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Serving in a management role in the nonprofit sector is intellectually rewarding and relatively lucrative (compared to many other nonprofit roles). But, from my experience, most folks in nonprofit management roles end up there by accident—some for the better, some for the worse. Perhaps this is largely because many people starting out on their career path do not know what nonprofit managers do exactly, and even if they do, they don’t know how to navigate their way into such a role. In this section, I try to shed some light on these two questions.
What is nonprofit management?
At a meta level, management—in the nonprofit sector or otherwise —is about creating and maintaining an environment in which limited resources are deployed to create as much value as possible—that is, creating an environment in which people can “mix their labor” with resources (software, desks, etc.) to succeed in creating something of value. In the nonprofit sector, the value being created is generally a social outcome, such as a more-informed public. Creating a productive environment generally involves:
1) Obtaining and developing resources—this includes fundraising, obtaining equipment and technology, hiring staff, training, contracting with vendors, etc.
2) Setting and aligning expectations—making sure each person on the team knows exactly what outcomes they’re trying to achieve, giving them a roadmap for how to achieve those outcomes, clarifying what resources and decisions they have discretion over, and aligning their incentives to pursue those outcomes.
3) Facilitating good communications and integration of efforts—in most, if not all, operations, it’s absolutely critical for staff to share relevant information with others in a timely manner; this helps avoid problems caused by lack of communication or miscommunication, and it improves the ability of the team to understand and leverage each other’s efforts.
4) Providing “leadership”—without stepping into the longstanding debate about the meaning of this term, I can say confidently that managers must help develop and articulate a clear vision and strategy that staff genuinely believe in and thus pursue doggedly. The manager also helps to shape the organizational culture by communicating and living the values of the organization and making sure that organizational policies and processes are consistent with those values.
5) Making decisions—decisions should be made throughout all corners of an organization. But managers tend to have discretion over many relatively complex, important decisions.
So, how do these somewhat abstract responsibilities translate into day-to-day activities? That is, what is the job like at a more tactile level? Here is a non-exhaustive list of some of the everyday activities of a nonprofit manager:
1) Lots of meetings—with department heads to engage in day-to-day problem solving, provide guidance, and share information; with current and potential donors; with senior managers to discuss strategy; with allies to leverage or facilitate their efforts; and more. (Done right, such meetings aren’t drudgery; they can actually be very interesting and productive.)
2) Conceptualizing, strategizing, and writing—this includes thinking about and creating multiple iterations of strategic plans, budgets, reports, and proposals. (It’s worth noting that drafting proposals is surprisingly productive in helping to conceptualize your vision and strategy, so it’s not just the rote activity of putting words to paper.)
3) Hiring—vetting applications, interviewing candidates, and making hiring decisions. Getting the right people into the right roles is one of the most important things you do as a manager, because the difference between an average performer and an A+ performer is not small; it’s an order of magnitude difference that drives organizational success and makes your life easier.
4) Individualized coaching and mentoring—talking with individual staff as needed to understand their needs, act as a sounding board for their ideas, help solve problems, etc. (Your goal is to help them succeed, because their success is your success.)
Of course, there are some real challenges and frustrations with being a manager, including:
1) Nonprofit metrics—because you don’t have “profits” in the financial sense of the word, it is difficult to know what’s working and what’s not. Of course, you can and should come up with other metrics that inform your decision-making. Generally, nonprofit work results in longer-term results, so you have to have patience to see whether you are having any impact.
2) Personnel management—although this is certainly one of the most rewarding areas of management, it’s also one of the most challenging. Understandably, many new managers find personnel management awkward and even painful, especially having to give someone critical feedback. It’s important to note that it is completely ineffective and inappropriate to try to “boss people around.” It just doesn’t work. You have to understand each individual’s needs and talents, and then engage them accordingly. You have to earn their trust, and not just once, but every day.
3) A dynamic environment—this challenge is also a good one, but it does create some frustration at times. Management is like doing a puzzle, except the puzzle is constantly morphing, so can you never complete it. There’s always a new opportunity, new problem, or better way of doing something. So you cannot rest for long.
4) Imperfect information—as mentioned above, a key component of management is making decisions— often ones that can have a real impact on someone’s career or on the organization’s health. And you have to make those decisions with imperfect information—it’s rarely black or white; it’s usually shades of gray. Because of this, you have to develop a discipline for knowing when the cost of trying to obtain better information will exceed the potential benefit of it.
How Do I Become a Nonprofit Manager?
If you’ve read this far, then perhaps a role as a nonprofit manager is right for you. So now the question is, what’s the best way to pursue such a role? As you might expect, there are many paths and none of them is necessarily right; it really depends on each individual’s interests and talents, and the specific opportunities available. However, there are some timeless truths for managers. Many of these are described at length in other sections of this guide, so I will only give details for those that are not covered elsewhere. In no particular order:
• Who you know matters. (See Networking section)
• A graduate degree can help, but is not required. (See Degrees section)
• Strong writing is a must. (See Writing section)
• Personnel management is usually required. There is a huge difference between project/program management and personnel management. The latter, as mentioned above, is much more challenging, and many folks are not good at it. If you have experience and skills with managing people, you are in a much better position to earn a management role and command a higher salary. If you don’t have such experience, try to take on a project in which you will have to supervise an intern or an assistant. That is a good start.
• Be someone who gets things done. (See Working Your Way Up section)
• Be entrepreneurial. Don’t just talk and gripe. Instead, take action, seize opportunities, and solve problems. Being entrepreneurial is how you get things done. So, for example, when you run into a problem, don’t just go to your boss with your hands in the air (doing so exports your work to your boss— which is not good). Instead, when you have a problem, go to your boss with a clear understanding of the problem, an analysis of ways to potentially solve the problem, and your recommendation. Then, your boss can simply react to your analysis and recommendation, and you win points for being entrepreneurial and getting things done.
• Communicate well. (See Speaking section)
• Keep your integrity. (See Integrity section)
• Don’t be a mercenary. Both growing within a single organization and moving around a bit have their advantages. Of course, it’s fine to change jobs when the right opportunity comes around. But you don’t want to be (or earn a reputation as) a job-hopper who can’t commit, doesn’t know what she wants, and/or can’t live up to her obligations.
• Be humble.
What is your definition of the good life? Is it just satisfying conventional concerns regarding money and status, or do you have a calling?
We live in a time and place in which there’s tremendous opportunities and relatively small risks (the vast majority of us will never have to worry about basic things like food or shelter). Because of this, I would argue that not pursuing what you love is a life wasted. So, when evaluating a potential career, make sure it is what you really want to do and that, by doing it, you’ll be able to create (not steal or “redistribute”) value for yourself, for your family and friends, and for society. And, here’s the secret: by doing what you love and being a person who gets things done, you can almost always make a good living, too.
Chad Thevenot has served as the chief operating officer of the Institute for Humane Studies since October 2004. He is an alumnus of IHS’s summer seminar program and was awarded a Humane Studies Fellowship from IHS in 2001 and 2002 while earning a master’s degree in communications, culture, and technology from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. In December 1991, he earned a bachelor’s degree in business management from the University of Texas, Austin. Prior to working with IHS, Thevenot served as the director of grants and outreach for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) in Washington, D.C., where he directed the nation’s largest marijuana policy reform grant giving program.
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