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Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

How to (Really) Make an Impact in Your Nonprofit Career

You’re a few months into your dream job at a nonprofit. You turned down corporate jobs, slogged away at internships, and worked hard in grad school to get this gig—all so you’d be able to do meaningful work and make an impact on the world.

But now, after an emergency staff meeting, you’ve just been told you have to slash your program budget by 60%, leaving you with barely enough funding to pay your staff, let alone implement new programs or improve existing ones. It’s a harsh reality check, and you can’t help but feel defeated as you think, What happened to my dream of making the world a better place?

I’ve been there. A large part of my career has been spent in the social good sector, so I’ve experienced both the struggle and the satisfaction of a nonprofit career. Whether you’re experienced or new to the field, navigating the challenges and bureaucracy of such an organization can seem impossible. There are times you may feel frustrated that you aren’t making the impact you expected, and others when you just want to give up entirely—but through it all, I’ve learned that you have to keep striving.

Whether you’re already deep into a nonprofit career or are just starting to dream about changing the world, here are my tips for how to navigate the challenges, avoid the pitfalls, and make a strong—yet realistic—impact in the social good sector.

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

After a friend of mine spent some time learning about poverty in the Philippines, she wanted to start her own nonprofit to raise money for rural kids who can’t afford school fees.

There were already some existing local organizations that had similar missions and offered school supplies and scholarships, but my friend was determined to make her project work and insisted she had everything she needed: a strong local network of educators, language skills, and a strategic plan.

However, it turned out that she didn’t have all the skills needed to manage the organization. She didn’t actually know where the money was going or who it was benefiting, and she was competing for the territory of the existing programs, even though her nonprofit couldn’t deliver services as well as those established organizations. Within a year, she had to shut it down.

In light of this, whenever people tell me they want to start their own nonprofit or program, I urge them not to. Instead, I ask them to research what’s already out there or who else they might be able to team up with.

Otherwise, new players in the field can create competition for funding and resources, which can dilute the work of a project that’s already being done well. For example, if women in a village are being trained to weave baskets to sell to Westerners, and another organization comes in to offer basket-weaving training, there will be a lot of baskets—but too small a demand to move all that inventory overseas.

Unless you have ample funding and solid strategy, a completely innovative idea, or see a need that hasn’t yet been filled, don’t start from scratch. Instead, see what organizations align with your work, what they are doing well, and how you can build on programs, partnerships, and coalitions. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel—you can make an impact by helping existing programs run more effectively.

Connect the Local to the Global

What country has one of the highest child poverty rates in the developed world? You might be surprised to find out that it’s the United States (we rank third for child poverty).

With that knowledge, I recently asked my Norwegian university students if, as citizens of one of the richest countries in the world, they should encourage their government to send food aid to America, where one in five children are food insecure and don’t always know where they’ll get their next meal. They were flummoxed by this suggestion. “But you are in America,” they said. “You don’t need help!”

According to these startling statistics, though, we do. And yet, as young professionals enter the social good world, we often assume that the most pervasive problems are “over there.”

Now, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for critical aid and development projects across the world, but to do good work on a global scale, you need to understand the challenges we face in our own communities. Without that, working on programs abroad won’t have the depth or context necessary to be effective. We often create million dollar programs that aren’t always well implemented—and sometimes, that completely miss cultural nuance. (As Dambisa Moyo discusses in her book, Dead Aid, much of the American aid in Africa fueled corruption, dependency, and more poverty.)

So before you head out to a far-flung place, see if your nonprofit can connect with local organizations or initiatives. Or, if you’re just starting out, programs like Americorps, Teach for America, and NYC Teaching Fellow are great places to start locally and gain more experience in the field.

Encourage Transparency, Monitoring, and Evaluation

A bestselling author once wrote about his experience building schools for girls in Afghanistan—but later it came to light that many of the schools he built stopped receiving funds and were shut down, and parts of his story were immensely exaggerated.

Stories like this make the public skeptical of charities, making it harder for nonprofits to do their work. And while organizations typically have boards of directors that oversee operations and annual reports to reveal those inner workings to donors and the public (and even to the employees in the organizations), that doesn’t always shed light on what’s really going on.

As employees in the nonprofit sector, we often assume that we’re all in it for altruistic reasons—so we don’t usually question our leadership and often neglect to ask the important questions.

But when there are red flags—like if you’re suddenly notified that the schools you’re funding are no longer operating, you realize that there’s money missing from the budget, or you start getting complaints about the way things are being implemented—you absolutely have to ask. You can bring it to your board of directors, go to your ombudsman, or speak directly with your organization’s leadership to express your concerns.

You’ll help keep your organization honest, which will keep the support of your team, donors, and the public going strong—and that, in turn, will ensure that you’re able to continue working toward bettering the community.

(For additional resources and guidance to help your organization work toward best practices, check out a consulting organization, like the Bridgespan Group, or industry publications, like the Chronicle of Philanthropy.)

Create New Models for Doing Social Good

The traditional nonprofit model is struggling to stay on top of its game. Relying on donations, grants, and philanthropic initiatives is getting harder, and organizations are finding that because they have to shift their main focus to fundraising, their core work suffers. After years of working in the sector, my colleague Reqik Achamyeleh put it well: Organizations do funding really well or impact really well, but rarely can they do both.

But does it have to be like that? In my view, it’s time to move beyond the charity model—and as an innovative nonprofit professional, you can strive to do that. I urge you to think about new models that increase social good; ones that simultaneously innovate, benefit the community, and deviate from the charity model. For example, DataKind is rocking the social good sector by bringing data scientists together with nonprofits to help evaluate—and maximize—the organizations’ impact.

While there are many great initiatives out there, more needs to be done to bring innovation and fresh perspectives to the industry. We need to take risks, reinvigorate our organizations, and try new approaches. Once we do, our organizations won’t be limited by the fear of losing donors or a constant cycle of fundraising. Instead, they can focus on developing programs and strategy toward making a lasting impact.

It’s easy to get extremely frustrated in the social good sector, especially when things seem ineffective or dysfunctional—and I know a lot of people leave because of that. But in the bigger picture, there are ways to make things better, more effective, and realistic. While I don’t have all the answers, I’m committed to stay in it and be proactive—and we need more people to do the same; to switch their focus from harping on the problems to becoming solution-oriented in the face of adversity.

And that begins with you, using strategy, innovation, and knowledge to change up the status quo.

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