Joan Garry Talks to a Martian

5 minute read

Joan Garry was the keynote speaker at the Center's 2017 Conference for North Carolina's Nonprofits, Embracing Uncertainty, where she also presented the concurrent session, “How to Create a Five-Star Elevator Pitch.” In anticipation of her visit to North Carolina, she shared a few thoughts with the Center.

CENTER: You coined the phrase “Nonprofits are messy,” and that phrase is part of the title of your new book, Guide to Nonprofit Leadership: Because Nonprofits Are Messy. How would you explain this concept to a recently-landed Martian or to someone else who doesn’t know the nonprofit sector?

GARRY: First off, “messy” is not intended to be a pejorative. Nor does it let nonprofit leaders off the hook. I use the word to describe a set of circumstances and dynamics that are unique to the nonprofit sector.

So here we go, Ms. Martian.

Nonprofits are organizations all around the world that work to solve all kinds of problems here on earth. They help find cures for diseases and homes for the homeless; they save kids from tough circumstances; they help find homes for pets (do you have pets on Mars?).

These organizations fill the gap that the leaders of our country can’t fill. Just too many of them. So really wonderful people who care deeply start organizations and ask individuals and companies to donate money to help them solve these problems. 

These organizations are different from companies that exist to make a profit. These organizations exist to solve a problem, usually a big one.

What makes them “messy"? There are several key ingredients:

  1. Passion. Folks who run nonprofits are deeply committed to their cause. There is an emotional tie to the work that can challenge clear-headed decision making.
  2. Lack of Resources. Nonprofit leaders rely on the generosity of individuals to support their work. There is never enough money, and staff work their tails off (to be clear, humans do not have tails).
  3. Volunteer Leadership. As a nonprofit leader, you report to someone who already has a full-time job and may or may not have the appropriate amount of time to supervise you. Oh, and THAT person has a team of volunteers who report to her and not only are they supposed to help you run the organization, but they are also supposed to give and get lots of money.

This is what I mean by messy.

CENTER: You’ll be talking about the importance of leadership at the conference, so we won’t let that cat out of the bag. In addition to leadership, what do you see as two of the biggest challenges facing today’s nonprofit sector?  

GARRY: I have to pick only two? :) I can’t. I need to say something about leadership and then I’ll give you two others.

I want to let a little something out of the bag and say that the vast number of nonprofit leaders who will be retiring in the next 3-5 years is a huge challenge for the sector. Organizations will be seeing massive transitions, and I worry that we do not have a strong enough leadership pipeline.

Now here are my other two: 

  1. Boards do not function as effectively as they could or should. So many problems I see with clients stem from bad executive director/CEO hires by boards – boards that are asleep at the finance wheel, boards that are passive and don’t ask great questions. And the road runs the other way too. Nonprofit staff treat boards like a group of human ATMs. You cannot get folks to engage in fundraising unless they are enriched, engaged, and inspired by the work. This is the job of staff to ignite board members rather than nag them.
  2. Nonprofit staff members are missing management and supervision expertise. Folks move up in the ranks – from volunteer to staff member or from attorney to executive director/CEO – and they are not offered the training to hire, manage, supervise, set goals and expectations and ultimately hold folks accountable to the important work they do. How often I hear “We are like family!” Actually you aren’t. You all have jobs to do – some of the most important jobs there are. The structure and discipline that comes with management training is fundamental to doing the best work you can possibly do. Your clients and the communities you serve deserve nothing less.

CENTER: What are nonprofits’ two greatest assets that we can leverage in these uncertain times? 


  1. Your ability to tell a compelling story about your organization. This is the best leverage you have. Invest time and energy in ensuring that staff and board members are first-rate storytellers and ambassadors for the work of your organization. In uncertain times, folks need to know that there are people out there like you who are working to keep things just a bit steadier for those who need it.
  2. The army of folks hungry to help (connected to #1 above). I jokingly say that our society has “generalized anxiety disorder” and the best antidote is ACTION. There are hundreds of thousands of folks who are sitting in the stands. They want to do something. They just need a nudge, an invitation. That’s where you come in. Invite them on to the field. There is an army of folks just waiting to be invited to know and do more.

CENTER: What’s your soapbox on the topic of so-called “overhead”? 

GARRY: A first-rate, thriving nonprofit should have well-paid staff and the tools it needs to do the best work it can possibly do. That’s my soapbox. I just call it what it takes to get the job done. I don’t use the word “overhead.” It implies that there are certain expenses that are expendable. I find the conversation on this topic almost offensive.

CENTER:  What haven’t I asked you that you’d like to say a few words about? 

GARRY: My family lived in Greensboro for 28 years. My dad is buried there. My best friend and her family live there. I have worked for Equality North Carolina. I care deeply about the Tar Heel State, and I was mighty happy to be asked to speak at this conference. North Carolina needs each and every one of you, and if my attendance can make you feel a bit more confident, a bit less overwhelmed, and a bit more joyful about the role you are playing in a world in which uncertainty is the order of the day, it will have been a good day at the office. I look forward to my visit with you!

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan Garry is the principal of Joan Garry Consulting and works with nonprofit board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent, and strategic planner. She began her career as part of the management team that launched MTV, followed by an eight-year tenure as an executive at Showtime Networks, then left corporate America to serve as executive director of GLAAD, one of the largest organizations working for LGBT equality. Joan is an instructor at the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania where she teaches Nonprofit Communications Strategy and Media and Social Change. She founded The Nonprofit Leadership Lab, a monthly online membership site for board and staff leaders of small nonprofits who can afford neither coaching nor consulting. She wrote Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership (John Wiley and Sons, 2017), blogs regularly at, and hosts the nonprofit podcast, Nonprofits Are Messy.

Board Governance
Organizational Development