[Governance Matters] In an Economic Downturn, What's a Nonprofit Board to Do?

Bridge in Tacoma by Flickr user David Sadler (Creative Commons)

NYU Professor Paul Light spoke at the state conference for nonprofit board members organized by The Nonprofit Center in Tacoma, in my home state of Washington, on October 30th. He bluntly described four possible futures for nonprofits in the midst of a sharp economic downturn:

  • Wait for a miracle. “Believe it if you must, but know that the recovery is going to take a long time to reach far into the nonprofit community.”
  • Wither. Shed programs and activities in a random way that causes the least disruption today. “Do that if you want, but don’t be surprised if opportunities come along and you’re not ready to pounce.”
  • Winnow. End low-impact programs. Mothball activities that might be revived when times change. Look around for someone who might take over your work. Hunker down.
  • Rejuvenate. Take a hard look at everything you do. Preserve core value for the community you serve. Identify your organization’s value proposition and focus energy on doing those things that answer the question “Why us? Why do we exist?” Make tough choices now and you’ll see productivity go up and morale—believe it or not—improve. “Have faith in the possible and pride in your organization. Help your organization to improve through meaningful and deliberate change.”

If it’s the fourth future that appeals, then there are four things Light suggests the board needs to do, today, tomorrow, and, in fact, whether times are tough or flush.

  • Scrub down the organization.Examine the organization’s services and activities through an orderly review that emphasized productivity — not, for heaven’s sake, efficiency. Make a resolution to be more nonprofit-like, to focus on commitment to serving people and the community, and to being sure to do it well. (Light wrote a whole article a few years ago on what it means to be “nonprofit-like.”)
  • Find evidence of success.Talk among yourselves about your “brand,” your “value proposition,” your “theory of change.” Then look at the reports you receive at your board meetings. Review your website and your publications. Do they deliver evidence of your success? Are there areas that may need attention?
  • Pay attention to the tools. Are you wasting your most valuable asset—the wisdom that people bring to work with them everyday—through “economizing” on furniture, staff development, computers and communications? “When I teach nonprofit management,” Light said, “I don’t want my best students to make site visits. If they see the abysmal working conditions too many nonprofits offer, they’ll never want to work with you!” Board members should take the lead in assuring volunteers and staff have what they need to be productive. The undertow from concern about “overhead” is strong. Staff need help to resist it.
  • Broadcast your pride.Nonprofits are making a positive impact every day in the daily lives of people in our communities, in our nation, around the world. It’s hard work done under great stress. Make sure to thank—personally when you can—the people who do it, and their counterparts in other agencies and organizations throughout the community.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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Career Corner: What the Economic Downturn Means for Nonprofits

From Flickr user SOCIALisBETTER (Creative Commons)

By Meg Busse.

These days, the economy is obviously a huge factor in any career search. How exactly it’s affecting the job search is the subject of a myriad articles on what job seekers should do to get a job in the for-profit sector, but there hasn’t been the same flood of information about nonprofit hiring. However, there are a multitude of factors that make this a more multifaceted topic, including the new administration’s agenda to expand Americans’ engagement in national service, individuals’ growing desire to have careers with a social impact, and the continuing innovation in the nonprofit sector.

So while there hasn’t been a lot of talk about the nonprofit job search, there are three articles that I’ve read lately that offer interesting insights into what’s to come in the sector, the growing interest in nonprofit careers, and what to consider if you are applying for nonprofit jobs.

  • The first, an interview called “Climate Change,” appears in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. It’s an interesting overview of how Paul Light, a governance and nonprofit effectiveness expert at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, sees the sector changing and adapting in the future in response to the current economic situation.
  • “Nonprofit Gigs Get Competitive” is from Forbes.com and provides interesting anecdotal information about the increase in interest in nonprofit sector careers, with a particular focus on MBA students and alums.
  • Finally, in the most recent issue of Fast Company, Nancy Lublin wrote a great article called “Nonprofits? Not a Recessionary Refuge for Job Seekers.” This is one of my new favorite articles because of the overall message, but also because it has some fantastic lines, including a description of the multitude of meetings she’s been having lately with friends and friends-of-friends who are interested in nonprofit careers:

I ask, “What kind of thing are you looking to do?” They reply, “Oh, anything in the not-for-profit sector. I just want to make the world a better place.” This is like me saying, “Oh, anything in the for-profit world would be fine. I just want to make money.”

Note: To avoid offering a similarly vague response about why you want to work in the nonprofit sector, check out past blog posts on crafting your personal mission statement, and the Four Lens and Career Tracks self-assessment exercises. Also, check out Chapter Three of The Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers for more tips on figuring out specifically why you’re looking for this kind of work right now.

While these three articles won’t provide any easy answers, silver bullets, or job search panaceas, they’re worth reading because they’ll either confirm what you already know or provide some new insight into the nuances of nonprofit hiring. Or a little of both.

And understanding nonprofit hiring nuances like the necessity of networking, the value in ‘speaking the language,’ and the importance of demonstrating a commitment to the mission is what will differentiate you from all of the other applicants flooding the nonprofit job market.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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Career Corner: Getting Your Career Search on Track

By Steven Joiner.

The Career Tracks exercise is the best way to see what jobs are out there that resonate with you. It is real, it is current, and it is relevant.

