Feb
17
2011

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This was originally published as an article on the Case Foundation site.

Working in the nonprofit sector, you will encounter things that will alternately excite and frustrate you.

Some advantages, like fulfilling work and kind coworkers, can be expected. Many disadvantages, like increased bureaucracy and burnout, often take career changers by surprise. Knowing about both before you make a decision will better prepare you for success.

While they may be emotional, personal, mental, physical, and spiritual in nature, the advantages of working in the nonprofit sector far outnumber the disadvantages.

There's good news and bad news; let's start with the bad. (You'll find it's easily trumped by the good.)

Disadvantages

Working at a nonprofit can be fulfilling and maddening all at the same time. The industry has its own way of doing things and insiders know how to navigate the negatives. Here are some of the most common complaints of "nonprofiteers."

  • Concrete results or clear benchmarks of success can be difficult to spot. Employees in nonprofit organizations sometimes have to "take it on faith" that the work they are doing day to day is contributing to a larger, more important goal.
  • Work environments can be frustrating. From antiquated technology to bureaucratic red tape, working at a nonprofit can be downright exasperating. Employees are asked to do more work with fewer resources, create miracles on a daily basis, and satisfy competing interests. The pace of change is often slower than it is in a for-profit environment, given that so many opinions must be considered and the bottom line is not as clear.
  • The level of burnout is high. Those who enter the nonprofit workforce with a specific mission and goal in mind do so with great purpose. This great purpose often places a heavy weight on the shoulders of those doing the work.
  • The stakes are higher. A bad day in a corporate job is unlikely to resemble a bad day in a nonprofit job. Consider the difference between losing a few percent off your stock price and losing a mentored young person to drugs. The stakes are simply higher when you are dealing with a cause close to your heart.
  • There is a constant focus on fundraising. Nonprofit executives wake up every morning and go to bed every night worrying about the location of their next fundraised dollar. This constant pressure leads to certain internal issues going unaddressed until a crisis emerges, takes the chief executive away from the office for long periods of time, and can lend itself to mission drift.

Advantages

Now let's talk about the good stuff, because it is in great abundance and highly rewarding. Perhaps the best advantage is that it simply feels right to you, right now, to work for something you believe in deeply.

  • Nonprofits employ interesting people. It is a common misconception that nonprofits have to settle for only those employees willing to work long hours for low pay. On the contrary, nonprofits often get to choose between the best and the brightest candidates and can afford to be picky about who they choose to employ. There is something to be said for working with people who have chosen to work toward a higher goal.
  • Unparalleled growth opportunities exist. While three corporate employees may be assigned to one project, one nonprofit employee may find himself assigned to three projects. This can lead to faster career development and more varied job responsibilities for those looking to get ahead quickly.
  • Employees can shift skill sets quickly. The nonprofit sector loves a generalist. With fewer staff slots than necessary for the work to be done, nonprofits look to employees to multi-task, and multi-task big time. Because of that, nonprofits offer the opportunity for employees to learn new skills and gain experience in areas they have yet to tackle.
  • The universe gets smaller. Employees at large for-profit corporations rarely get to interact with the top brass, either to show their stuff, learn from the best, or simply get reinvigorated on a regular basis. Not so at nonprofits. The structures are often less hierarchical, and nonprofit employees can take advantage of a smaller internal community.
  • The opportunity to change the world is around every corner. Nonprofits have become much more sophisticated. They increasingly look like corporations, eager and able to nimbly respond to opportunities presented by the market. Whether it is a natural disaster half the world away, or a donor down the street who wants the organization to think bigger about its programs, many nonprofits have employed new thinking, technological advances, and a more entrepreneurial approach to become more agile, adept, and prepared.
  • Nonprofits value business skills. The nonprofit sector is being flooded with people who have spent a day, a year, or a whole career in the for-profit sector and have decided that now is the time for change. The lines between corporate and community are shrinking, and the value of those from each sector is rapidly being understood and capitalized upon by the other.

Laura Gassner Otting is the founder of Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group and the author of Change Your Career: Transitioning to the Nonprofit Sector, which was published by Kaplan in May 2007.

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