By Guest Blogger Rosetta Thurman
A common topic of nonprofit debate is “where is the best place to gain experience, the small or the large nonprofit?” The most unhelpful answer is “whatever feels best to you.” The reason this is unhelpful advice is because if you are looking for your first nonprofit job or have only worked at small or large organizations you have nothing to compare it with. So here are some of the points to think about when considering a position at a small or large organization.
A small organization means that you can be a big fish in a small pond. Small organizations (usually less than 10 staff members) need you to take a larger leadership role because the organization can’t be successful if you aren’t pulling your full weight. This means that, even as a new staff member, you could learn how to do things like budgeting, fundraising, volunteer management, and project planning. These generalist skills will serve you well throughout your career or will help you learn early on which skills you would like to develop more fully in a specialized position.
Megan Powers was a program manager at a nonprofit association group called Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP). In her position, she worked in a team of four to develop methods for building the capacity of small nonprofit organizations in more responsive and culturally competent ways. Being part of such a small staff meant that she was responsible not only for management of the program –financial reports, fundraising, and drafting reports and evaluations – but that she was also able to develop her creativity and innovation by developing curriculum and facilitating technical assistance sessions.
After being at AAPIP for three years, Megan was recruited to take a position as Senior Project Manager at Grassroots Solutions, a consulting firm that found the combination of Megan’s creative skills and managerial skills to be appealing for the firm’s work. She now leads a team on a variety of projects around the country to help nonprofits, foundations, campaigns, and for-profit companies engage their constituencies more effectively.
Small organizations also have the ability to be very nimble, and if you can be flexible you will be rewarded with an exciting position where everything you do is critical to the success of the organization. Your work and the systems that you help create will benefit the organization for many years after you leave!
If you are at a small organization, you can usually expect that there will not be a lot of money or time available for your own professional development. Conferences and trainings are a luxury that many small organizations can’t afford. If you are working at a small nonprofit, you have to take the initiative to create your own professional development plan and you may also have to pay for some of the trainings on your own.
In small organizations, you also don’t have a lot of back-up or support to do the tasks that you are working on. That can mean that a three-month maternity leave is followed by three months of work to do when you return because there are not enough staff members to pick up the slack. You might also get burned out by wearing so many hats. The large workload and varied responsibilities at a small nonprofit can spell burnout if you are unprepared for the stress.
Paul Nazareth, manager of planned and personal giving at the Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, says, “At one time I was at a small charity as the sole fundraising officer. I had to do my own prospecting, planning, strategy, and most of all administration and paperwork.” You can sometimes feel far away from the mission in a small organization because you are too busy to see the bigger picture.
Sometimes ‘small’ or ‘start-up’ can mean ‘not fiscally sound.’ In the worst-case scenario, you have to raise your paycheck to get one. This isn’t always the case but it is something that you should always be aware of. If you do work for an organization that isn’t financially stable, keep an updated resume and 3-6 months of living expenses in savings.
Maddy, who worked at a small nonprofit organization, felt like her world was crumbling around her when almost half of her very small staff left in a period of a few months because of budget pressures. “It was suddenly just me and my co-worker trying to make the budget. We didn’t have the positional authority to make any of the decisions about the long-term future of the organization, but we were left holding the bag as those decisions were being made.” The situation caused Maddy, who was a development director at the organization, to leave for a development officer position at a large, well-established organization. “There is a lot less pressure working for a large organization. I’m sure that my paycheck will clear when I put it in my bank account.”
Working at a large nonprofit gives you the opportunity to work a very specialized position in a large system. Because there are so many people in the organization, you can see many management and working styles and decide which types work best for you. Bigger organizations usually have better communications, marketing, and fundraising functions. Seeing how those functions operate will help you if you take a position at a smaller organization and you can bring those experiences with you.
Another benefit of really large organizations is that they may be connected to a larger network of national organizations (think the Girl Scouts or the Red Cross), connected to other similar organizations locally (think United Way networks), or could be so big that they have their own in-house training and professional development (you see this at many universities). Connecting with similar organizations gives you a forum to trade best practices and to build your professional network.
Aretha Green-Rupert was a Chief Development Officer at a local office of the Girl Scouts. In her position, she was able to connect with people in identical positions at Girl Scout Councils throughout the state and the country: “It was wonderful to be able to talk with peers who have the same challenges and were using the same messaging as our council. We would meet together at least once a year and bring all of our fundraising materials; as well as conduct content specific quarterly conference calls. I would often find materials and ideas that were perfect for our next campaign.”
For most people that join the nonprofit sector, they do so because they want to be close to the action. At a large organization, sometimes you are very far away from the work. It can be hard to be motivated by mission if you are three levels of staff away from the people being served.
Sometimes being at a big organization makes you feel like you are in the bowels of a ship rowing with 100 other people. It doesn’t seem like it will make a big difference if you stop rowing, since you can’t see where you are going and you are definitely not steering the ship. Ann Rosenfield, a fundraiser in Toronto says, “The access to professional resources is a huge plus at a big charity, but on the downside it can be like trying to move the Titanic to get change to happen. You can spend hours of your life getting approvals and forms filled in.” Determining what aspects of your job give you a real sense of purpose and direction is important early on; otherwise you won’t have the motivation that helps you do your best work.
Remember that one organization is probably not going to be the entirety of your nonprofit experience, so going to a large or small nonprofit does not need to be a make-or-break decision. Over your career if you have a good balance of big and small organizations, you’ll develop leadership skills plus specialized knowledge … a great combination!
Guest Blogger Rosetta Thurman is the co-author of How to Become a Nonprofit Rockstar, 50 Ways to Accelerate Your Career, an accessible, do-it-yourself map of how to build a successful career in the nonprofit sector. Sign up here for her FREE teleclass this Thursday, May 5 called “Movin’ On Up: 7 Steps to Rock Your Nonprofit Job Search”