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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

How to Work for a Nonprofit and Not Be Totally Stressed Out

When you ask someone who works for a nonprofit organization, "How are you?" what answers do you hear nowadays?

  • Working on a fundraising campaign right now, since our (fill in the blank) funding got cut...
  • Well, we're short-staffed for (fill in the blank) right now...
  • (Heavy sigh) I'm stressed out.
It's not easy being in the nonprofit field in general, and today's economic conditions make it even more challenging. Nonprofit organizations are serving more people with fewer resources and facing increasing threats to their core funding. So how do you continue to work in the nonprofit field and save your sanity?

What's the problem? Take time to determine what the real issue is. Is it a problem that you can solve, or a condition that you need to work around? Is it an immediate threat, or something that you think might happen in the future? What's the true impact on your organization? Can you document it, or is it "worst case scenario" imagining?


Find your allies. In every situation, you'll discover pretty quickly who's in your inner circle, the people who are loyal to your cause no matter what. How can you "rally the troops" and give them something productive to do? Likewise...

Know who will throw you under the bus. Nonprofit professionals are usually a very trusting bunch, but sometimes you need to face the harsh reality that there are some people that you just can't turn around to your side. Minimize their impact on your efforts as you are able, shore up defenses with your allies, and strengthen your network.

Identify collaborators. Some people may think that a dollar you get is a dollar I don't. Break out of that mind set of "all or nothing" and find other people and organizations that you can work with to share resources. Donors appreciate that you are being efficient and effective with their contributions and generally reward collaborative efforts.

Respond quickly. If you are in the midst of a crisis, such as a major funding source pulling out, you have to respond quickly and decisively. This is not the time for long, drawn out analysis. It helps if you have planned ahead (see disaster plan) but even if you haven't, act. Where can you make immediate changes with the greatest impact? How will you communicate what you are doing to your constituents? Own the problem and take control of what you can.

Have a disaster plan. Hospitals and public safety agencies plan ahead so that they are prepared for the worst emergencies and can respond. Do you know how you would respond if a major funder pulled the plug? Knowing how you would handle that in advance, even if it's scary, helps you create strategies to mitigate risk. What can you control? How do you counteract things you can't control? After the crisis is under control, make sure you write down what you did so you can develop a plan for the future.

Focus on what really matters. Things can seem really impermanent in the nonprofit field--there's always another fundraising campaign, another event, another client to help, another problem to solve. If you focus on the never-ending spiral of day to day stuff, it can easily get overwhelming. So where have you made a difference? Who do you help? Get out there and talk to people whose lives have been improved by what you do.

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Alice and Jim will be presenting "Self-Defense for Nonprofits: Tools for Fundraising in Adverse Conditions" and several other workshops, as well as the keynote address at THE Conference in Wilkes-Barre, Pennslyvania on April 13. For our calendar of presentations, visit our event schedule.

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