Career Advice: How to Work with Nonprofit Organizations

Betsy-UhrmanWhen making a change in your life, one of the things I often suggest is reaching out to experts in your chosen field for guidance. Here at Highbury, we try to follow our own advice whenever possible – after all, how can I ask you to trust me if I’m not myself willing to do the things I ask you to do!

As we continue to prime the company to shift its focus to working with nonprofit organizations, Harriet was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to sit down with Betsy Uhrman, Senior Consultant at NPO Solutions. Ms. Uhrman has given us some fantastic insights into working with nonprofit organizations – this interview is a must read for anyone who is thinking about or already doing so! And for those of you just beginning your careers, she’s also got some good food for thought on how to get started and what you might expect once you go to work.

Harriet: Please briefly describe what you do, and how you found your way to this particular career.

I work at a consulting firm that partners with a number of nonprofits in Southern California to help them achieve their mission. We provide strategic consulting in the areas of organizational planning, leadership training and resource development (i.e., fundraising).

My route to this job involved working in different nonprofit settings in different cities – from a local, growing nonprofit that implemented a program in New York City (NYC) schools to working in philanthropy in NYC and San Francisco. Family and graduate school (in public administration) brought me back to LA a few years ago.

My current role blends different facets of my previous work and interests. In my role as a consultant, I have been honored to work with local nonprofit executives, board members, staff and community stakeholders to enhance organizational impact and resources. I love the variety and sense of purpose that are part and parcel of my every day.

Harriet: For those seeking to work at a nonprofit organization, what type of skills and qualifications are most important? Is there a particular degree or field of study that one should pursue? Or is a degree less important than the passion for a specific cause? 

First and foremost, I would recommend that you go out and volunteer. Doing so will help you determine what kind of organization you want to work for and what role you want to play. There are a lot of different paths within the nonprofit world, so it’s helpful to expose yourself to different organizations and volunteer capacities so that you can see where you get your energy. Do you like being on the front lines doing direct service? Do you prefer a more behind-the-scenes/operational role? Are you drawn to a particular issue, say public education or women’s rights? Do you see yourself working in a direct service organization or one that is more focused on advocacy/systems change? Do you like working in smaller or larger organizations, one where you can wear a number of different hats or a more structured environment where responsibilities are more defined?

These questions are oversimplifications, but your answers should, nonetheless, point the way in your job search or as you design a course of study. The latter could involve coursework in sociology, ethnic studies, accounting, organizational development or a combination thereof. For more specialized fields like mental health, for example, you’ll need specialized training.

Volunteering also gives you a sense of the norms of the nonprofit workplace. Some of those more intangible, cultural pieces are even more important than coursework in terms of acquiring the soft skills that are so important in work environments where the work is deeply personal and mission and need are primary motivators.

If you don’t have time to volunteer, ask for an informational interview! Identifying the person whose job you might want will give you great insight into what you may need to do to get there.

Harriet: What kind of salary range is typical for someone starting out at a non-profit organization? And ultimately, what kind of salary can someone expect when they get to a top level position?

There is a lot of variability here, so I’m hesitant to name particular salary figures. So much depends on the skill set of the prospective employee, the type of job (say, program v. administration), the organization’s budget and resources, other benefits, where the organization is located (as it relates to cost of living implications), etc.

With the above disclaimer as the starting point, I would say – and this is not at all scientific and is based purely on my early experiences and those of my friends – that starting salary (and this was 10+ years ago!) was around $30k. Note that this doesn’t include benefits (e.g., health insurance, education stipends or paid time off, to name a few), which can really change the compensation picture.

In any event, you can expect to make less than you would in a for-profit company.

For a more scientific calculation, at the higher compensation levels, I would recommend checking out the annual CEO Compensation Study from Charity Navigator. It considers compensation according to a variety of factors, including: geographic region, mission and size.ceo_compensation_orig

Harriet: You deal with a lot of NPOs that need help. Part of our business will be partnering with some of these organizations. Given our limited resources, we will need to be particular about what clients we can take on – we wish we could help everyone, but we’re a small, growing start up. What are the signs of a healthy NPO that indicate it will be a good partner to work with and helpful in contributing to the success of an overall event?

When deciding whether to get involved with an organization, there are a range of questions – around impact, financial health and mission fit – to consider.

