Monday, August 31, 2009

So You Want to Work for a Nonprofit?

Recently, people have been asking me about how to get started working in the nonprofit sector. It could be someone who has been laid off and is checking out all possibilities or someone who is interested in opportunities in a field that they may find more satisfying than what they are currently employed at or - just about anything else you can think of. This is a common recession occurrence – when the economy is bad more people think of careers in the nonprofit sector.

Here’s the deal. Yes, it is true that when the economy is bad demand for nonprofit services go up. And in this economy it is skyrocketing. Whether it is a homeless shelter, a free/subsidized after school program, the public library, a museum or low cost arts program, demand has surged in this economy. However – and it is a big however – just like large and small businesses and individual households, nonprofit income is down. And so, almost all nonprofits are taking the same actions as the for-profit sector – hiring and salary freezes or cuts, layoffs, etc. The job market in the nonprofit sector isn’t very good, but there are openings that are being filled.

The National Council of Nonprofits has an excellent series of Special Reports on Economic Stimulus & Recovery. The reports do not reinvent the wheel but make liberal reference to studies that have already been completed and offer a summary of the impact on nonprofits, actions they are taking and advice – all of which is very good. I have blogged about many of these reports over the last year. You can find the catalog of the reports at:
National Council of Nonprofits

Advice If You Are Still Interested in Working in the Nonprofit Sector
The first thing you should do is some research on the sector. Read blogs – this one has lots of good background information (Also see my blogroll for other great blogs to visit), join nonprofit and philanthropy oriented LinkedIn groups and follow key nonprofit “types” on Twitter. Become fans of nonprofits on Facebook. And drumrolllll….the number #1 best way to learn about the nonprofit sector is to volunteer and get a insider’s view. Volunteer for hands-on program oriented work and to make good use of your professional skills. Nonprofits need and will appreciate both. Become a member of a nonprofit Board.

Where to Look for Actual Job Openings
My favorite place is at the Foundation Center but they make it impossible to find if you don’t know how to get there. “Jobs” is in the navigation of Philanthropy News Digest. Here’s the link.

You can also sign up to receive a weekly email list of the job postings and they are arranged geographically which is convenient for most people. This is a popular jobsite for nonprofits to post on because people in the sector know about it and use it, its free to post and you can post a full job description.

Young people are more inclined to be looking on, and Here’s my take on each: – It’s new and hip and highly promoted. It is popular with younger nonprofit professionals and even has great bloggers writing about working in the nonprofit sector. It is free to post a job on the site so I am recommending it to all my clients. – Very established but also attractive to the tech savvy younger crowd. Cost to post a job is only $50 and it is an effective job posting site for experienced nonprofit professionals. – Everybody knows about it and it gets a lot of traffic. Some nonprofits have told me they use it to post jobs and have been very satisfied with the results. Go figure – I thought craigslist was for advertising your garage sale.

Bridgestar - Leadership and Management Nonprofit jobs and Boards of Directors. If you are a senior management person seeking to have a second career in the nonprofit sector, I highly recommend this site. If you have a pertinent Master’s degree and experience working in a nonprofit this is a good site to check out also.

Nonprofit websites - Just like corporations most large nonprofits post their jobs right on their website and this is the best way to apply if they do. Smaller, tech savvy/oriented nonprofits also do this.

There’s lots more including Charity Channel, Opportunity Knocks and Council on Foundations, but I’ve tried to highlight the most popular sites.

Please add to the conversation and post your favorite places to find nonprofit jobs in the comments.

Monday, August 24, 2009

From Blue Avocado - Five Ways to Let Government Money Run You Over

A major problem I see with small nonprofits I work with is an over reliance on government funding and a lack of understanding that million dollar contracts can cost $1.5 million or that you can’t collect $1 million even if you spent it because you have not served the exact number of people required, or they didn’t all complete the program and get placed, or all the paperwork to ensure they were eligible wasn’t completed, etc., etc., etc. I’m sure these scenarios sound familiar to many of you. You are not alone. Don’t beat yourself up over it, examine the lessons learned and do some research on how to best manage government grants and do it right the next time.

The best article I have ever seen written on this subject is by Jeanne Bell, CEO of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services. Jeanne frequently writes about financial and management issues for Blue Avocado. Blue Avocado is the successor to Board Café and one of the best eNewsletters for nonprofits there is. I highly recommend that you sign up for a free subscription. I am delighted to have permission to reprint this article in full here on my blog.

This article is reprinted with permission from Blue Avocado, a practical, provocative and fun magazine for nonprofits. Subscribe free by sending an email to or at
Blue Avocado

Five Ways to Let Government Money Run You Over
Is government funding a way to expand what you do for important constituencies, whether they are families living with autism, low income people seeking legal help, or people attending your dance performances? Or is government funding a trap that will mire you in reporting nightmares, take you away from your values, and turn you into a heartless bureaucracy?

Let's start with a reality: local, state, and federal government agencies are major buyers of social services, education, health, and arts in the United States. In fact, government funding made up 52% of total income for social service nonprofits in 1997 (Lester Salamon in The Resilient Sector). For many organizations, the question is not whether to take government funding, but how to get more of it. Whether you are thinking about your first RFP (Request for Proposals) or are already knee-deep in existing grants and contracts, here are five ways to do it WRONG.

