In my career, I have worked with dozens of nonprofits. From those raising millions of dollars annually to those working to raise their first $1,000, I’ve seen many different business models of how organizations are working to change the world. Some rely heavily on events and peer-to-peer fundraising, others were built on direct-response fundraising, while others rely primarily on major gifts from the founding of the organization.
I’ve learned that there are some traits of nonprofit staff members that are the same, no matter the mission or the size of the organization.
- Nonprofits are run by passionate, compassionate, engaging people. Back in my agency life when I had a mix of for-profit and nonprofit clients, my nonprofit clients were my favorite people. There is something about what drives people to work for a place that is trying to change the world, not just please shareholders, that makes them especially engaging. (No offense to those who have to please shareholders.)
- People who work at nonprofits are innovative and creative problem-solvers. They have to be. They are often tasked with meeting impossible budgets with few resources, turning a dollar into ten, working with less-than-ideal tools. Necessity is the mother of all invention, and scarcity is her little sister.
- There is no shortage of business savvy at nonprofits. I have heard that nonprofits are the “B” team, those who couldn’t cut it in the business world. That couldn’t be further from the truth. What motivates a person to work for a nonprofit has little to do with a purported lack of abilities but with making a difference and, for some, leaving a legacy.
- Nonprofit teams need to be lean, their staff multi-talented. “Other duties as assigned” takes on a new meaning when working at a nonprofit. From the administrative assistant who doubles as a volunteer coordinator to the prospect researcher who runs an employee giving campaign, staff members are often asked to stretch out of their comfort zone to meet a short-term need.
- The seasonal nature of fundraising makes staffing challenging. Considering that most money is raised in the last quarter of the year, nonprofits cannot afford to hire a full-time person to meet a 3-month need. Donation processing, stewardship calling, event planning and follow-up are all at their busiest at the same time of year for most nonprofits. Unless every nonprofit has a team of trained volunteers waiting in the wings, organizations struggle to meet these needs each year.
By using consultants, nonprofits can expand their teams seasonally, build strategies without paying for a strategist year round, and rely on people with different skills for short periods of time. Yet at the same time, consulting fees are line-itemed on 990s, as if relying on consultants is a strike against a nonprofit.
For those who are committed to nonprofit work as a volunteer, a donor, board member or others, learn about the needs of your favorite nonprofit. Are those needs being met internally, and at what cost? Does it make more sense to outsource some elements to experts who can flex their time seasonally? Consultants should be seen as an extension of the internal team, just as committed to the mission and results.