Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Do You Have What it Takes to Work in a Non-Profit?

As I've watched the disasters in Haiti and Chile, I've been inspired by the hundreds of non-profit organizations that have poured into those areas, ready and willing to help. At the same time, I'm aware enough of my limitations to know that I'd have a hard time coping with the devastation on any long-term basis if I was called to work there. It got me thinking about what it takes to work for a non-profit, and how many people find out it's not the right job fit for them. That led to this column for Gannett:

The poor job market has led many job seekers to be creative, seeking work in fields they may not have explored before. But for those who believe moving from a for-profit arena into the non-profit world may give them more options, the transition may not be that easy.

“I think many non-profits are using more management techniques found in the business world, but I wouldn’t suggest a job seeker sit down and say to a non-profit organization: ‘Listen, I can help your non-profit run more like a business.’ There’s a good chance you might offend them saying something like that,” says Heather Krasna, director of career services at Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington.

That’s because non-profits often focus on the “cause” of their organization, putting less emphasis on the bottom line. That’s one of the reasons that moving into the non-profit world may not be the best career move for everyone.

Kisha DeSandies, who works as a communications manager for a non-profit association in Alexandria, Va., says that while non-profits are more team-oriented and focused on a common purpose, there’s often not enough staff – or money – to get all the work done. Many non-profits find themselves equally hard hit by the recession, she says.

“When the economy is in trouble, you lose members (of the organization). When you lose members, you lose money. You lose money, you lose jobs,” DeSandies says. “I’ve heard of other associations that just aren’t doing well.”

DeSandies, who has worked in the for-profit world as well, says non-profits often are not as strongly managed financially, and mismanagement by boards can lead to overspending and poor organizational planning. That’s a recipe, she says, that can bother many workers.

“I think every job has its issues, but not having structure and accountability can be a downside of non-profit work. It can be sort of like a dysfunctional family. The place can eventually implode,” she says.

Before choosing to apply to a non-profit, Krasna suggests checking out the group’s mission and seeing if you are truly interested in their goals. Further, many non-profits can’t offer as much in salary, but other benefits may balance that out for many job seekers.

For example, DeSandies says that her non-profit work often has allowed her more independence with less management oversight. She says she’s also been given the chance to take on tasks that interest her, since non-profits often foster a culture of teamwork and pitching in where needed since resources are often limited. “I’m more of a free spirit, so nonprofits are a good fit for me,” she says.

Krasna points out that working for a non-profit organization shouldn’t be discounted just because salaries are sometimes lower. Non-profits such as hospitals are competitive on pay, and many executive positions are filled by MBAs or others with business-world experience. As more donors and fundraisers ask for more specific accounting of their contributions, non-profits are interested in those who understand for-profit realities – with a healthy dose of altruism thrown in.

Krasna, author of the upcoming “Jobs That Matter: Fin a Stable, Fulfilling Career in Public Service,” (JIST, $14.95) says those seeking a job with a nonprofit should:

  • Do the homework. Check out the organization’s mission and culture through the organization’s literature or online site. Also, look at the group’s tax forms found on www. to gauge the group’s financial health.
  • Volunteer. “This is really one of the best ways to check out what an organization is really like,” she says. “And, it’s going to be important to any non-profit to see that you’ve done some volunteer work somewhere. It’s something you should highlight in your resume and cover letter.”
  • Values. Do a gut check and determine the causes you feel strongly about. If you can’t commit yourself to the organization’s mission, the job won’t be a good fit.
Do you think you could work in a non-profit? Why or why not?


Patricia Robb said...

I started working for a not for profit last year. I came from a law background. It was like landing on another planet. I was used to structure and working with a goal in mind, but what I found was disorganization and some of my co-workers thought I was too hard on myself because I wanted to do a good job. I was used to working hard and what I got was a lot of feelings. I wasn't used to it.

Now that I have been there over a year, the office has become more organized and I have become more compassionate.

Not for profits are there for a cause. There is nothing like getting behind the cause, but you want to do a good job too. It is a balance you have to make.

There are also many opportunities that wouldn't be there if you were in a business or government environment. You can get a lot of experience in many different areas that you normally wouldn't qualify for.

Sometimes a worker from a not for profit may be looked at as not as professional and in some cases that is true, but hopefully that is changing. After all, not for profits are usually using donated funds and you want to be a good steward of those and being organized and producing quality work is the best way to do that.

Go into it with your eyes open and it can be very rewarding.


Anita said...

Thanks for this first-hand perspective. I really appreciate you sharing your story.

Anonymous said...

The disadvantages of working for non-profit certainly include low pay and long hours- including the expectation that you will be available for what needs to be done on nights and weekends.
But many of us are not cut out for the corporate world. I have no desire to deal with people trying to climb over each other to get ahead every day of my life. The non-profit culture is not without its drama, but is overall much more supportive.
What's been great for me is the opportunity to be a bit entrepreneurial, create my own position based on my unique skill set, and take over projects I never would have been given in a regular company.
Also, at the end of the day, the point of my job is to help people, not sell them something.

Anita said...

It sounds like you're the right place. You're fortunate you know what you like and dislike, and I appreciate you sharing your story.

Barbara Ruth Saunders said...

Anonymous - my experience was very different. I do not find the nonprofit world supportive at all. In may organizations, I've found a subtle prejudice against the idea of a worker seeking any of the usual rewards of work - not just the sense of meaning associated with the cause.

Skills learning, professional community, and intellectual development aren't luxuries; ultimately they help the organization and the cause. I got very tired of the expectation that "committed" people should be satisfied not just with low salaries but also with jobs structured like entry-level or admin jobs, even when they had managerial titles.

Anita said...

Barbara Ruth,
You bring up some points I think a lot of people are looking at more and more these days -- that a nonprofit must be run as well as any business if it's going to survive and retain the best people. I know some "professionals" who have jumped ship to go into the nonprofit world -- I wonder if they'll ultimately have an impact on the ways these organizations function...

Thanks for presenting another side of the picture for us.