After more than 20 years in nonprofit communications, I often do informational interviews with people exploring the nonprofit sector as a career move. I thought I’d post some of the observations and advice about nonprofit communications jobs I usually share with them. Here goes…
LIKE CHANGE, TOLERATE PRESSURE
You should have a high tolerance for ambiguity and change. (Frankly, this can be said of almost any job today.) Nonprofits ride a roller-coaster of funding and societal trends beyond their control. There can be years/months when grants and donations come right on time, and there can be years/months when they dry up. Many nonprofits are in a continuous scramble for survival, and that insecurity can put tremendous pressure on communications and fund raising professionals. Nonprofit jobs aren’t a slow, easy ride (more like the Wild West!). You have to be committed to doing good work in the world.
ENJOY WEARING MANY HATS
Only largish nonprofits can afford full-fledged communications staffs these days—and even those have been pared down. Small and mid-sized nonprofits often have only one communications person. That means you have to run a gamut of projects—from direct mail to blogging, from special events to annual reports and video production. It’s a terrific way to develop a wide range of experience and knowledge. But it takes flexibility and top-notch project management skills to keep all the balls in the air. And, because nonprofits often have to turn on a dime to respond to external events, your pursuit of planned strategies is often interrupted by more immediate needs. If you crave variety in your work, nonprofits may be the place for you.
LIVE AND BREATHE STRATEGY
Yes, you’ll have your hands very full—and that’s why well honed strategy is all important. There will be a continuous flood of opportunities, ideas, obligations, and crises coming at you. You’re at the wheel of this boat and you absolutely need to keep your eye on your target destination at all times. You can’t seize every great opportunity or implement every good idea. Before every thing else has to come strategy. It’s what will keep you sane…and give you the best chance for real impact.
BE COMFORTABLE WITH HIERARCHY
The vast majority of nonprofits operate on a corporate model. Their mission—to better our society– is completely different than for-profit organizations, but most still use hierarchical management models. As we all know, hierarchies have inherent challenges. They can concentrate power and create inequities. They can fuel internal competition rather than cooperation. So, if you’re looking to nonprofits to avoid workplace politics—that’s unrealistic.
Especially as nonprofit leaders have awakened to the power of communications to advance program goals, I’ve found that nonprofit communications jobs provide a good deal of autonomy and encouragement to come up with new ideas. If you can argue convincingly in terms of ROI, you can often win resources to implement those ideas. That translates directly into helping the earth and its inhabitants…as the ads say: Priceless.
KNOW THAT LEADERS MATTER
Just like any other job, the quality of nonprofit communications jobs depends a great deal on reporting relationships and organizational leaders. Many nonprofit leaders are terrific supporters of innovation and change, others struggle to maintain the status quo. Some are strategic, some are merely opportunistic. (There’s a difference.) Some are great delegators, some refuse to let go of even small details. Pay close attention to the person you’ll be reporting to and/or the director of the organization, because the nature of those relationships will have a big effect on what you can accomplish in the position.
GET NONPROFIT EXPERIENCE
There are many nuances in nonprofit communications work, not the least of which is a deep respect for partnerships and the common good. Such nuances often make corporate communications tactics inappropriate. If you’re considering a move to nonprofits from a corporate position—first take on some significant nonprofit communications pro bono work to acquaint yourself with all the fine lines these organizations have to walk. If you’re a student thinking about a nonprofit career, participate in as many communications internships with nonprofits as you can. They are constantly looking for knowledgable, unpaid help with websites, blogs, social media, media relations, etc. In Minnesota, you can find these openings through job boards at the Minnesota Council on Foundations and the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits.
BUILD A BIG TOOLKIT
You have to pack just as big a toolkit to succeed in nonprofit communications as you do for corporate communications. That includes social media, self-publishing, email, mobile, audio/video production, and other communication tools available free online. And keep your tools sharpened—take advantage of online or in-person professional development whenever you can. It doesn’t require money, but it means you have to regularly set aside time. Many great webinars and slide decks on a huge range of nonprofit communications topics are offered free online these days.
It doesn’t take long at a nonprofit before you can spot the people whose hearts are closely aligned with the organization’s mission. That passion for the cause is crucial for communications personnel. You’re among those at your organization who engage with supporters, media, and the public. If you don’t believe you’re doing important work, it shows. Sincerely caring about what your nonprofit is trying to do makes your work more authentic, effective, and rewarding. In the nonprofit world, it’s not just a matter of doing excellent work, it’s a matter of doing excellent work that matters.
If you’re still reading at this point—maybe you ought to consider joining the nonprofit empire!
CC photo credit: stefan