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?

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