Guest post by Stephen Ristau
Too often I hear from highly skilled and motivated people, “I just can’t seem to find a nonprofit organization that uses my professional talent well.” And despite the great strides that nonprofits have made in recent years to design volunteer or pro bono work experiences that require advanced expertise or training, I still see a disconnect between the available talent pool and the engagement opportunities nonprofits offer.
Do you find this to be true also? Have you had to go through many frustrating encounters with nonprofits before you were able to find a good “skills” match? What enables you to do your best work?
I am interested in hearing about your experiences, cool ideas and best practices regarding best work engagement.
Here are some of mine:
- Do your homework. While it might not seem that this should be “like work,” finding a good fit with a nonprofit will require all the research, scanning, assessment, and analytical skills you’ve honed in your line of business. Investigate several organizations with various missions and sizes to learn about them and to assess your fit. Large nonprofits often resemble larger corporations in function and structure, while smaller nonprofits may mirror small “mom and pop” businesses. You know best what kind of issues (mission) you feel passionately about, your preferred work environment, and how your skill set matches with the organization’s needs.
- Network relentlessly. Simultaneously explore new organizations and drill deeper with vetted prospects to develop relationships with those leaders who will help you with your search. Know in advance that this will take more time than you expect and make sure you are willing to commit to this process. If not, you need to seriously consider if this is the path for you.
- Convey your understanding about the uniqueness of nonprofit cultures. When selling your professional, managerial, or technical skills, make sure you help organizations to see how your skills fit into the culture of the organization in particular and the nonprofit sector in general. Nonprofits tend to have process-oriented, consensus decision-making practices and may not be as results-driven as you may be used to in other sectors. Explain how you can contribute these skills as a part of a decision-making team.
- Be aware that, in some cases, you will have more skill and experience than your manager. When it comes to professional, managerial, or technical areas, you may be “senior” to the person who engages you or to whom you will report. Be effective at “managing up,” respecting individual talents (and constraints), and appreciating the value of intergenerational mentoring.
- Prepare yourself (for the opportunity) to wear many hats. Because of limited resources, most nonprofits, especially smaller ones, cannot afford the specialization of skills and functions that other sectors can. This may be an opportunity for you to contribute your unique skills to an initial project engagement and even additional ones in the future.
“Best work” organizations, nonprofit and for-profit, are those with human resources that champion innovation and learning, are accountable for outcomes, and are able to work in a coordinated team environment. What are some of the “best work” volunteer experiences you have had?
Let’s give a shout-out to those nonprofits that are empowering volunteers to make a lasting difference. Let us know what you think.
Stephen Ristau has been a nonprofit executive and social entrepreneur. An innovator in the national encore movement, he has led Transforming Life After 50 and the SVP Portland Encore Fellows program.Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org and www.linkedin.com/pub/stephen-