5 Career Lessons from 5 Years in Nonprofits
Well, I’m on my way out. As of today, I am no longer the Director of Marketing and Communications at Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women. I accepted a position with a marketing and design firm, Cull Group, and am entering the for-profit world for the first time. Other than a couple side jobs, and service positions in high school and college, I’ve always been in non-profits. Yes, the work is rewarding. Yes, the work drives us crazy. After almost six years in non-profit, I feel like I’ve learned a lot from my experiences and can bring non-profit knowledge with me to my for-profit job.
Here are my five career lessons from five years in non-profit.
- “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” In his talk How great leaders inspire action, Simon Sinek says that people don’t buy what you do—they buy why you do it. This is a central concept in cause marketing for non-profits, but, as Sinek explains, it’s also the best way to market anything. This is how great leaders inspire action, and how visionary companies connect with their customers. Marketing for non-profits has taught me to connect with people on a personal level. I need to convey what my organization’s values are, what we believe in, and the why? of what we do. I’m a social and empathetic person anyway, so connecting with someone’s values, their desires, and their emotional needs is easy to me. My work with non-profits has honed this skill, and I’m excited to bring it to my new company.
- Appreciate everything. The joke for non-profits is they’re poor, with old technology, tired workers, and not enough staff. I’m not claiming this is true everywhere, but I typed this post on an old Dell with Windows XP. My mouse has a cord on it. From where I’m sitting, I can reach out and touch a floppy disk (you know, those things we used to use to play Oregon Trail). At one non-profit (not long ago, trust me), we had time cards. There was actually an apparatus that marked our physical time cards, and someone sat down to tally the hours for payroll. Working in non-profit has made me appreciate things that, in the for-profit world, are often considered a necessity, but in the non-profit world are frequently considered a luxury.
- Initiative breeds experience. In some ways, not having enough staff has been a blessing for me. Even though it is difficult to work somewhere without a development director, or without a graphic designer, the upside is that a person with initiative can learn valuable career skills by volunteering to figure it out and do it themselves. My education is not in marketing. I have an English degree. Since many of my employers have been short-staffed, I’ve filled voids, taking on extra responsibility to get experience I otherwise wouldn’t get. I didn’t know anything about social media, but I read about it and started doing it. That helped me get into a marketing position, where I learned how to do other, more technical things. All of that together with my language skills gave me a solid foundation for my next position. You don’t have to have the exact degree if you have the experience.
- Budgeting. The focus may fall on one type more than others, but generally non-profits get their funds from private donors, corporate donors and foundations, grants, and/or government funding. Money is budgeted conservatively (hence the Microsoft Office Suite I have that is ten years-old), and does not allow for extravagance or frequent upgrades. That makes non-profiteers good at budgeting, and thoughtful bargain hunters. I know how to make a free subscription go a long way, and I know the best free programs to use for my position. This complete lack of entitlement, and knowledge of the best inexpensive resources will serve me well no matter where I go.
- How to say no and still sleep at night. I have had many an over-worked colleague. The compassionate people who work in non-profit often sacrifice so much of their personal lives, happiness, and energy because they want to change the world. The end goal of doing good sustains us. Now that I’ve been in non-profit for five years, I know this exhausting paradigm is no good. Sometimes you have to say no. Sometimes you just can’t take extra work, you have to go home, and you need to be selfish. That’s just life, and I’m glad I’ve learned how to say no, and manage my workload without feeling guilty about it.
There’s always a bit of anxiety that comes with entering a new position. It helps that I already know some of the staff at my new position, and that I’m going to be doing a fair amount of writing (something I clearly love). I will be a little sad to leave the non-profit world, though. Working for a good cause is very rewarding, but it’s time for me to bring Drenergy to other parts of my community. Wish me luck!