Lessons Learned in Nonprofit Management
By: Melissa Lagowski
President, Founder and Queen Bee, Big Buzz Idea Group
At 11 years of age, I wrote to the Muscular Dystrophy Association and requested a kit for creating backyard carnivals to fundraise for those who struggled with Muscular Dystrophy. At the time, I could have never imagined devoting the rest of my life to helping nonprofits, but I went on to recognize that contributing to nonprofit organizations is what I believe my purpose-driven work to be.
I have learned so much through my service in the nonprofit sector over the years. The lessons weren’t always clear at the time, but lately I have been reflecting a great deal about what I know now, and as many people in the nonprofit world give of themselves so unselfishly, I want to share some of the lessons learned with others who could benefit. And in sitting down to actually put them to paper, there are too many lessons for just a single article, so this is going to be a multi-part series.
Lesson: No One Person Can Do It Alone
In my first job as an Executive Director, I was still relatively young and very naïve. Knowing nothing about working with a Board of Directors, it seemed so painful to have to work through committee when I could just do things myself and get it done faster. There was always more work than could ever be completed, so in trying to finish the “to-do list,” I started working longer hours to tackle all of the tasks by myself.
One afternoon when I was at the Treasurer’s Office – who also happened to be one of the founders of the organization – he said to me “Don’t forget that others want to contribute, too.” In my young and frivolous way, I nodded in agreement, not fully understanding what he meant. In fact, I don’t think I really understood until years later that I was inadvertently isolating myself. While the solo route seemed to be the right approach, the reality was that people in the community did want to contribute, and in the long run it would not help to exclude (and potentially alienate) local supporters!
What I didn’t realize at the time was that I needed to think differently, to step away from the to-do list and act like an executive director to identify how I could restructure the tasks in a way that others could help in a meaningful way. If you want to grow the impact of your NPO, you must identify ways for people to contribute. You can’t do it alone. By allowing others to help, you invite them into your organization – and when you invite others in, your nonprofit will begin to grow and blossom at the most organic level!
Lesson: There Will Always Be More Work Than Can Ever Be Done
When I first heard Elton John’s “Circle of Life,” the line “more to do than can ever be done” really struck me like a full-on punch to the stomach. For most of my academic life, there was always a syllabus with assignments that needed to be completed by the end of each academic period. So when I graduated college and moved into the real world, I quite unknowingly seemed to take this approach with my work assignments.
In my nonprofit world, I was always thinking “If I could only complete this list, then the organization will be perfect.” It would have enough money. It would have ample leadership. It would have the marketing and promotion it deserved. And it would deliver the programs promised to its constituents. But after three years of racing against the clock and trying to complete that task list, I got burnt out and ended up resigning from the position.
It was years later when I realized that there will always be more to do than we can actually do. The key is to prioritize the list! Set goals for your organization each year and then prioritize your task list according to what you hope to accomplish for the year. This will not only help you focus and make difficult decisions, it will help you recognize which items on the task list are the most crucial items for advancing your nonprofit.
I continue to hone this skill after all of these years. To be the most productive, I even break down my list into daily and weekly priority lists, and I work on those FIRST! Regardless of industry, it seems that a million distractions tend to pop up, so by keeping the emails at bay and completing priorities, you will be more productive in advancing your organization.
Lesson: It Should Not Feel Bad To Do Good Work
Everyone seems to get into nonprofit work for their own reasons. And for me, the biggest challenge is working with so many different personality types. There are truly selfless people who choose to be part of a charity because they are somehow connected to it on a deeper level. There are people who want to give back to the world and have selected to support a local NPO. And there are those people who are more selfish in nature. They choose to be part of a nonprofit because it will either help build their resume and advance them professionally, or worse, there are contributors who want to control something and feel that they can make their mark on the world best in the nonprofit arena, so they choose an unsuspecting organization to wield their power. Over the years, I have seen all of these situations play out in various nonprofits.
In the beginning, I thought that it was really important for an NPO to have a blend of candidates but I later realized that some people come with a selfless agenda and some come with a selfish agenda. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that the selfish people intentionally arrive with a fully developed plan to meet their own personal needs, but I think that they can wreak havoc if nonprofits aren’t watching for these type of folks when recruiting board members, staff and volunteers.
When people come to a group with a truly selfless agenda, robust conversations can be had and great decisions result that properly lead and guide an organization. But when there is ego involved, the discussions become heated debates and the power struggles can become micromanagement over the smallest of tasks. Instead of advancing, many projects will just seem to spin in never-ending circles which leave an organization stuck in the mud.
I was in a situation, believing that these issues were just the blend of really strong personalities at the table; but over time, I realized that I was actually being mistreated by the organization. How had I let this happen? I was doing the very best I could. I was growing the organization and increasing revenues. I was meeting deadlines and putting my very best face forward. And somewhere along the line without realizing it, no matter how much I gave, it was never enough. I didn’t understand what was happening, but I was aware enough to realize that on three separate occasions following interactions with certain board members, I brought my frustrations home and took my frustrations out on my family. The first time I didn’t make the connection. The second time, the situation felt strangely familiar, and the third time, I made a vow that this had to stop!
I dropped that client and never looked back. Nonprofit work is not for the faint of heart but I realized that I only wanted to work with organizations and groups that treated all people with common courtesy and kindness. Now when I interview new clients to see if they are a good fit for us, I ask a lot of questions about their structure and their inner workings, looking for signs of an unhealthy work environment. Healthy organizations have a stronger team-oriented approach, which is what you really want to look for because one should never be made to feel bad when you are devoting your time to nonprofit with the desire to make the world a better place.