Tips on Working at a Small Nonprofit


Similar to for-profit organizations, there are substantial benefits and drawbacks to working at a small nonprofit organization rather than a larger one. For example, it may be confusing and overwhelming to work at a large organization where you might feel lost in the sea of other colleagues serving similar roles, but large organizations offer a level of supportive infrastructure, training and development opportunities and potentially a wider professional network that smaller organizations may have difficulty providing. On the other hand, smaller organizations offer an opportunity to impact the overall organization at a higher level than might otherwise be available at large organizations and may feature more entrepreneurial cultures. Similarly, though, each individual employee’s personality might also have a greater than desirable impact on the overall organization affecting both the organization and colleagues. In a sense, there is nowhere to hide in a small organization and the potential personality conflicts can be immense. As a result, here are a few tips for individuals thinking about joining a small nonprofit organization.

Consider the culture of the organization: As with any organization, culture matters. At a smaller organization, culture matters a lot. While it is important to consider cultural aspects such as dress code, working hours, start time, working style and communication style, among other aspects, also pay attention to less immediately discernable qualities such as body language, diction and syntax in verbal communication, and thought patterns, especially in interview and office visit formats. Chances are that what one sees is what one gets, so be sure to see enough to determine whether a particular environment is the right fit.

Consider the strength of the management team: Could you see yourself working with and believing in the management team? Just because a group of people started an organization and called themselves managers does not mean that they are actually qualified to run an organization. Poorly run organizations don’t last very long and as a result could adversely affect one’s career if one does not choose wisely. As for the management team, while experience matters, successful experiences matter more. Be thoughtful and critical about the strength of the management team. Organizations are not successful simply because enough people believe in or care about its vision and mission. Successful organizations are well run by managers who know what they are doing.

Seek as much clarity as possible in your role, complete with detail on reporting structure, functional relationships to others in the organization, potential changes and overall performance expectations. Look for tangible methods of adding value. “To lead an effort to …” is not enough. Mutual understanding of what that means will help ensure a positive experience. However, seeking clarity should not be confused with spelling out every detail of a role. One might consider staying flexible to leave enough room to influence the evolution of one’s own role.

Be prepared for shifting roles and some administrative work. While roles may change in any organization, it seems to occur more frequently for a wider range of roles at smaller organizations. Staying flexible and open-minded as well as proactive in the development of one’s role could help one navigate one’s experience and could substantially affect the quality of that experience. Roles change and that is okay, as long as one is comfortable with those changes. Be sure that the range of roles is within personal and professional expectations and goals.

Seek demonstrated personal and professional growth opportunities: This point cannot be overstated. One of the main selling points for working with a small organization is that one may receive greater responsibility and opportunities to demonstrate capabilities faster than peers at larger organizations. While those opportunities might exist, they might not and if they do, the responsibility to appropriately take advantage of those opportunities rests solely with oneself. Seek evidence of potential personal and professional growth. Not all small organizations grow quickly. Not all are equipped with the systems, focus, and discipline to manage their own growth successfully. Look for examples of other individuals who have grown personally and professionally. Look for tangible and realistic opportunities. If and when they are found, be certain one can capitalize on them.

Peruse previous Form 990 filings: Understand where the organization spends its money and focuses its energy. Learn about the board as well as the officers and understand their backgrounds and philosophies. Guidestar and Google are all that is necessary for this. Similarly, ask for the most recent annual report to learn about how the organization describes and markets itself. While it may not be available, one will be remiss in not asking.

Distinguish between reality, fiction, and potential: This point, too, cannot be overstated. Current nonprofit business models feature a unique fundraising aspect, where in order to be successful one must market their organization well, appeal to donors well, tell great stories and provide a compelling vision. Given the amount of time dedicated to fundraising, it should not be surprising that similar tactics are used for all potential stakeholders, including board members, government, community members, employees, potential employees, foundations, other funders, and other partners. They are probably so used to talking in this manner with potential funders that they cannot help themselves. Some of these communications are accurate, but some unfortunately stretch the truth, and others simply describe something that does not even exist. Distinguish between the flowery, but fictional language and the true reality of a situation.

Learn to deal with inadequate staffing levels: Unfortunately, many small organizations are simply understaffed, especially nonprofit organizations. To many of these organizations, people cost money, which is a scarce resource in the nonprofit world. While this might not be sustainable (see “On Asset Building for Nonprofits”), it is reality for the time being. One may be asked to do much more than the stated role and potentially perform more administrative work than one is used to performing. Understanding one’s self, working style and necessary support infrastructure is critical in learning whether one can deal with inadequate staffing levels.

Seek many mentors: In order to achieve tip 5 one strategy is to seek many mentors both inside and outside the organization. Given the nature of smaller organizations, there are simply fewer people to serve as mentors inside an organization. Mentors in similar or related industries that can help navigate your career, serve as a sounding board, provide connections or serve other purposes are extremely helpful. Make sure, though, that mentors are true mentors, who truly care about mentee’s personal development. Remember, small organizations often lack adequate resources to handle their current workload, let alone develop employees and ensure the existence and quality of opportunities consistent with personal and professional development. In short, one is either all alone or extremely fortunate. Assuming the former, mentors are critical for survival.

Be sure to have fun and really enjoy the experience: Normally, I’d put this point at number 1, however, it is difficult to see how one achieves this without having considered tips 1 through 9. Work should be enjoyable. It’s unfortunate that we often fail to enjoy it. Considering the portion of our lives spent at work, I urge seeking certainty in enjoying one’s experience. If there is doubt, that opportunity might not be the right fit. We owe it to ourselves to make sure we enjoy our experiences and take full advantage of opportunities.

Unfortunately, these tips are not exhaustive, but they should help steer those considering opportunities at a smaller nonprofit organization. I hope the above tips are helpful. Best of luck!

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