By Flickr user Zach Bonnell (Creative Commons)

In late November, Meg talked about The Four Lenses activity created by David Schachter at the NYU Wagner School of Public Service. The goal of the Four Lenses activity is to give you a framework to think and talk about what exactly it is that peaks your professional interest. Once you figure out what lens (or lenses) through which you view the nonprofit sector, the Career Tracks exercise (also developed by the amazing David Schachter) is a great next step to take. This exercise is in for parts:

Part One: Data Collection

Look at online or newspaper job postings, and copy or cut out any posting (a “clip”) that appeals to you either by (A) the type of organization or by (B) the job description. Remember, the only criteria you are using to select clips are either organization or job description. The location of the organization or job should not be an issue for now. Nor should the pay range, qualifications, experience, or any other aspects of the job be a issue. The point of this search is not to explore jobs for which you are qualified. Rather, you are looking at jobs and organizations that appeal to you.

By broadening your search outside of the area where you live (or plan to live) as well as searching jobs outside of your qualifications and pay demands, you get a much fuller sense of the opportunities that are out there. For now, you are not concerned with finding a job with a ten minute commute. Repeat this activity until you have at least 50 clips. The more you collect, the better. Remember, when collecting, you do not evaluate along the way, you just collect ideas. Once you have a minimum of 50 clips, continue to the analysis phase.

Part Two: Analysis

Take the clips out of your folder and see if you can find any patterns or common themes. Points to look for might include: issue, population to be served, approach to the work, geography, kind of organization, unit or department within an agency, and role and responsibilities. For example, you might notice that a large number of your clips focus on direct service with homeless teens and adults, and most of the organizations you are drawn to are large organizations located in urban areas.

Part Three: Synthesis

Using the data gathered from your collection and analysis phases, create at least one and no more than five potential career tracks for yourself. A career track is a way to put parameters around and frame your potential career interests, and can include any of the following attributes that have meaning for you: issue or field of interest, approach to the work, kinds of organizations that do this work, roles that you aspire to play, and requirement of skills, experience, education, and knowledge to fulfill those roles.

Take stock of your qualifications and experiences as they relate to your potential career tracks. Your track should inform which groups you join, the people you seek out, the internship/job experiences you look for, and how you present yourself in a resume, cover letter, and interview. (See Chapter Eight for more advice on cover letters and resumes, and Chapter Nine for a discussion of interview techniques.) Remember to reflect along the way to determine if this track feels like a good fit for you. If it does, continue on this path. If not, seek out additional tracks.

Part Four: Application

After you identify your possible career tracks, draft a different resume for each position you identify that fits into each of the tracks. This can be an entry-level position or a “dream job”; the point of drafting a mock resume is to get a clear view of the skills, experiences, and qualifications (which can include certifications or licenses) you will need in that particular job. Now, fill in the resume with the skills, experiences, and qualifications that you already have for the position. Look at any areas that are blank. Do you need more management, direct service, fundraising, professional, and/or educational experience to qualify for a job on this career track? If yes, start to explore ways to fill those blanks. Whatever the blanks are on your resume, you can find a time and place to fill them. While it is unrealistic to fill all the blanks in all of your resumes in a relatively short amount of time, many of the skills you wish to have should be transferable between resumes.

Ideally, you will have at least 12 months for the Career Tracks process. Realistically, you will only have three to six months. See Chapter 3 to see how a three-, six-, and twelve-month schedule looks.

Like your career search, the Career Tracks exercise should be an ongoing, ever-evolving process. Successful job searches almost never happen overnight.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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Career Corner: Knowing Where to Start the Search, Part I

By Meg Busse.

Some of my ‘must read’ blogs are work related, some aren’t, but I love when there is cross-over from professional to personal. One of my ‘personal’ blogs is Reclaiming Miss Havisham. This is one of my favorite blogs for a lot of reasons, but in particular because of the blogger’s candor. In one of her recent posts she links to a Post Secret postcard and follows it up with her own secret that she’s quitting her job. She’s quitting because, “In a nutshell, my ethics are out of sync with the ethics of my supervisors and boss, and I can’t live with myself if I stay.”

From Flickr user Gideon (Creative Commons)

Have you heard one of your friends say something similar? Have you been frustrated about this in your own job? If so, you’re not alone; a USA Today article cites statistics that suggest that if the younger workers are going to “work many, many hours, they need to work in a place where they’re doing some good,” according to Claudia Tattanelli, CEO of Universum.

Corporate employers are responding, but there are plenty of job seekers who are looking to the nonprofit sector for a wholly different type of career.

However, one of the obstacles to finding a nonprofit career can be knowing where and how to start looking. David Schachter of NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service created a great self-assessment called The Four Lens exercise that allows job seekers to assess how they see themselves doing good in the world.

In short, ask yourself what motivates you to do good work? Is it:

An issue area such as environmental conservation, women’s rights, or prison reform?

An organization that you are passionate about such as Incight, Guitars not Guns, or the Public Broadcasting Service?

A position or specific job? I’ve only met one person who wants to be an accountant in a nonprofit organization, a few who want to be in nonprofit HR, and many who are interested in the ED or a leadership role. Whatever your passion, you can find any position in the nonprofit sector that exists in the corporate world. Even stockbroker.

A way of working within the system? This could include the scope of the work (local, national, or international), the type of work (direct service, advocacy, philanthropy, capacity building, policy, research), or the type of organization (well-funded and established or grassroots and on the fringe).

As you contemplate a career change or assess your current job, this Four Lens exercise can help narrow your search so that you have a more focused image of how you want to create a positive change in the world—and how you see your career fitting into that picture.

For more information on the Four Lens exercise and self-assessment in the nonprofit job search, see Chapter Three of The Idealist Guide.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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