Myths about Working for a Nonprofit: A Primer for Corporate Colleagues

With millions of Americans newly unemployed, many nonprofits have seen a sharp increase in inquiries from well-intentioned ex-corporate job-seekers. This cadre is by and large made up of talented, experienced professionals with a desire to make a difference in the world, a cohort that would seem ideal for nonprofit work. The catch is that many members of this group are not well-informed about the way nonprofits operate. If you find yourself in this category, please allow me to debunk a few common myths about working in the nonprofit sector. Read on before you click the “Submit” button to post your resume on Idealist.org or ask your friend to set up an information interview with his neighbor who runs a nonprofit.

With millions of Americans newly unemployed, many nonprofits have seen a sharp increase in inquiries from well-intentioned ex-corporate job-seekers. This cadre is by and large made up of talented, experienced professionals with a desire to make a difference in the world, a cohort that would seem ideal for nonprofit work. The catch is that many members of this group are not well-informed about the way nonprofits operate.

If you find yourself in this category, please allow me to debunk a few common myths about working in the nonprofit sector. Read on before you click the “Submit” button to post your resume on Idealist.org or ask your friend to set up an information interview with his neighbor who runs a nonprofit.

Myth #1

It’s a lot easier to run a nonprofit organization than a regular business

Reality: In the nonprofit sector, leaders must articulate the organization’s values and advance its charitable purposes while managing its finances prudently.

Balancing these obligations in an environment where access to capital is severely limited, revenue models are highly complicated and infrastructure supports are sparse makes nonprofit management much more challenging than many people realize. For managers whose experience has been in the for-profit world, this complex set of issues can be a rude awakening.

Nonprofit culture also assumes that senior staff will be ready, willing and able to roll up their sleeves and get down and dirty. There aren’t many executive assistants or junior staff hovering around to get coffee, answer the phones, set up meetings, write proposals or coordinate an office move.

Furthermore, nonprofits operate in a “muted market” which requires accountability to both those who pay for programs and services (typically private donors, foundations or public agencies) and the consumers of those services (constituents). The often differing and sometimes conflicting needs and expectations of these groups adds an extra layer of complexity to nonprofit work.

If you’ve got your eye on an executive position, you should also be aware that there’s a big difference between corporate boards and the typical nonprofit board. In the for-profit world, boards are often hand-picked by the CEO and tend to rubber-stamp his or her decisions; in the nonprofit sector, board members are generally more independent-minded and have a substantive role in governance. Establishing a good working relationship with the board is critical to any nonprofit executive’s success. Conversely, failure to pay sufficient attention to this relationship has caused the downfall of many otherwise competent leaders.

The nonprofit world also tends to be process-oriented. Good nonprofit leaders and mangers are skilled listeners who seek input from people at all levels of the organization and know when and how to build consensus. Issuing edicts from the corner suite just doesn’t cut it in our sector.

Myth #2

Nonprofits would be more effective if they adopted standard business practices

Reality: The current state of the economy suggests a rather serious flaw in this line of thinking. Although there is much that nonprofits can learn from the business sector, the reverse is also true. Values like integrity, transparency, and respect for constituents and the community, for example, have long been integral to nonprofit practice.

The reality is that nonprofit management has come of age over the past 25 years. Most mid-sized and larger nonprofits – and even many smaller ones – are run by committed leaders with professional backgrounds and deep experience. And there are now well over 100 degree-granting graduate programs in nonprofit management in the United States churning out the next generation of leaders. Yes, there are poorly run nonprofits just as there are poorly run commercial enterprises and government agencies, but in my experience relatively few of those groups remain. The highly competitive environment that defines the nonprofit sector these days tends to weed them out sooner or later.

Myth #3

My corporate background will be a real plus with prospective nonprofit employers

Reality: Nonprofits have become increasingly wary of hiring corporate managers who have bought into the two myths above. You’ll have to establish your bona fides before being considered seriously.

Do you understand – and can you articulate - the special challenges of leading or operating a nonprofit organization? What have you read on this topic? Do you have volunteer or board experience? Have you demonstrated a past commitment to the mission of the group you want to work for? Have you done your homework, not just on the organization itself, but also on the environment in which it operates? Can you present yourself with authentic humility and collegial respect, as well as confidence in your professional and technical credentials?

Myth #4

My compensation will be much lower than it used to be

Reality: OK, this one may be true. But for many jobs, nonprofit pay is often on a par with other sectors. It is quite possible to earn a respectable salary and enjoy a long career in the nonprofit field. And the mission focus of the work, coupled with a culture that favors participatory decision making, means that the level of job satisfaction among nonprofit workers is higher than in other sectors.

Do Your Research

If you feel daunted by this dose of reality, I’ve succeeded in my task. The nonprofit sector may well benefit from an infusion of new talent from the corporate world as our economy reinvents itself over the next few years. But before you make that leap, do some research and reality-testing. Read up, talk to your friends or acquaintances who already work for nonprofits - there are probably more of them than you realize - and reflect on your personal and professional goals. If you still think a nonprofit career is for you, your talents will be welcome – and put to good use!


In the ED Forum, TSNE’s Executive Director Jonathan Spack reflects on issues facing nonprofit organizations in and around the Boston area and across the nation. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonathanSpack.


 

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