5 Challenges to Watch for When Moving to a Nonprofit

Most people who go into nonprofit business do so because they want to make a difference while making a living, but all is not high ideals and humanitarian benefits. Those coming from the commercial sector may find some unexpected differences. Here are some common challenges those moving to nonprofits from the for-profit world may face.

1. Nonprofit businesses are still businesses

The first things that usually come to mind when people think of nonprofit businesses is the “nonprofit” part, or the organization’s mission, but nonprofit businesses are still businesses, warns Karen Wisialowski, director of the Peninsula Region of the Jewish Community Relations Council, a public affairs organization in Palo Alto, California, concerned with social justice. Wisialowski became involved working with nonprofits while working in strategic planning for GlobalEnglish following a four-year break from a career in the financial industry that spanned more than 11 years.

“It’s still getting up and going to work every day,” she says.

A nonprofit must still be concerned with making money, and keeping costs in line with how much has been made. Such businesses must watch for a “double bottom line,” says Jim Gardner, executive director of Good Karma Bikes, a San Jose, California, organization that refurbishes bicycles, and also trains and certifies homeless people in bicycle repair. “Not only do you have to have money left over, but you have to measure your impact and the social good.”

2. You may work harder

Nonprofits usually don’t pay as well as the commercial sector, so people assume from the smaller paycheck that the workload is commensurately lower. That couldn’t be further from the truth say those who have worked in both.

“I think the biggest surprise for me is that to be a nonprofit professional is just as hard and just as stressful as to be a for-profit professional,” Wisialowski says. “You can’t just go to a nonprofit because it’s an easy job, and yet, you might get paid less.”

“I never thought I would work harder than I did at Apple,” says Peter Means, who worked for eight years as a financial analyst at several Silicon Valley companies before taking a similar position at The New Teacher Project in Austin, Texas.

“This put that to shame. There were days I was working 16-hour days. With a new son, that was not something I wanted to continue,”  he says. As a result, Means left the organization in May 2013 to work for Home Away, an online vacation registry connecting travelers with vacation rental homes.

3. Your subordinates may all be volunteers

Nonprofits often run with lean staffs so much work is meted out to volunteers or professional pro-bono workers helping through organizations like Taproot or alumni associations. “Without volunteer people, you wouldn’t get everything done,” the JCRC’s Wisialowski says.

That means work schedules almost always include evenings and weekends, because those are the times workers who have other jobs are available, she says. In addition, it can be trickier trying to get volunteers to do the less-glamorous work, she said.

The other implication is that there isn’t a middle management layer to serve as the glue between different parts of the organization, Means says. “It’s pretty much volunteer grunt work or executive” level, he says. For job seekers, most roles are either internships and entry-level positions or directorships, with little in between.

4. Your staff may not know business

Even though nonprofit businesses are businesses, the organizations may not have the formal financial record-keeping structure needed to track income and spending, according to Means.

“I was surprised by the [number] of things that weren’t in place in terms of policies,” he says. “Things were quick and dirty a lot.” The lack of record-keeping made it difficult to project for future quarters’ spending, he says. On the other hand, he adds, if you do have financial acumen, it may give you a leg up in finding a job with a nonprofit, and it will help your organization complete its mission, he says.

5. Your board may not care about finances

In addition to your staff possibly not understanding how to measure line items and keep a budget, your board of directors may not care much about the top line, generating revenue, warns Good Karma Bikes’ Gardner.

“There are two problems with nonprofit boards,” Gardner says, “No. 1, they don’t raise money. No. 2, they don’t want to do anything that’s uncomfortable.”

While your board of directors is the chief navigator for your nonprofit’s direction, members may not be as concerned about the organization’s mission. They may be more concerned about the prestige of being on an organization’s board or the perception of being involved with humanitarian causes, he says.

Advice for those making the shift

Despite the potential pitfalls, the three say working for a nonprofit can be extremely rewarding, as long as you’re passionate about the cause. In fact, Wisialowski says, that is more important than the job title or work description. “Choose an organization for the organization, as opposed to the function,” she says.

Means advises researching the organization to find out how workers feel about their jobs, and whether there may be ways to contribute to the mission other than by working directly for the nonprofit.

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