Three Things I Learned Working in Nonprofit Management, and Why I Left

This article follows up on part 3 of a series of articles in which I’m trying to share (in a positive way) the top three lessons learned at each of my main career hops. So, let’s continue!

After Deloitte (previous post), I landed for a few years at a fairly decent-sized international nonprofit based in Pittsburgh. I believe I Ianded the role primarily on the merits of my normal nine-to-five career. But, as noted in my second installment (here), I’d begun freelancing back in my D.C. days. And, as so many freelancers from D.C. will attest, the nonprofit market there is gigantic. So, it’s common for D.C. professionals to have a good deal of nonprofit experience on their resumes. Freelancers, and certainly board members as well, can get considerable mileage from such experience.

Before I get to the top three lessons learned, I’ll add in a few general observations that might sound familiar to anyone with this type of experience:

  • Nonprofits are dynamic. You have people there for many more reasons than in most normal corporate jobs. Aside from normal functional specialists (like marketers and accountants), there are the subject-matter experts (e.g., a cancer nonprofit where some management are doctors by profession); nonprofit-management specialist types (e.g., a cancer nonprofit where some management are Certified Association Executives who don’t know much about cancer, but they know how to run nonprofits); and quite often volunteers (e.g., a cancer nonprofit where people are there because they believe in the mission).
  • Nonprofits have different rules. This can be somewhat challenging for transitioning into the nonprofit world, as they simply don’t (or can’t) do everything the same. For example, nonprofits can’t incentivize sales professionals in the same way.
  • Nonprofits run at a different pace. These entities usually have boards of directors and, depending on the organization, various things might need board approval before going forward. That can mean a lengthy process if you’re used to the more flat-heirarchical, more agile corporate world. I suspect that, if one can’t embrace this concept, a nonprofit might be a bad career fit. I’ll admit personally feeling somewhat frustrated by this at times, although it didn’t bother me too terribly much.

As a freelancer (not yet a board member, but that installment is forthcoming), I always viewed nonprofits as great clients. By the time things came to me, they’d been fully funded (and, somewhat unexpectedly, funded rather well). Being on the staff, though, taught me a few other things.

Top Three Lessons Learned There

  1. Member value matters. Almost all nonprofits I’ve worked with were member-based, and they all should have a clear business or personal case for joining, which often comes through the member benefits package that a nonprofit has lined up. Anything you can do to enhance this quality is probably a good idea.
  2. Managing volunteers. All organizations appreciate enthusiastic volunteers, but at the same time, you can’t always let them do whatever they want. For example, I’m sure Habitat for Humanity loves getting help building homes. But, a volunteer certainly can’t just show up and start pounding nails into things without receiving direction. There’s a bigger picture there, not to mention (in that example) building codes and so forth. Volunteer management is similar to the lessons of delegation present in both corporate and nonprofit offices, only somewhat more nuanced in that these folks aren’t there to earn money. So, you have to become good at the type of diplomatic communication that is understood by multiple parties, quite possibly all around the country or the world.
  3. You can’t please everyone. With such diversity comes the reality that you’re not going to always make everyone happy. Branding, for example, was always a challenge across a worldwide organization. I remember needing to standardize imagery and messaging world-wide, yet facing considerable resistance among a few sub-organizations. This is likely a common issue among larger organization that have various sections and chapters, many of which are formidably sized entities themselves. Hopefully, one does try to accommodate as many diverse needs as possible, of course!

Why I Left

Strange story, I guess… One day, the Marketing Director, to whom I’d reported, quit. As the organization’s only Senior Manager, also in marketing, I felt as though I should step up. So, I went home that night and drew up a 5- or 6-page marketing plan for the organization. I mean, I know it’s *me* saying this, but: Having personally written multi-million dollar, successful proposals at Deloitte, I think I know when a document is “good.” And this one was *really* good.

But, it backfired. The Executive Director informed me that, in the business world, one should not take such initiative. He said one should wait to be asked for things instead of proactively asking. He followed that absolutely poor career advice with his assessment of me, stating I wasn’t ready to be a marketing director. So, a few weeks later, I resigned. I’d accepted a Marketing Director role with a regional CPA firm. So, the bonus lesson here is to never let anyone tell you what you’re ready for or qualified for. You know yourself 100x better than they do!

Regarding that last point, here’s a video that’s been going around that makes the above point in a more eloquent way:

Circling Back

Later on as I progressed, I found my way back into the nonprofit world, but this time as a board member. I’ll write that up separately, as there were many career lessons there, too!


Jim Dee heads up Array Web Development, LLC in Portland, OR. He’s the editor of “Web Designer | Web Developer” magazine and a contributor to many online publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. Photo atop piece is adapted from U. S. Capitol, Washington, D. C. by Boston Public Library (Flickr, Creative Commons).