Being honest about the nonprofit sector: Conversations between sector newbies and veterans

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We’ve all had times where we itched to give our opinion, knowing that what we had to say was in the other person’s best interest, but were afraid to do so because we knew what we had to say might not be well received. We thought the same might be true in the nonprofit sector, that perhaps there were things that people who were new to the sector wanted to say to veterans, and vice versa.

It turned out that there were. We talked with a variety of people, some of whom were brand new to the sector, some of whom had been there a decade or three, some of whom had moved from other sectors while for others this was where they had always worked. They had lots to say: confirming, denying or refining popularly held opinions and stereotypes, while also weighing in on current trends.

Ultimately, the common factor was that they all wanted to help one another — and the sector as a whole — succeed. For that reason, although we asked newbies to speak directly to sector vets and asked veteran nonprofit staff to speak honestly to sector newcomers, their insights and advice are really of value to all of us.

The best ways to make a difference

While many people come into the charitable sector with the thought of starting their own charity, sector veterans caution against this approach. Bob Baker, managing director of nonprofit consultancy The Baker Group says often after someone becomes seriously ill, family and friends will host a fundraiser and decide to incorporate as a charity “without realizing how onerous it is.” Christina Attard, executive director of the South Saskatchewan Community Foundation agrees. “Donors are often looking for organizations that collaborate and pool resources. Look hard to find a home for your charitable idea before starting your own charity. It’s far better to find a good existing partner than to start another under-resourced organization.”

People who want to make a real difference can also believe they have to work in a small, grassroots organization or do hands-on program work. To this, Attard argues, “Don’t count yourself out because what you might be good at is operational tasks. Sometimes being a really good accountant or organizing a filing system can make a big difference. ‘Boring’ and ‘unsexy’ work is a vital part of the puzzle too.” As strategic communications specialist Heather Badenoch says, “This is a massive sector and people don’t always realize that there are so many areas you could work in. Regardless of your skillset, there is a place for you.”

The realities of the nonprofit work environment

When someone talks about leaving a corporate job to come to the nonprofit sector, they often anticipate a slower pace, better work environment, and less pressure to perform. The reality, says Attard, is that there can be more pressure in the nonprofit sector. She adds, “Charities deserve the best and brightest performing at a high level in a competitive environment. You have to be an excellent professional to be what the charitable sector requires.”

Badenoch switched to the sector after working in the corporate world. “Moving to the nonprofit sector is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.” She adds, “The calibre of people you work with is just as high as anywhere else. The main difference is their motivation: these aren’t people who are only motivated by the bottom line but by helping the most vulnerable in society. That drives an organization differently.”

Andrew Geekie, development coordinator for the Alzheimer Society Waterloo Wellington describes passion as an important part of his career path, noting his work with the Alzheimer Society began after his grandmother was diagnosed with the disease.

The flip side to the rewarding nature of nonprofit work is the stress that accompanies it. “In a sector that is woefully underfunded, newcomers need to know that you will be expected to punch above your weight all the time,” Fundraising professional and educator Cathy Mann acknowledges, and this is something she says can be “wearing, stressful and disheartening.” Mann recommends establishing a solid network of support and talking with others in the same situation as a way of managing the stress.

Everyone benefits from mentorship

Early in her career, Sahar Vermezyari, program manager of the Fellowship in Inclusion and Philanthropy Program, faced backlash from her supervisor for taking a stand on a subtle issue about race. She says it took a mentor outside the organization to help her understand that it wasn’t her fault. “People usually emphasize specific skills when they think about mentorship but a huge value of a mentor is in career development and having someone to bounce ideas about hard issues.”

Baker suggests newcomers — whether young people or anyone new to the sector — negotiate for mentors or ask for assistance in finding a mentor, especially when entering organizations where they will wear multiple hats and where perhaps even the executive director may not know much about the newbie’s job.

Increasingly, mentors are acknowledging the benefits they too get from the relationship. Geekie has been paired with mentors in several programs, one of which asked both mentors and mentees to describe what they hoped to get out of the relationship, pairing them accordingly. Geekie notes that younger people are often digital natives who offer skills and ideas on social media and other technology. Mann, who has benefitted from her own “tech mentor”, believes that all individuals and the sector itself benefit most when vets and newbies partner up to learn from one another. “I find that younger people are brilliant with technology but tech can be an end in itself. I suggest collaborating with someone who has more experience and who understands strategy better.”

Sheryl Harrow-Yurach, executive director at READ Saskatoon, cautions that younger people are not always looking for structured mentorship programs but for “someone close to their organization, but not too close, someone they can trust, someone who is collegial.” Vermezyari agrees, “For me, it wasn’t about the position the mentor held but how they presented themselves. If I had tremendous respect for someone, I would develop that relationship.”

