Choose your battles

Not long ago I was in a meeting that eventually devolved (as most do) into ranting about organizational politics. Lots going on internally and externally, and people need to process. And processing is always lots more fun with other people.

One colleague raised the question of how, in the midst of significant turmoil, churn, and general change, to know which battles to fight? It’s a great question. It’s one that I myself, as well as many humanitarians to whom I am close have wrestled with.

I take it as a given that no organization is perfect. No organization is the end all, be all. No, not one of the so called “Big 5” household charities; not your current favorite boutique NGO; not the local NGO you started, or to which you just donated your life savings; not the Gates foundation… Any humanitarian sector employer you work for has its dark side, those things that grate, and perhaps those things that cause you to question life choices. For NGOs who depend for their very survival on the goodwill of fickle and (let’s face it) often clueless donors (if you’re a donor reading this, I obviously don’t mean you), the humanitarian ménage a trois forces decisions at the executive level which often feel like betrayal of principle at the level of the rank-and-file aid worker, buried in the trenches (cubicles) of a household charity.

So, say you’re one of those rank-and-file staff, flying a desk in D.C. or Erbil, or maybe out in the “deep field” of Jalalabad or Goma, and you’re struggling with something that’s just been handed down from on-high. How do you know what to resign over, or what to just keep your head down, find that Zen space, and treat yourself to an extra shot of Johnny Walker Blue over? What do you get up in arms about, burn political capital in meetings over? And what do you just roll your eyes and make a mental note to take off your name badge before going to the interagency soccer match over?

When it comes to these kinds of angst-inducing issues, I ask myself three questions:

Can I personally move the needle on this issue?

If the answer is “no”, your choices are basically whether or not you want to fight on, or need to simply beat a retreat.


Will this issue require me to compromise my own core values? This one requires some intellectual honestly. Many people choose to throw down over personal pride, preferences, issues around technical rigor – all of which may be important, but fall short the “my own core values” bar.

If the answer is “yes” and I can personally move the needle on the issue, then I fight it to the very end.

If the answer is “yes” and I cannot personally move the needle on the issue, then have my own hard choices and perhaps compromises to make about whether to stay or leave the organization or role (depending on the issue).

If the answer is “no”, this thing won’t cause me to go against core personal values, then these days I mostly just pipe down. Humanitarians spend too much time being wide-eyed and red-faced about too many things as it is. Let go of as much as you can. But if I can personally move the needle on the issue, then I may do so depending on the next question…


Will this issue result in beneficiaries feeling a difference? I am convinced that the vast majority of what gets argued about in NGOs won’t result in a change that is perceptible by beneficiaries. Which is why, these days at least, I stay out of as many in-house (and external) debates as possible.

If this issue does not require me to compromise core values and beneficiaries won’t feel a difference, I don’t engage.


Author: J.

Visit my website: Follow me on Twitter: @EvilGeniusPub

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s