Working for the nonprofit sector has been one of the biggest highlights of my career. I’ve gotten the chance to work on issues that really matter to me, all while meeting passionate people along the way and building personal knowledge. Some lessons have even provided important context for my understanding of both the world and this space.
Below is a snapshot of those lessons, a list of quick takeaways from my nonprofit journey.
8 Things I Learned Working for the Nonprofit Sector
1. Social justice issues are more complicated than they appear. The further removed you are from something, the easier it is to judge. We can look at issues like homelessness and healthcare on TV and think up a slew of obvious solutions. However, if you work for a nonprofit that’s tackling any of those issues, then you know that these problems tend to have many more roots than we can see all at once. This makes finding the solution harder than it seems.
2. However, some things should be easy. As complex as social problems are, if you’ve ever worked in this sector, then you know that some fixes should be real obvious. These are the things that make you want to pull your hair out sometimes…like knowing that juveniles are still subject to solitary confinement despite its devastating effects. I know, I know, we’re getting there. But really?
3. Having heart is important. There are nonprofits out there doing great, hard work. For their employees, this means there may be days when the weight of the world feels like it’s on your shoulders. Whether you’re working with battered women in homeless shelters, providing hospice care to ill patients or representing immigrants to prevent deportation, repeated exposure to an issue heightens your awareness of just how bad things can be. Having heart matters because it helps you to empathize with the communities that you’re serving…and it helps you to be strong.
4. Skills matter too. As much as the sector needs people who want to do good, it also needs workers who are sharp, knowledgeable and creative. It needs leaders who can empathize with constituents in one breath and steer teams to success in the next. It needs staff who are both compassionate and driven to produce results. Nonprofits are not businesses, but they are in the business of helping others. We need highly-skilled, organized workers just as much as any other sector.
5. ‘Development’ is a fancy, loaded term for fundraising. If you’ve ever heard your nonprofit friends tell you that they work in ‘development’, you’re finally in on the secret (unless they actually are developers). Nonprofit development staff are the folks who go out and raise the resources necessary to keep the lights on. Here’s a piece on some of the ways that development professionals get to do this.
6. Development is more than just fundraising. If you’re considering a nonprofit job but don’t want to fundraise, still look into development. There are many different roles and you could miss the right one if you write it all off. Love to scribe? Be a grant writer who submits proposals to foundations. Like business? Corporate fundraisers pitch companies on how sponsorship can help meet their objectives. (Here’s a deeper dive on this, should it resonate.) If you dread the thought of asking anyone for money, become a prospect researcher who identifies potential donors or the operations expert who maintains the donor database. There’s plenty of skill to be had and learned here.
7. The definition of ‘overhead’. Overhead refers to spending that is not tied to a charity’s programs – like administrative, fundraising, & compensation costs. This was a hot topic due to claims that high overhead made nonprofits ineffective at serving the community (because money that should’ve gone to former service members & other constituents actually went to things like this. Yeah). Thankfully the conversation is shifting, but if you’re not sure why that matters then read this letter. The overhead logic feels true initially, but in reality it makes dangerous assumptions about how nonprofits do (or don’t) work.
8. I don’t know everything there is to know about nonprofits. The way we feel about companies, charities and social problems is typically informed by the media that we consume or the people we discuss them with. I’ve learned that no matter how many headlines you see about nonprofits, it’s really difficult to grasp how vast and complex the sector is without the experience. For the longest time, I didn’t even know that private universities could qualify as nonprofits. (Would you think of Harvard as a nonprofit?)
This is only a handful of the things I’ve learned working for this great sector, and I’m sure many more lessons are on their way. What are some of your takeaways?