At one time in my past, I was responsible for an $80-million business and almost 400 employees. At another point I managed a national sales force and a network of more than 50 food brokers. I have experience managing multiple projects, motivating staff, exceeding revenue goals and making operations more efficient. But did all that translate to the skills needed to successfully run a nonprofit?
As for-profit organizations leverage technology and enter into synergistic mergers and acquisitions to become more operationally efficient, their need for staff is reduced, so jobs are tougher to come by.
At the same time, increased social needs have spurred the growth of nonprofits, and many boomers are flocking to work for them.
“A Perfect Match? How Nonprofits Are Tapping into the Boomer Talent Pool,” a recent report by The Conference Board, points out boomers interested in working longer will find in nonprofits a great way to use their talent, skills and energy in a meaningful way. But the report also notes that boomers may struggle to understand and flourish in the unique nonprofit environment.
Two years after making the transition from corporate to nonprofit work, here is my list of the skills necessary for successfully working in a nonprofit setting.
1. You must be passionate about your cause and have a backstory that explains why.
Leeza Gibbons’ direct experience as a caregiver for her mother with dementia inspired her to use that experience and her passion to found Leeza’s Place, a place for caregivers caring for a loved one with memory loss. Joining a nonprofit at a leadership level requires a level of contagious enthusiasm that is felt by everyone you come in contact with, both inside and outside the organization. You will be the strongest marketing tool the organization has.
2. You must be able to successfully “make the ask.”
Every nonprofit organization needs to raise money and attract supporters to survive. Whether applying for grants, searching for volunteers or donors, or throwing fundraising events, you are always going to be on the lookout for new ways to bring in resources. At the heart of each of those activities is making “the ask.” Asking is not always easy, but it is essential for success in nonprofit leadership.
3. You must be available when opportunities arise.
All nonprofits struggle to gain awareness and recognition. Often the average person is not aware of organizations providing vital services in the community until they or someone close to them is in need.
So if you have the opportunity to address a Rotary group at 7 a.m., Westlakers at noon, the City Council at 6:30 p.m. or meet with a class at Pepperdine at 8 p.m., you take advantage of it. A good nonprofit leader is willing and able to open their organization and let the world in, at whatever day or time that opportunity becomes available.
4. You must be an active, hands-on, resourceful leader.
Nonprofits are expected to focus their limited resources on programs, services and outcomes. That means there are fewer back office and infrastructure capabilities to handle necessities. A community nonprofit leader without an IT, HR or facilities management department needs to become a jack-of-all trades to keep the operation running efficiently and within the confines of various laws and regulations.
5. You must be able to clearly articulate your organization’s goals and accomplishments.
In the nonprofit world, it is no longer enough to just “do good work.” Nonprofits must find ways to measure results and demonstrate the outcomes they expect to achieve. Supporters, both volunteers and donors alike, want to know their contributions are making a difference.
If you are thinking about working in the nonprofit world, I can tell you: It’s more challenging than you may think, but a whole lot more rewarding.