The solo employee: How to succeed when your nonprofit staff consists of just you

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According to 2013 Charities Directorate data, ten percent of nonprofits in Canada have only one employee, either part-time or full-time. It may be that this employee was the first person hired when a nonprofit moved from a working board to a staff model, while in other cases, the nonprofit may have started with a founding staff person.

But when the staff of your nonprofit consists of you and only you, some of the work strategies used by other employees at even slightly larger organizations may not be a fit. As Dr. Daniel Scott, managing director of Save The Mothers, says, “The saying, ‘if it is to be, it’s up to me’ is very true.”

Just as solo entrepreneurs face different challenges and opportunities from those employed by larger corporations, working as the only employee for a nonprofit often requires a unique and strategic approach.

Before you start

Not every person is drawn to working as a solo staffer but for some it can be a terrific opportunity.

Jill Weaver worked for seven years as the administrative director and then director of operations for the Waterloo, Ontario-based Centre for Family Business. Coming from an entrepreneurial family, Weaver appreciated the flexibility and opportunities of working on her own. “You’re by yourself all the time so you have to be a self-starter and look for ways to manage your time because no one is looking over your shoulder telling you what to do. There’s not a lot of feedback, positive or negative. I learned so much from the whole experience.” Weaver says her role gave her stronger confidence in her abilities and contacts in the nonprofit world.

Dan Scott had worked for years as an academic before he took on his current role three years ago. “Lots of people find this kind of work terrifying—they miss the social interaction and need a team of people around. I was already used to working independently and I was at a point where I wanted to try to something new.”

Social innovation strategist Trina Isakson says working as a solo staffer can appeal to people at different career points: “For younger people, it can be an opportunity to learn, have more responsibilities and play a leadership role. It gives them a resume advantage over someone who has performed similar activities but in a junior role in a larger organization.” Isakson also suggests a solo staffer role can also appeal to those at midcareer looking for a different role — like Scott — and to those close to retirement who want to use their skills in a different context.

Regardless of life stage, Karen Wright, founder of Parachute Executive Coaching, says it’s important for anyone considering working in a solo role to evaluate the decision in terms of their personal work style. Working alone can be challenging for an extrovert with a high need for connection or for someone who prefers to talk through their decision-making process, but Wright suggests such people can enter into a more isolated role as long as they can shape their role to meet their needs.

Working with a board of directors

An organization and its board also need to think strategically when bringing on a staff person. Jane Garthson, president of the Garthson Leadership Centre, says staffing decisions always need to answer the question: how can we best serve our mission?

According to Garthson, it’s vital for a board to consider what they want their staffer to do, and to hire (and title) the staff role appropriately. Isakson adds, “A board needs to be clear with themselves and their employee on how much authority they are willing to pass on to their staff. If a board wants to be or to stay as a working board, they may want to hire a program coordinator rather than an executive director.”

If a board does decide to become a more of a governance board with staff as executive director, it is important for the board and employee to work within their defined responsibilities. Garthson says it doesn’t make sense for organizations to hire an executive director but “give that person zero authority and not ask them for strategic advice. It confuses supporters and community partners who think they are dealing with a decision-maker and then find they aren’t."

Save the Mothers had a working board who enjoyed their work but found it was becoming too much to manage. They moved to a governance board that met quarterly and hired Scott as a managing director; he is responsible for writing a strategic operating plan that the board approves and he implements.

Garthson says a solo staffer needs to constantly assess whether what he/she is being asked to do is aligned with his/her job title and responsibilities. “If you’ve been hired as an executive director, you need to be assertive with the board, speak up and provide decision support as well as guidance on implementation and timing.”

Board members can (and should) continue to play an involved role when organizations have staff, but the nature of that role can shift. As Isakson says, “If you have been hired as an ED and you don’t have high level of expertise in fundraising, for instance, and someone has that expertise on the Board, you can work side by side with that board member.” In her role at the Family Business Centre, Weaver strongly valued working closely with and learning from board members.

You don’t have to do it all alone

One of the easiest misconceptions for a solo staffer is that you have to do your work alone. “It’s easy to default to the position that ‘I’m the only one so I have to shoulder the load myself,” says Wright.

But “there’s no way to be good at everything,” says Garthson. “Executive directors have to be generalists to some extent but they may not be the right people to run a major gift program.” Beyond working with boards of directors, executive directors have the authority to establish their own volunteer committees. “This increases the number of minds to discuss an issue and hands to get work done,” says Garthson.

Isakson advises solo staffers to reach out to engage smart volunteers from within their own personal network as well as asking people you know for connections or even cold-calling. “It takes a willingness to be vulnerable [to ask for help],” says Isakson, “but it allows you to learn through working with others and being mentored.”

