When I changed my career to working in the nonprofit field, I had a surprising experience. My first job in the charitable industry was starting up the development operations for a skilled nursing and rehabilitation center. I was working on a capital campaign to improve the lives of seniors and organizing a terrific group volunteers to support our efforts. I expected that when I told my friends and former colleagues, they’d be enthusiastic, encouraging and perhaps even inspried to help. But it was quite the opposite. Responses often included: “But what’s your real job?” or “Is that a job you actually get paid for?” You get the point.
Don’t be surprised if you hear things like this if you change your career to serving others. Sadly, the charitable industry is often misunderstood and one I believe doesn’t get the respect it deserves.
This confusion may stem from the select interactions people have with charities. For example: You attend a gala for a charity, have a lovely evening and head home feeling happy, perhaps inspired and move on with your life. Nothing wrong with that. But all too often, you may have gone home learning little about the impact of the nonprofit. Moreover, you probably have little conception of the work that went into making the event seem like a smoothly run operation.
As for the respect part well, that’s worthy of multiple posts. But using the basic yardstick of compensation, nonprofit professionals are extremely undervalued. Puritan history and values have moved forward into the present. They dictate that nonprofit professionals doing work as challenging as their commercial counterparts should earn significantly less. Why are staff and leaders of charities compensated at a fraction of what corporate leaders make? Is selling candy, soda, video games and phones (as just a few examples) more important than alleviating poverty, improving education, curing killer diseases and so many other important charitable causes? For now, the answer seems to be Yes. For at lot more on this topic, pick up either of Dan Pallotta’s books; Charity Case or Uncharitable.
So, to aspiring change leaders out there, this is what you’re up against. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Even if we didn’t address the above, it is so worth it. If you’ve read the above and are still committed to moving forward, a few quick recommendations:
Time to get started…
A consultant is ...
I got a quick laugh out of the jokes above and several others on this site. At the same time, I’d argue that consultants- particularly some in the nonprofit arena have an undeserved bad wrap. In fact, my experiences, particularly with pro bono consulting, have been incredibly productive and positive...
For example, I recently engaged a pro bono consultant to assist us with the development of best practices for social media. We wanted to find ways to take more engaging photos and utilize them more effectively. Further, we wanted to understand how more established nonprofits positioned themselves with their various audiences. We were fortunate to find a terrific consultant through the Taproot Foundation (www.taprootplus.org). She was thoroughly professional, did an excellent survey for us and was even willing to provide training for our volunteers, board and staff.
I’ve personally taken on volunteer consulting engagements through sites like Taproot as well as Catchafire (www.catchafire.org). Connecting with nonprofits through these sites has introduced me to groundbreaking work being done by small and growing nonprofits. I’ve taken on projects including developing fundraising plans, launching virtual peer-to-peer events and most recently, helping with the restructure of a board. The work has given me an opportunity to grow professionally, volunteer for excellent nonprofits all while helping some great organizations.
The bottom line is that consulting, and as I mentioned this goes double for pro bono work, is an absolute win-win when when done with a clear purpose and plan, offering tremendous benefits to the client and the consultant. Whether for fee or free, the following elements can make for successful consulting engagements:
A clear problem to be solved: Too often clients (none of you of course!) haven’t taken the time to narrow down your challenge. A few examples I’ve heard: Our fundraising is terrible. Our board is dysfunctional. Our programs don’t work. Better problem statements sound more like: We need to identify the best options to create a major gift program. Our board committees don’t function effectively.
An identifiable approach to solving the problem: Be wary of a consultant that can’t share several options for analyzing the the issue and developing a solution (or two). A good example: The consultant I recently worked with offered to study the social media of several larger nonprofits and identify best practices that we could follow. She then created a presentation giving clear examples of what we were doing that was working, what wasn’t and how we could correct for it.
SMART Goals baked into the engagement: Chances are if the first two are present, you’re working towards a successful consulting engagement: (S)pecific problems with (M) measurable impacts that can be solved with (A)ctionable solutions matching the challenge (Relevant) with an appropriate (T)ime frame is the way to go.
While the above may seem like absolute no-brainers, my hunch is that too often these three simple ideas aren’t part of consultant agreements. While there are certainly more complex layers to the consulting world, these are a great place to start.
Robert Grabel is the President of Nonprofit Now! You can find his posts here and at www.robertgrabel.com
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