How to deal with a pot-stirrer!

by Marcy Heim on July 10, 2019

Dealing with a pot-stirrer. Now just what do I mean by that?

pot stirrer

Have you ever noticed how some people seem to continually stir things up?  I call them pot-stirrers. And the problem is they can make a mess of things…including your peace of mind and progress. In college, my roommate, Holly, made this amazing spaghetti sauce with meatballs one night. I came home, smelled it, grabbed the spoon and began stirring. The aroma! She shrieked and told me to STOP IT NOW!  Apparently the meat balls were binding together and my stirring broke them all apart. So it’s meat sauce. Well meatballs have different ingredients that don’t taste right spread throughout meat sauce. It was an enormous crisis and she has never let me forget it or I think ever forgiven me for being so thoughtless.

Believe me; I learned stirring the pot can have real consequences!

All these years later, I see pot-stirrers every day all around us – staff, board, donors, friends, family – and honestly they CAN stir up a mess.  They can appear to be helpful – but they really are not. They don’t generally ruin anything completely…just like you CAN still eat the meat “sauce” but they generally add drama, stress and confusion and they can get in the way of you doing your best work.

So what are the characteristics of a pot-stirrer?

  • They have talent, but stirring the pot allows them to draw attention to themselves for self-promotion.
  • They can do good work, but stirring the pot to create drama masks their performance or contribution short falls.
  • They are both outspoken, but also chit-chatting behind the scenes.
  • They are onboard as long as they see something in it for them – they’re not really altruistic and quick to bail if they aren’t getting something out of it or the going gets rough.
  • They can break trust and instigate trouble – all in the name of “concern” for the organization.
  • They tend to be dramatic, gossipy – all in a spirit of caring for the organization or the work.

It’s the Board member who “suggests” what the staff should be doing.  It’s the staff member who talks on and on about the one gift they brought in…well below the metrics they should be maintaining. It’s the Board member who has conversations with other board members about staff or how something is handled to build up support before bringing it up to the leadership. It’s the donor who asks publicly how another project is going, knowing it is struggling. It’s the child who reports on what brother did because “he’s worried about him.” Pot-Stirrers.

So how do you deal with the Pot-Stirrers in your life?

  1. Recognize them publicly – they want the attention. Select any parts of their actions that are actually helpful and reward them. What you focus on you grow.
  2. Communicate clear boundaries.  These are the folks who will contact staff directly and give them directions – not cool and puts staff in an awkward spot.  Of course staff is not going to be comfortable saying no to a board member. Empower them to say they will check in with leadership and see where the request fits into current work.  Of course staff can and should handle requests for food preferences for an event, directions, etc.
  3. Look for the deeper issue. We want service to feel good for our board members, but sometimes pot stirrers are using the board to feel valued and want to fill a void in their personal relationships or life.  You are not a therapist for their personal issues.
  4. Recognize self-promotion and manage your expectations of what they can REALLY do for you. We have those board members and staff members that use their role to promote themselves – their visibility and advancement.  They are the ones who announce their role on your board to any publication that will print it. They are the staff members that will stop by to “chat” with leadership about a successful call or gift and actually do half of the calls.  The challenge here is that these folks are not really “influencers.” Their relationships are superficial and when it comes to really moving something forward for your organization they don’t have deep enough relationship capital to get the job done. Hear, “I know them, but not really well enough to get this visit.” Much of this is social media based. Bottom-line – don’t count of them for the long-haul or the big breaks.  They really aren’t major players.
  5. Respond with warmth yet crispness. If you feel they DO mean well…you gossip rumors shhcan manage the drama they create by responding warmly but evenly and crisply.  “That’s good advice. We’ll add it to the mix.”  Don’t EVER get into gossiping with them. Never.
  6. Pin down specific times for action.  Typically these folks speak up boldly at Board or committee meetings, but deliver depending on THEIR workloads.  This creates stress as staff negotiates these tasks within their planned timelines.  And, they can get snarky when you stand your ground that their free time does not coincide with theirs.  Better to set clear expectations from the start, complete with what you will do if they miss their commitments.
  7. Declare behind-the-scenes chit-chat off limits.  These folks also tend to find others on the board or staff that are not the bold ones and who become their followers or supporters.  ‘I agree with Gladys. We should do such and such.’  As much as possible have leadership remind staff and board that when everyone participates during meetings and not in the hallways the best results are achieved.

stay coolDon’t let the Pot-Stirrers in your world get you hot.  Don’t be fooled by them either. Their play to be your “special advocate’ is generally hollow.  Remember, EVERY ingredient in your dish is important. Combined properly and inspired toward shared goals these ingredients simmer in the sauce and combine to create something deeper, richer, heartier, healthier and more flavorful.

May your summer be filled with simmering delights!

Invest in JOY®


Marcy Heim is a trusted authority in the development profession and helps organizations and educational institutions boost their major gift programs through artful, long-term relationship building that dramatically increases fundraising success while promoting increased staff job satisfaction. To receive a free chapter from Marcy’s book, Empower Your Board to Serve as Effective Development Ambassadors, click here.

Questions:  Contact KK Konicek at

Leave a Comment

Anti-Spam Quiz:

Previous post:

Next post: