Successful Entry into a Non-Profit

The past couple of posts focused on preparation for making the transition from a for-profit to a non-profit setting. Here are some tips for a successful launch once you’ve found your match.

FIRST: Immerse yourself in the organization. Get familiar with its history, its evolution, its current mission, and the programs and services that fulfill it. Get to know the leadership team. If possible and appropriate, sit in on staff meetings and/or Board meetings to understand the larger context in which you’ll be operating. Analyze the financial statements; pay particular attention to the sources and uses of funds. Learn about the general operational flows. In short: Be an inquisitive, interested, and respectful student.

SECOND: Gain clarity on your assignment: (i) what’s expected of you, (ii) when deliverables are due (and what they should look like), (iii) who the key stakeholders are, (iv) the current best thinking on how to proceed, and (v) the nature and timing of internal (and external) progress reports. Be flexible. The scope and/or timing of your work may shift over time. And you may need to wear many hats and re-purpose your skill set and experience as the organization gets to know you better.

build relationshipsTHIRD: Build relationships across the organization. Making personal connections is crucial for establishing professional trust and respect. Schedule one-to-one and small group meet-ups during breaks or meal times. Encourage co-workers to talk about their work and why they’re committed to it. Be willing to pitch in with tasks outside your project area – e.g., assist at outings or fundraisers, clean up the break room, help with hiring or volunteer screening.

FOURTH: Be humble, open-minded, and willing to learn. If you haven’t worked previously in the social sector, you may be viewed with a jaundiced eye. Corporate types may have been disrespectful toward them in the past by deeming their operations inefficient or poorly managed. Or, they may simply resent the fact that they have toiled away for years with substandard resources at lower pay for the sake of the cause, and you’re the Johnny-come-lately who’s dropping in after you’ve had your fill of for-profit work. Any hint of arrogance or superiority could be magnified and become a barrier to the good work that you might accomplish together.

FIFTH: Be patient. Things may not run as smoothly as you’d like. Common “speed bumps” in a new assignment include:

  • Key resources not queued effectively – e.g., stakeholder availability, budget for planned activities, technology
  • Lack of process, tools, frameworks to complete the project (which may need to be developed first)
  • Difficulty getting decisions made given diffusion of power, availability of decision makers, impact on other parts of the organization
  • Changing organizational priorities/commitments – especially when key funding sources dry up or get slashed
  • Staff turnover

During my year as an Encore Fellow with the Oregon Community Foundation, I had the opportunity to meet with a peer group of Fellows serving with other agencies. I really enjoyed hearing about everyone else’s’ experiences and benefited from their insights on making my assignment as productive and enjoyable as possible. If you have the opportunity to participate in such a group, I highly recommend it.