Based on your review of the website and other supporting materials and conversations with staff and other leaders, ask yourself: Is there a clear link between the organization’s actions and its mission? Is the leadership in place to help the organization achieve its mission? In addition, there are a host of questions around financial health; publicly available 990 form data – available on Guidestar— provides a wealth of information for those that are prepared to invest a little time.

Also, it is really important to ask yourself if you feel inspired and connected to the work. There are so many organizations out there doing great, important work. Given your limited time and resources, you’ll want to seek out organizations that match your passions.

Finally, I’d like to give a shout out to the One Percent Foundation (OPF), an organization for which I served on the board of directors for many years. The mission of OPF is to make philanthropy accessible to Millenials+ and empower them to change the world together. OPF created this great, user-friendly guide to evaluating an organization.

Harriet: What are some of the common mistakes you see when organizations plan fundraisers?

My expertise isn’t in event planning, so I would defer to those who specialize in this area for more substantive reflections.

Fundraisers are time intensive – requiring a lot of staff and volunteer time and energy – and so are not well suited to every organization. Still, the benefits can be significant. For smaller organizations, the benefits may be less around the actual amount of money raised than the community exposure the event affords. So I would say that it is important that you consider the costs and benefits of an event before going full-speed ahead into planning. Think about what kind of event – a small house party, gala, run/walk, online auction, etc. – most closely aligns with your objectives (e.g., to raise lots of money, introduce the organization to new friends, and/or increase awareness about an issue) and available resources.

Harriet: What is the most important thing for outside vendors to understand when working with a nonprofit organization? How does the mindset differ than working with corporate partners?

This is perhaps obvious, but the names we use to talk about the work reveal a lot about differing mindsets. In the case of the nonprofit sector, profit is not a motivator. Instead, nonprofits are looking to address intractable problems and are often doing so with limited resources. Many nonprofits also work with vulnerable communities and in sensitive issue areas. There is a tremendous amount of deep, institutional knowledge that comes from staff members having worked in an organization day in and day out and really knowing the community served. For outside vendors, approaching new situations with an authentic desire to listen and learn is a critical starting point.

Harriet: One of the most important things about the events we throw will be making sure the mission of each organization or charity we work with is clear. Do you have any suggestions or tips for writing a good mission statement? 

The best missions are clear, compelling and concise. Some would advise that the mission statement be no more than eight words – a verb, a target population and an outcome. I’m not that regimented. At the very least and at the very best, people – whether staff, board members, clients or community members – should be able to easily understand and restate the mission.

When staff members are going about their day, the mission should be a touchstone that continually reminds them of the bigger picture. In the case of introducing the organization to a new person, if a mission is too long and unwieldy, you risk losing that person in a sea of tongue twisters or nonprofit jargon.

Eight-Word Mission

Harriet: Any thoughts on where social media fits into the nonprofit world these days? How to best make use of it when you have limited time and resources? Any particular platforms that seem to be most effective for getting out an NPO’s message, or does it really depend on the specific organization?

This isn’t my area of expertise, so I turned to my colleague, Sedora Tantraphol, who is well versed in social media for nonprofits, for some guidance. Here’s what she had to say:

Social media has lots of great benefits – it levels the playing field for nonprofits in terms of advertising and connecting to their stakeholders (i.e., donors, clients, policy makers, etc.) and it can be a great tool to help people stay connected, support fundraising goals, and raise visibility.

The most appropriate social media platform(s) really depend on 1) the audience(s) and 2) what your organization does. Say you’re an advocacy organization that frequently organizes a call-to-action such as signing a petition. In that case, Facebook and Twitter are probably your best bets, since they have strong sharing functionalities. Say you’re an international organization helping to raise women out of poverty by selling their crafts; in that case, you may want to use a more visual medium like Pinterest to connect with people.

If you have limited time and resources, try setting up an editorial calendar ahead of time, and let a content manager like Hootsuite do the work for you. Set aside a few hours to plan out your content for a given time period, decide on the frequency you want to post (say, daily or weekly) and then plug in content. At the very least, try to check your platforms at least once a week so that you can engage  with and respond to people in your organization’s network.

In general, all nonprofits should get on the social media bandwagon! It’s the primary way a lot of users connect to and view information from an organization. At the very least, all websites should be viewable on a mobile device!

For other resources and ideas, check out Social Media for Nonprofits on Twitter.