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25. How to Succeed in a Nonprofit
There’s so much bad advice out there on the topic that my first goal has to be not to add to it. So I’ll do my best to dispel some of the more prominent myths and then, like any good multi-tasker, I’ll make a list.
First, a disclaimer: I don’t know the answer. I have, however, learned a few things in almost ten years at the Mercatus Center that might be helpful. During my time here, I’ve had five jobs, three bosses, and dozens of unbelievably accomplished colleagues. Some of the most important lessons for my current role as chief operating officer I learned just months out of college in my first role as program assistant.
Another disclaimer: My scope is fairly limited. These may be terrible lessons for an investment banker. But presumably you’re reading this because you’ve made the ever-so-important decision to do what you love and work for a cause you believe in. If that sounds cheesy, you need to reconsider this choice. Go be an investment banker. This love of, and belief in, your cause is what will get you through the long days and nights and, for most of your career, relatively thin paychecks.
Which brings me to the list.
Love what you do. The nonprofit that you choose is a mission-driven organization. How do you feel about that mission? It probably shows. I have not read a good book on nonprofit management, which means that I’ve had to learn whatever I know about it from experience. And—though this will be disappointing to those who thought a 700-word essay would provide all the answers—so will you. This means you’ll have to put in a lot of time working through problems, making mistakes, and figuring out how to do things better with less information than your counterparts in business. That’s a lot of work and it will be unbearable if you don’t really believe in the reason you’re doing it.
Learn your limitations. You’re not going to be great at everything. But you’ll be much better at what you’re good at if you know what you don’t do well and act on that knowledge. This is a good thing to keep in mind as you take on your first few roles at an organization.
Don’t think too much about it. Don’t let your career goals distract you from the job you’re there to do. In my limited experience, climbers tend to fall. Maybe not immediately, but eventually. I’m not a big believer in the five-year plan. That’s not to say that people who have their act together and a clear vision of where they’re going can’t succeed. But sometimes you can focus too much on the map and miss the road ahead.
Do the job that you have well. Or to put it in “Career Guide” terms, don’t dress for the job you wish you had, dress for your day.
These are qualities that are largely within your control. But all the self-awareness in the world won’t be enough to get you there. The rules within which you work will have a lot to do with how well, or poorly, your efforts are rewarded.
A few things that we have at Mercatus that I couldn’t do without (these make for good questions to ask about where you work now or where you want to work, to help determine if you have to move out to move up):
The culture of the organization. Is the place you work the sort of place that rewards ideas and performance, or do you need a fancy title or a hefty résumé to go with that (or in place of it)?
Mentors. I’ve been fortunate to work for brilliant people who took the time to work with me. Much of the way I approach a problem—whether it’s public policy or personnel—has been shaped by what I learned from them. Do you respect the people you work for enough to learn from them, or are you more inclined to snark and resent the weekly team meeting where your boss drones on and on?
Know-How. There are some skills that are particularly scarce, and picking them up along the way can make you a good candidate for more responsibility. Things like project management, personnel management, and judgment. The way to pick these up is to dig into each job you have. You need to be “that guy that gets things done” no matter what things need to get done.
Measure your success by the level of responsibility your organization entrusts to you. This should increase over time, even if the size of your office doesn’t. One big mistake people make is to treat their first position as a formality, to think that they only have to put in their time at the entry level before moving up to where they really belong. If that’s you, you’ll probably end up putting in your fair share of time—and a lot of it. Understand how the role you have, no matter what it is, contributes to the goals of the organization and what you need to do to do it well.
Brian Hooks is chief operating officer at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He oversees strategy and all programs and operations for the organization. The Mercatus Center plays a unique role within the academy and within the world of public policy. Hooks’ role is to ensure that Mercatus remains a dynamic and effective organization that advances an understanding about how markets work to improve people’s lives, and applies that knowledge to solve problems in public policy. Mercatus is also a leading source of new talent for the academy and public policy organizations. Mercatus graduate student programs are at the heart of what Mercatus does, and Hooks works to ensure that Mercatus faculty and staff have the tools they need so these programs continue to provide more and more students with a world-class education in the theory and practice of market-based economics. Mercatus’s work is made possible by thousands of committed individuals, foundations, and businesses. As COO, Hooks is responsible for maintaining the trust that Mercatus contributors put into the organization and seeing that Mercatus is always a good steward of these investments. Prior to serving in this role, Hooks was director of the Global Prosperity Initiative, Social Change Project, and Enterprise Africa at Mercatus, three programs he helped to develop. These programs focus on building an academic network to apply a uniquely “Mercatus School” of social science to problems of economic development and social progress both in the United States and overseas. They then work with policymakers in executive agencies and Congress to apply the ideas developed at Mercatus to improve U.S. policy. A graduate of the University of Michigan, Hooks lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Christine.
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