The big picture

Another common pitfall is becoming too operations-focused. “If you have a good strategic plan,” says Garthson, “you can say no to things.” Even if a board member comes to the staffer with a pet project, an operational plan approved by the board allows the staffer to stay focused on priorities or to know how to renegotiate as priorities shift, rather than simply taking on every new project.”

Wright suggests taking time each quarter to step back to evaluate and course-correct where necessary. She says having a thought partner for such evaluation can sometimes offer a different perspective. Isakson suggests this conversation should also happen with the chair of the board, and that the strategic plan should be assessed regularly and openly.

Finding colleagues

“One of the best assets anyone can develop is a network,” says Wright. This can be especially true for people who work on their own.

Colleagues can be found both virtually and locally — through LinkedIn and Facebook groups, Twitter chats, people at conferences and local events, private list serves, and local associations of executive directors.

Sometimes you meet someone whose work and approach are similar to your own. Garthson recommends, “If you can get to events and invite compatible people to have coffee with you afterwards, it can make your job less lonely and give you valuable ideas to bring back. Or if you join a Twitter chat relevant to your work, you will not only get great ideas, but you will find new people to follow and connect with.” Garthson says such people can become great colleagues who can provide accountability: “If you find a compatible person — ideally someone you aren’t competing with for grants or volunteers — you can talk about what you each want to achieve and set regular times to Skype to check in.”

“A network is a great way to ask a question and get pointed to high quality resources rather than endlessly searching on Google,” says Garthson. Wright adds, “A well-chosen, properly curated network is very useful. Know who in your network is good for what and who is interested in what.”

Professional development

It’s important that an organization recognize the value of both networking and professional development, and to consider it as part of paid time, even if there is little or no money for any major professional development. Garthson has found that boards don’t always realize how quickly the sector and applicable laws and policies are changing and how much employees need to keep up with the changes.

Professional development does not have to be costly, she says, pointing to the many free or low-cost events, especially online or in larger cities. She also recommends looking for the umbrella group whose work is closest to your sector and who might offer education programs that would closely match your needs for development.

Isakson recommends that professional development be worked into the job description and budget of a staffer. She also advises boards to hire an employee who has demonstrated that they seek out learning opportunities.

Wright says staffers should take responsibility for how they want to grow and be trained and Weaver herself approached her board with a proposal of skills she wanted to develop and how she could do so. “If I hadn’t asked,” she says, “they wouldn’t have known because it just wasn’t on their radar.”

Logistics for Solo Staffers

Work Space. How an organization determines which work space option works best can depend on budget and the preferences and needs of both the employee and the organization. Having a staffer work from home can be a cost-effective measure that suits the employee, but this is not always practical for a store-front type nonprofit or one that offers workshops. Some organizations share space with other nonprofits or rent an office in a co-working space; this can both benefit a more extroverted staffer and provide connections within the sector or the community, as well as share costs and resources.

Systems. Having good systems in place is particularly important when there is only one staff person: if that person were to be hit by the proverbial bus, good systems allow the organization to continue to function smoothly. Tools such as Dropbox or Google Docs, for example, allow easy file sharing between an employeeand the board of directors.

Human Resources. “If this is a first-time hire,” says Isakson, “the organization needs to set up human resources policies, and government files. If this is a contract, the staffer may need to have a business number and HST number. The organization also needs to set up a standing committee for performance review and compensation.”

Being a good boss to yourself

A successful person working on their own, says Wright, is one who figures out what they need to be able to learn and grow. Wright has developed strategies for her clients to help them aim at sustainable success rather than balance. Making time for health and relationships are keys to this kind of success. Scott finds this sustainability in his own work, “Because I work from home, I have less commuting. Between calls, I can ride on an exercise bike.”

Not only do we need to identify the conditions under which we can be successful, says Wright but we also have to communicate and enforce them appropriately. For instance, a staff person might explain to the board that they will not be available on weekends unless there is an emergency, and then must abide by those boundaries themselves.

Isakson says it is easy for anyone in the nonprofit sector to take their role above and beyond, but that it is helpful to put some constraints and boundaries around work, whether that is setting office hours or space, turning off a phone or initiating conversation with the board about the need to hire a contract person to share the load.

Nonprofit organizations and their staff are often creative and innovative in finding ways to fulfill their mission. When a solo staffer can approach their unique situation with this kind of creativity and innovation, both the individual and the entire organization can benefit.

An additional consideration: Two for one or zero for one

Jane Garthson often suggests organizations consider hiring two part-time staff instead of one full-timer. This eliminates some of the challenges of having only one staffer and can allow a certain amount of job shadowing. This allows an organization to pay for different responsibility levels, leveraging money better.

Another option is for a board to hire an association management company rather than an employee. This can be cost-effective and can allow an organization to take advantage of people with up-to-date skills and technology on a fee-for-service basis, without having them on the payroll.

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

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