Working with nonprofits, on both sides of the fence

, Thursday, February 17th, 2011

There are two ways to work in the nonprofit sector.  You can work for an organization, as a nonprofit staffer. Or, you can be a consultant, working with a range of nonprofit clients while your employer is a for-profit.  (Ok, there are other types of jobs in the sector, but these are the two we’re going to talk about today.)

There is a lot of back and forth between organizations and consultants.  Many of Beaconfire’s staff worked at a nonprofit before they came here. Some have worked at many nonprofits over the course of their career.  When staff leave here, it’s not unusual for them to go back to working at nonprofits. Personally, I’ve only worked on the consulting side, so I talked to some of my colleagues with nonprofit backgrounds to understand how consulting is different than working for an org.

Doing Good

Whichever side of the fence you’re working on, there’s one powerful reason to work in the nonprofit sector: working for a good cause. Whether they previously worked in government or the corporate world, or stumbled into a nonprofit right out of college, everyone I talked to said that doing good was a big reason they came to the sector, and a big reason they stayed. Some were drawn to a specific cause, while others had a more general desire to do good.

When you work for an NPO, you have the opportunity to dedicate yourself to a single cause, often one that you feel a personal connection to. As consultants, we don’t get to pick the cause we’re working on each day, but the tradeoff is that we get to work on many great causes over time, far more than any one nonprofit could offer.

Time and Money

There are benefits and drawbacks on both sides. A smaller salary is an almost universal drawback of working at an NPO… but, it can be offset by a deep, personal sense of accomplishment in your org’s achievements. Consultants get to feel accomplishment too, of course, but we’re always a step removed from our clients’ successes.

I had expected that longer hours would also be part of the nonprofit experience, but in my colleagues’ experience, that’s not always true, and depends more on the culture of the organization and your position in it. The same is true in consulting. Neither is a guarantee of a 9-5 workday.

Working Culture

In some ways, small nonprofits are as different from large nonprofits as any nonprofit is from consulting. Smaller orgs have an energetic staff, and lots of opportunity for individual staffers. If you want to learn something, like how to build a website or manage social media, you can do it.  (A couple people said this was their entry into nonprofit tech: they volunteered to build their org’s very first website.)  In contrast, larger orgs tend to develop a hierarchical reporting structure, which limits your ability to step outside your role. Large organizations can be weighed down with bureaucracy. But at a nonprofit of any size, motivated and capable people are crucial to success.

When they first came to Beaconfire, the biggest difference was the pace of work. At a nonprofit, doing a timesheet usually meant writing in 8 hours for each day.  As consultants, we measure our days in 15-minute increments, which can feel like a lot of pressure to make every minute count.  We’re constantly required to work efficiently – knowing just how many hours we’ve been allocated to get a task done – and to efficiently switch between tasks and clients at need. They found it “exhausting” at first, though they adjusted to it soon enough.

Outside Looking In

Everyone agreed that their nonprofit experience makes them better consultants, helping them empathize with clients and anticipate their needs. They also found that working with multiple clients helped offset the common frustrations of nonprofit work – if one of your clients is going through a difficult period, you can empathize with them while still feeling pleased that other projects are moving ahead smoothly.

The flip side of working with multiple clients is that, as a consultant, you may work only on part of a project, because both your time and the client’s budget are limited. Only certain roles are involved from the beginning to end of a project. For people who like to see the big picture behind their work, this is sometimes disappointing.

Their experiences also helped them understand the role consultants play within an organization. In many nonprofits, consultants are a respected voice, and as outsiders, they can be free to say things that internal staff can’t. Once they adjusted to this role, several people found it liberating and rewarding to help clients speak up to management, and communicate difficult points.

To me, this was the most interesting thing I learned in our conversations: just how much my colleagues’ experiences at nonprofit jobs helped inform their work at Beaconfire, and makes them better, more understanding consultants for our clients.

One Response to “Working with nonprofits, on both sides of the fence”

  1. February Nonprofit Carnival: Bloggers take on nonprofit jobs | Mission Connected Blog Says:

    [...] “When you work for an NPO, you have the opportunity to dedicate yourself to a single cause, often one that you feel a personal connection to.” says Jo Miles of Beaconfire Consulting in Working with nonprofits, on both sides of the fence. [...]