THE BLOG
03/08/2011 01:43 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Misconceptions of Working at a Non-Profit

For the longest time you have been thinking about how great it might be to follow your passion and work for a non-profit. You fantasize about what it would be like, working with people just like yourself who are passionate about what they do. And you'll get to dial back on your workload and spend more time with your friends and family. What could be better than that?

Sounds great, but is it reality?

Here are some of the common misconceptions (pros and cons), and the truth about working at a non-profit:

Pros:

It won't feel like working in a regular business: Just the opposite. Typical is the situation of Lisa Nash, CEO of Blue Planet Network. Before joining Blue Planet, Nash was a VP of Marketing at Yahoo! "The biggest surprise moving into a non-profit was that I could run Blue Planet just like a for-profit company in terms of setting goals, measuring progress and managing based on what works. The only difference was that our 'profit' was the number of people who gained access to safe drinking water." So if you are thinking about joining a non-profit, recognize that it will be run just like a for-profit company with the focus on aggressively achieving results.

I'll work fewer hours and be less stressed: Don't join a non-profit if you think you'll be spending more time with your family, because the reality is that you may end up spending even less time with them. People mistakenly think that working at a non-profit is like having a hobby. The reality is the stakes are so high in an organization that is trying, for example, to cure cancer, eradicate liver disease, or bring safe drinking water to many parts of the world, that the commitment to working harder and longer hours is often the norm. When you bring committed people together who are passionate about a cause, the energy that is created causes them to work more, not fewer hours.

The pace will be slower: Unlikely, given all that needs to be accomplished with limited resources. Moving too slowly can result in missed opportunities. Reaching each goal as quickly as possible is the highest priority, so expect to work harder and faster than you have in the past. In the quest to cure a disease, time is the enemy.

I'll be able to move up through the ranks: To a certain extent, in that you will have greater access to senior management. The downside is that there are only so many leadership spots at a non-profit. In a corporation there are lots of options for career advancements because there are usually more layers of management.

I'll be surrounded by people just as passionate as I am: For the most part this is true. However, just like in any organization, there will be those people who are there just to have a job.

Cons:

My skill set may suffer: If anything, your skill set will strengthen and expand. In a non-profit you're not as siloed as you are in a corporation. Because resources are tight you're expected to wear many hats which creates opportunities to expand beyond your functional area. For example, in a non-profit you may be find there is no marketing communications department to turn to and that "you" in fact are that department.

I won't be able to leverage my experience back into the for-profit world: This depends on the non-profit. If it's a fairly sophisticated organization it's highly likely that your skills will be transferable to a for-profit company. Bob Madison is a great example of this as he's switched back and forth between for-profits and non-profits his entire career. For example, he moved from a communications role in the United Jewish Appeal to Communications Director at Golin Harris. Later he left his position as Director of Strategic Communications at Porter Novelli to join the American Liver Foundation as their National Communications Director. Madison was able to seamlessly move back and forth between these two worlds because the non-profits he worked for were large and sophisticated. He credits his non-profit experience with helping him start his own firm. Bob Madison is Founder of Dinoship, a communications firm that focuses on non-profits and healthcare.

The non-profit will likely have an unsophisticated management team: Committed, passionate people with strong management backgrounds are the norm, not the exception in the not-for-profit world. Importantly, the board members in the non-profits are selected because they bring a specific skill/talent to the organization that is critical to its health and longevity (e.g., fundraising, growing a start-up, a specialty in that area, etc.).

My network might dwindle: If anything, it will get stronger for two reasons. While all non-profits compete for charitable dollars, there's a greater cooperative spirit among people who work at "competing" non-profits. The second reason is that you will create stronger bonds with the people you work with internally. The passion you shared while working at the non-profit will continue long after you or they have left the organization and this translates to a long term network of strong contacts.

The environment won't be as efficient: In a non-profit, efficiency is king. People in a non-profit have to work in a more streamlined fashion. While corporations have money to throw at a problem, non-profits rely more heavily on ingenuity to counteract the fewer dollars they're working with. The key to success at a non-profit is the ability to do more with less and to make every dollar translate into $1.50 worth of gain for the organization.

If you're thinking of making the bold move into a non-profit you'll be happy to know that most people who have made the move are glad they did. The experience added another important dimension to their career and they felt good about making a valuable contribution to a worthy cause.

As Lisa Nash put it: "There's nothing like an inspirational goal you believe in with all your heart to make you move mountains".

Fred & Gladys
Whelan Stone
Executive Search and Coaching
Authors of GOAL! Your 30 Day Career Plan for Business & Career Success