By Melissa Lagowski
It was October 1, 1999, when I began my first full-time position in the nonprofit world. I showed up excitedly and ready to dig in and get started. The president of the organization met me at the office, said the organization was looking forward to working with me, handed me the key to the office and walked out the door.
As a staff of one, I was responsible for what would become 24 annual events, 12 newsletters and 8 committees. I remember looking around the office and trying to figure out where to begin. There was no training – not because the Board of Directors didn’t want to, but because they didn’t know how. They were not involved in the day-to-day operations of the organization so how could they teach me what they didn’t know?
And my lack of nonprofit experience at the time wasn’t helpful either. This was my second job out of college: I was young and naïve. Having worked at a well-structured accounting firm right out of school, I had only focused on winning the Board over and securing the job. I didn’t know how nonprofit organizations were run, and I didn’t think to ask about management styles or training processes. I won the job, and there I sat alone in my new office.
So I began.
I started opening file draws and reviewing notes, reading board minutes, answering the phones, and piecing together the puzzle I had inherited. Eventually over the weeks and months, I found my rhythm; I learned what questions to ask and where to find information when needed. My passion grew for the community, and it was a pleasure to serve the members.
What I hadn’t realized was that I was destined for burnout. In the beginning, I was working long hours trying to learn everything that I needed to know to succeed as Executive Director. But what I quickly learned was that the work was never-ending: in addition to the work I had anticipated, there was work that I hadn’t been prepared for. When I attended Board meetings and Committee meetings, everyone was quick to say that things were going well, buy why not also do ABC project or make XYZ happen. I didn’t realize it at the time but there was limited engagement, and everyone involved just put more work on my already extremely full plate. (Over time I learned how to build more effective committees, but we will discuss that in another post.)
Then I had to support other key events for our partners and constituents, while participating on other community-related committees that also resulted in additional work. It seemed that the more I felt like I had my own job under control, OTHER people had assignments for me, and in wanting to do a good job (they all seemed important), I willingly accepted. By the end, I was working 12-hour days Monday through Friday with many weekend hours sprinkled in, and my boyfriend (now husband) was generally “volunteering” for a few hours each day after he got off work trying to help me get out of the office.
I spent three years with that organization and I really loved it! I loved the people I served and the successes we accomplished. I loved the growth that we experienced, but as happens far too often in nonprofits, I got burnt out. We successfully wrapped our third record-breaking fundraiser in my three years, and I submitted my resignation.
This pattern is all too familiar in the nonprofit industry.
How could I have done things better? Looking back, there were three significant lessons for strong nonprofit management that I learned from reflecting on that period in my life:
1. A nonprofit organization is a business, and it needs to be run like a business. There needs to be a manual with job descriptions and processes. For a variety of reasons, nonprofits often experience a lot of staff turnover. If you find a quality employee, you (and they) need to have a structure that will provide training and help them learn the ropes effectively. Just by having a training manual, the nonprofit will be more likely to maintain continuity and consistency within the organization.
2. To be successful, the Board of any nonprofit must be clear on their mission and their goals. It is crucial that the Board set the strategy that is then shared with the staff and the committees. This is the key element to achieving maximum success and ensuring that the ship is going in the right direction. When you are clear on the goals, you can better set the priorities and even learn to say NO when tasks and projects do not directly benefit the strategy set by the Board.
3. The biggest lesson of all was engagement, engagement, engagement! No single person can do the work of any nonprofit by themselves and showing up for a meeting once a month is not enough contribution from the board members. Nonprofit success is about teamwork! Every member must take responsibility for a specific piece of the work if the organization is going to achieve maximum success and truly move the mission. It is true that “many hands make light work!”
These are foundational elements for running a nonprofit no matter its size and no matter how long it has been in operation. While there are so many variables that are crucial to nonprofit success, focusing on these three core components will make the Board and its staff far more successful in serving its mission.