How You Know Nonprofit Work Is Right for You

Nearly half of nonprofit leaders left or planned to leave their position within the next two years, according to The Nonprofit Sector’s Leadership Deficit by The Bridgespan Group.

More surprisingly, the major reason for leaving wasn’t retirement. Rather, 12 percent of nonprofit leaders left their positions to go to other organizations—making this the leading reason for turnover at the top.

Compounding the turnover issue, succession planning was cited as the No. 1 organizational concern of boards and CEOs. The two seemingly are a “which-came-first” situation—the revolving door of top-level executives exacerbating the fear of a lack of succession planning.

All this, however, got me thinking about a much more fundamental concept in our world of nonprofit work. Why do we do it and what does it take to stay in the game, whether you have been playing for decades or are at the starting line?

From Stelter’s vantage point as a strategic partner to nonprofits, here are some top qualities and characteristics that set up long-term success. 

1. You like a challenge.

This may be the understatement of the century.

Nonprofit work is not easy, but I don’t have to tell you that. From tracking metrics that matter and measuring ROI to budgeting and the day-to-day hustle and bustle: Expect your patience, and perhaps even your sanity, to be tested.

However, patience will be rewarded. There is certainly no shortage of opportunity in this field, in experience or advancement.

2. You aren’t afraid of commitment.

You don’t just take your work home with you—it goes everywhere you go. If a nonprofit’s staff doesn’t believe in and commit to their mission, no one will.

The best nonprofit leaders are hopelessly devoted to their cause. It is critical for those in nonprofit work to share their mission by the most effective and least expensive advertising there is: word of mouth.

3. You know that teamwork makes the dream work.

Sure, a collaborative style is key for all working partnerships, for-profit as well as nonprofit. But it’s especially helpful when nonprofit teams can consolidate talent, skill and leadership (internally and with other organizations) when resources, staff and/or time and more likely limited.

Even at the top spot as a leader, a collaborative work style means you strive to be a consensus builder, recognizing differences as strengths, and weaknesses as improvement areas. You’re adaptable in most any situation, but you won’t endanger your credibility and honesty—or that of your colleagues.

4. You enjoy wearing multiple hats.

No two days are ever the same.

Working for a nonprofit allows workers to branch out and expand their skillsets. More often than not, roles need filled and they need filled fast. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to work in marketing? How about accounting? Event planning? If you work for a nonprofit long enough, your day will come.

5. You can make a dollar stretch.

When an organization is low on staff, and budget, board members expect you to make a lot from a little. It’s basically in your job description.

This means you get creative. (Refer to item No. 4.) You may dabble in design some afternoons. Other days, you may even try your hand at catering. Nonprofit work is not for timid, and there is certainly no shortage of excitement or variety.

It takes heart. Some days couldn’t be more rewarding, others are challenging to say the least. (Find tips for the more trying times here.) But at the end of each day, your work truly makes a difference and improves the lives of others. And for that, we sincerely thank you.

How did you know nonprofit work was right for you? Let us know what characteristics and qualities you think we should add to the conversation.

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