Also, regardless of stage of career, everyone benefits from mentorship. Attard adopted Paul Nazareth’s advice to form a personal board of directors, a diverse team of advisors who offer her counsel. Attard often invites two or three members of her personal board to get together, both for her own purposes and to build connections between them. Harrow-Yurach meets regularly with several women who have different jobs in diverse parts of the sector, with the person organizing the meet-up sending a sector-specific question in advance. The group also communicates informally about pressing issues or to provide one another with resources and connections.

An unfair stereotype: Millennials as entitled slackers

Geekie has occasionally been in meetings where such stigmatizing comments have been made by people who either forget he is in the room or that he is a millennial. Geekie says, “I am 100% committed, motivated, and driven to achieving all my goals. My circle of friends are the same. Just because we’re young doesn’t mean we are lazy.” Mann supports Geekie’s assessment. “I see millennials as a group of people who care about changing the world, perhaps more than any generation I’ve seen. If they can distill the wisdom and knowledge from older folks and match it with their hope and belief the world can change, they will be an incredibly powerful force.”

Others suggest that millennials may not be that different from previous generations. Harrow-Yurach observes, “My experience is that millennials and Boomers are much the same, although they don’t always want to see it. Both generations tend to be concerned with meeting their own needs through work.” She observes that millennials tend to be risk-takers who aren’t entrenched in the way things have always been done, and that they seek short-term tasks, deliverables and clear expectations, saying, “I have yet to see a millennial not deliver on what they promised.” Harrow-Yurach also notes similarities between typical millennial values and nonprofit sector values. “Nonprofits are similar to millennials – flexible, value-centred, thoughtful.”

What newbies need to hear:

  • Be patient; change takes time. Harrow-Yurach says, “Solid change over two years beats doing a 180-pivot and then having to backtrack.”
  • Be your own advocate. “If someone believes you’ve done something wrong, it’s easy to allow their judgment to colour your perception of yourself,” says Vermezyari.
  • Always present your best face, says Harrow-Yurach, even on social media.
  • Some stress comes from working on complex and hard-to-solve issues. Vermezyari counsels newbies to “Get comfortable with discomfort. Things can be messy. Sometimes there are no clear-cut answers. Learn to be okay with that.”
  • “There can be bad eggs in any sector,” cautions Badenoch who advises people look carefully at organizational culture. “Sometimes there are wonderful passionate people, but it just isn’t a fit.”
  • Learn existing best practices so you can get to a point where you can play with them, says Mann. “Too many people who have done things a certain way for a long time can’t see another way, but you can’t just do things differently before you know the rules and why people have done things the way they have.” Find out how and why other organizations do things differently.
  • Seek opportunities to work as part of larger teams to learn from colleagues before becoming a sole practitioner, says Attard.
  • Look at an organization’s funding model, says certified career strategist and career coach Christine Cristiano. “When I started in the sector, I didn’t really fully understand the impact when they said a job is only as good as your funding. Not all nonprofits are funded the same way.”
  • Know yourself and what you want and need in a job, says Attard. “Don’t go somewhere where you will be resentful. There’s nothing worse than having to leave a job in a short time because you weren’t honest with yourself about what you were getting into.”
  • “If you’re not a team player, the sector’s not for you. You need to work with, rely on, and lean on other people every minute of every day,” says Patrice Vandenbos.
  • Admit what you don’t know, says Mann. Baker advises new graduates to say, “I have a lot to learn. Don’t throw me in the deep end without a life jacket.” Mann advises career changers not to feel like they need to justify why they were hired.
  • Be a sponge, says Baker. “Learn about the sector, learn about all aspects of your organization, learn what philanthropy is — regardless of your position in the organization.”
  • “If your instinct is to leave, leave,” says Baker. “Don’t leave impulsively or without counsel, but find a place where you will be happy.”
  • “The turnover rate is traditionally pretty high, and you’ll be completely bummed when you meet amazing people who leave,” says Vandenbos.

Straight talk for sector veterans:

  • Be kinder: Harrow-Yurach says the sector needs to work harder at championing one another, establishing child-friendly workplaces, valuing the work people do, and recruiting board members who understand diversity and who believe in pay equity.
  • Encourage work-life integration: Geekie would like to see employees able to go to personal appointments or to volunteer for another organization during the traditional nine-to-five timeslot, working at times that best suit the job.
  • Give new staff responsibility, says Harrow-Yurach. “All people want to own their jobs, make decisions and have challenges. They need to know how their job contributes to the organization’s mission and vision.”
  • Update your board governance model. Baker argues that while nonprofit staff are professionalized, too often boards still operate the way they did thirty years ago, and that this is a primary cause of organizational turnover. Baker urges boards to have the same level of accountability as boards of major banks.
  • Make space for newbies. Vermezyari refers to this as a “delicate dance” where sector veterans can feel obsolete or pushed out by new people, but can also benefit from their skills and ideas.
  • Know when to step aside altogether. Be conscious of whether you are staying in an organization for your own sake or for the health of the organization, recognizing that if it is only the former, you can cause more damage than good by staying. “We will be okay,” says Harrow-Yurach. “Future generations will be okay if you choose to move on.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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