spent 15 minutes talking to me but hours talking to people who spent very little time in the office.

    Two of the complainants were new to the world of working. One had worked for me prior and when she lost her job, she came back to the Society looking for new employment. If I were such a terrible employer why did she return?

    The only specific complaints were about a plugged toilet that I tried to unplug myself to save money and the other was I had said, “Excuse me, I’m speaking.” when I and other staff members were talking to a supplier. Oh they were concerned about the failing mental health. (I have taken a test and aced it with 30/30. My doctor wasn’t sure he could do as well.)

    At first the board was supportive. Then something happened and that all changed. In one instance where I was hollered and screamed at by an employee, I somehow became the bully.

    I have been threatened verbally and physically, sued, (this turned out to be a benefit even though I lost. I discovered that a lawyer was advising board members and staff on how to get rid of me.)

    I did not run for re-election as President but I am not allowed to call myself the “past president.”

    The latest is that the current President is demanding I show up at a board meeting to explain why I hired a private detective and I am to return documents that I legally obtained.

    Bizarre? Yes, especially since I was working on a succession plan. I have heard of similar stories.
    I have discovered the power of the $1 year employee. If I had taken $1 a year, I would have come under WorkSafeBC . I have filed with WorkSafeBC under Prohibited Action. I am still waiting for a reply. Unofficially I have been told that anything that I may have been said would have been either ignored or dismissed if I were of the opposite sex.

    Lessons learned. Don’t treat staff as friends. Don’t be afraid to document events. Don’t trust a lawyer at face value. I had accepted the changes made to the Society’s constitution and bylaws without question no matter how busy you are. This came back to haunt me because the changes worked against me.

    For example, in the old bylaws, the annual fees were approved at the AGM. This was removed and the decision was left up to the board. The board used this to drastically reduce membership fees to encourage people to sign up. I could not do the same as the office gatekeeper either didn’t recognize people’s membership or delayed them too late for them to vote at the AGM.

    I am not the only founding member of an organization who has been treated shabbily and forced to go to court.

  • Mary Cahalane
    June 2, 2021 9:50 am

    I’m sorry that happened to you. That’s a hard way to learn some lessons – lessons I’m grateful that you shared.

    It’s very hard to manage when a few employees have decided to oppose you. I’ll be honest – I’ve been on both sides of that, though never to the extent you have. It’s hard to keep disagreements and personalities separate.

    I might suggest keeping professional and volunteer roles separate. Though I’m sure the organization was happy to get someone to handle everything for free, those roles really should be different.

    I hope this doesn’t sour you on all nonprofit work – especially volunteer roles. We need good people!


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