1. Don't assign anyone to oversee contracts management. Successful completion of a government contract requires not just doing the work well, but customized reporting of activities and finances. If no one is explicitly responsible for contracts management, some program directors may under-bid on costs, and you'll end up losing money on the contract. In other cases you may not pay attention to ensuring that the full amount of allowable costs is charged to the contract. Someone needs to make sure that budgets are appropriate prior to submission, that financial and programmatic performance is monitored, and that reports are done promptly and completely--these are not entry-level responsibilities!

2. Stay out of politics. Political engagement is an essential responsibility of government-funded organizations. It's not enough to help social service clients deal with the aftermath of our systems' inadequacies. Nonprofits need to take a seat at the budgeting and policy tables to inform policy direction and protect vital services. This might mean joining a local association of nonprofit contractors, or making sure that your board and staff leaders have the savvy to engage with government agencies and officials. Remember: endorsing a candidate for office isn't legal for nonprofits, but keeping officials informed is.

3. Blind yourself to the difference between what they're paying and what it's costing. A $1 million contract is a disaster if it ends up costing you $1.5 million to meet the deliverables. Because nonprofits have to track expenses to show they are in compliance with an approved contract budget, it's easy to post expenses only if they are at the level in the approved contract budget. In many cases, real costs that were not approved in the contract budget often get pushed somewhere else--to some nebulous "administrative" dumping zone--and the full cost of the program is lost forever. As a result, when it comes time to negotiate a renewal, the cost picture is inaccurate, and the nonprofit happily signs onto another money-losing year.

4. Let your organizational culture evolve organically. Because government funding often is a majority or even 90% of a nonprofit's budget, an implicit culture can grow that narrowly focuses on contract compliance and regards the government as the client (after all, the government is the client from a contract perspective). Culture means more than dress code or communication styles: it means a sense of nonprofit commitment to mission and to mission-identified constituencies (rather than contract-identified targets). Rather than let culture evolve on its own, devote attention keeping a nonprofit culture and a constituent-oriented outlook. Encourage cross-contract work groups and discussions. Demonstrate the same care with individual donors as you do with institutional donors. Engage your community in needs assessment, feedback, and be open to criticism and suggestions about your programs.

5. Now that you've got big money, don't sweat the little money. In CompassPoint's consulting practice, we often work with nonprofits--often those based in communities of color--whose early funding came from government agencies. Unlike nonprofits that established with large donations from their founding volunteers and board members, these groups often get started later on their individual, foundation, and corporate contacts. The result is too many 10-year-old organizations with $1 million programs but with fewer than 50 donors (who are listed in an outdated FileMaker database that nobody knows how to use!). Start to build the capacity for other kinds of funding, and set realistic goals for doing so. With even 10% of your budget coming from non-government sources, you'll enjoy the freedom to experiment, make a few mistakes, and do important work that would never be government-funded.

This article is adapted from "Government Funding: Use It Well," by Jeanne Bell, in Nonprofit Quarterly.

Thanks again to Jeanne Bell and Blue Avocado for allowing me to share this article with you. I hope you will share your experiences - both lessons learned and tips for success in the comments.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Guidestar Double Header: Impact of the Economy on Nonprofits – New Report and an Important Tip About Updating

Guidestar’s August newsletter provides an updated insight into how nonprofits are dealing with the economy. The results of a survey of over 2200 nonprofits and 181 foundations compare responses to questions for the 10/08 – 2/09 time frame and for the 3/09 – 5/09 period. I am not going to get into the comparison as it leaves you with the same analysis as that of the general economy – Is the fact that it isn’t getting worse great news? Who cares? It’s still bad and the current results show how are nonprofits coping. Here are some of the highlights of the survey for the 3/09 -5/09 period:

52% of nonprofits continue to say that donations are decreasing with almost 70% attributing this to fewer contributions and smaller contributions from existing donors.

About 38% said that corporate and private foundation grants were smaller. And a surprising 23% said that these grants were completely discontinued. Less than 15% cited smaller or discontinued government grants and contracts.

Grantmakers responding provided some insight into the steps they are taking: 20% are cutting back on the types of programs they fund and 9% actually said they were making smaller payouts to programs they were already committed to. In contrast 58% of nonprofits report an increase in demand.

So what are nonprofits doing to cope? 54% report a reduction of program services and staff is taking a big hit with layoffs, salary freeze or reductions, hiring freeze and reduction in benefits all cited.

Download the Guidestar Report

I have some simple advice that I’ve given before on this. Make sure you are keeping in touch with donors and saying thank you. Simply taking the time to say thank you – especially with phone calls without solicitation – can make a difference with being on an individual’s shorter list to support this year.

It is important that you stay in contact with foundations that support you. Make sure they know how you are doing and what steps you are taking to deal with the economy. Keep in tune with foundations that support you so you know if the type of programs you run may be in jeopardy and what kind of action they are expecting from nonprofits. You want to stay on their front burner as much as possible as the flame may go out on the rear burners.

The August Guidestar Newsletter also has a great article: “Applying for Funding from Family Foundations: Results of a New Survey.” I plan to write about that soon too.

Important Guidestar Tip
If you are a regular reader of this blog you know that I am a strong supporter of nonprofits updating their Guidestar profile. I am a member of NTEN – the premier organization for nonprofit technology and recently there have been some posts on one of their forums with this important tidbit. When you update your profile you must go to the donation tab and update that to include donations or it will default to donations not accepted. This will affect donations via Facebook and other sources using Guidestar. Ouch! I didn’t know that. If you have updated your Guidestar profile, go check this out today.