Clear communication is super important in building and keeping trust in your team. And also between your organization and the outside world: your target group, key stakeholders and (funding) partners. Clear communication becomes exponentially more important as the situation is more challenging. For instance, in case someone on your team is behaving in a way that is undesirable. So how to handle unwanted behaviour in your nonprofit team?

What is unwanted behaviour?

First of all, you must be clear about what is unwanted and why. This is not necessarily exactly the same in all contexts, in all teams and organizations. Even though there are boundaries that are the same everywhere. So, the first step in handling unwanted behaviour is for everyone on your team to know what is not desirable and to understand very actively why that is so. The best way to achieve this is to discuss this within the team and organization. And to spend time discussing what behaviour is wanted, what behaviour is reinforcing the mission of the organization? What do you want to see people do?


Communicate also clearly with the outside world what your values and boundaries are. So that if one of your team members displays unwanted behaviour in their presence (or even toward them) they know that this is not condoned by your organization. It is helpful to also communicate how, where and when they could notify you or complain. And what the next steps will be if they do. In other words, be clear to the outside world how you handle unwanted behaviour in your nonprofit team.

How do you decide what is unwanted?

When you are defining unwanted behaviour with the team, one of the questions you may run into is: who gets to decide what is wanted or not?

Your values

First and foremost, the basis for everything is of course in your vision, mission and values. What is in line with these and what is not?

If your mission is to empower girls through education, it is clear that sexual harassment of the girls in your programme is highly unwanted behaviour. It directly undermines your own mission and values. (This behaviour may also be criminal in your context).

Similarly, if you are all about cleaning the forests, and your team members are dumping waste in the forest, this undermines your work and credibility, even if they do it in their free time.

Based on your vision, mission and values you may want to describe specific unwanted behaviour and create policies around this. For instance, a child protection policy, or a safeguarding policy.

It also helps to visualize very clearly (and to write this down) what model behaviour would be in your team. How would the perfect team member act and be perceived? What do your values look like in daily practice?



Donors & Partners

It is also very possible that your implementing partners or funding partners (donors) have specific requirements or conditions. These may be related to the work you do together. But they may also come from that partner’s own context.

For instance, they may need you to have a policy on bribery and anti-corruption to ensure that all programme resources are used effectively and efficiently. But I have also had to sign a statement about a drug-free workplace for some funding partners.

If these requirements do not suit you, because you want to be able to smoke pot in the office, then be clear that you do not consider this behaviour unwanted and cannot follow this requirement. The consequence could be that this collaboration cannot happen, and that could be a good choice for you in some cases.

Again, it is good to discuss these issues with the team so that everyone understands the choices and consequences.


It may seem overly logical to you that your organization cannot condone behaviour that is against the law. Theft. Murder. Rape. And more. Easy peasy. Everyone should know. (Except that not everyone may perceive a rape as a rape, or a theft as a theft….)

And as always, it is good to look at the context. It is possible that your organization’s work is outlawed in the country you target. That can be the case for independent media NGOs or human rights activists. But also for people promoting sexual & reproductive health and rights.

So it is good to discuss in your team about these issues, as the case the may be in your context and work.

The team

Last but not least, you might want to define wanted (and unwanted) behaviour that helps in getting the work done properly and that supports the team spirit. What does the team need to be able to do their work effectively, efficiently, safely and with pleasure?

Here, rules on conflict of interest or bullying might come into play. Or guidelines about sharing information, consulting each other, etc.

Clarity is in writing

It is important that you combine discussing in the team with writing down the conclusions. Write down clearly what is wanted and what is not wanted. Develop policies, procedures, guidelines for how you want your team to act – and how not.

Once all that is written down, take time to discuss it in the team again, to make sure that everything is clear and as intended in the discussions. You will see that it can be harder than you think to write down everything clearly the first time around. You will likely need a few rounds to feel confident that your texts are clear and clearly understood.

Once this is finalized, communicate your policy not only internally but also externally (see above).

Make it practical

Make sure that aside of the paperwork, your team is clear about what every team member can and should do in case they notice something that they feel is not as agreed. How will team members call each other out on transgressions?

Make sure that you also have a procedure, often called a complaints mechanism, that deals with what to do in case unwanted behaviour occurs. Publish and share this so that external parties can also know what to do in case they notice something that is against your policy. This will create confidence in your true will to address unwanted behaviour and in your professionalism as an organization to handle such situations. That will help create reliability and credibility for your organization, especially if you include in your annual reports for instance information about complaints received and how they were handled.

My key tips

  • Formulate not only unwanted behaviour but focus on wanted behaviour and the why behind that. It is more motivating and easier to aspire to something, the wanted behaviour, than to try and keep track of what is not wanted.
  • Keep discussing about how to handle unwanted behaviour in your nonprofit team. This helps keep it alive, but also helps make sure your definitions and understanding are up to date. It is possible that you perceive something as undesirable today that you did not even think of last year. It is also good to discuss this with the target group, key stakeholders and (funding or implementation) partners, depending on the work you do.
  • Create a clear and standardized process for handling unwanted behaviour and make sure that anyone filing a complaint feels and is protected even if the complaint is later perceived as unfounded.

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