When asked what their ideal job is, many students respond with: “I don’t know, but I want to make a difference and help people.” This is a noble and valuable goal, but how exactly do you channel that passion into constructive action? What jobs are available that really emphasize making a difference? These are the questions that Emilie Fauchet, now a senior at the University of Rochester (www.rochester.edu), had in mind when she was applying to colleges four years earlier. Suddenly, it dawned on her: “I realized I wanted to work in a nonprofit organization.”
Thus began Emilie’s professional commitment to the nonprofit field. She began volunteering with an organization called Project Chacocente (www.outofthedump.org). Established in 2003, PC began as a way to “improve low-income household quality of life among several families in Nicaragua,” explains Fauchet. “We helped them relocate and begin a new life. We built houses and schools, fostering a strong relationship with the people.”
After spending the summer of 2010 in Nicaragua and later serving as a volunteer delegate for the organization, Emilie decided she wanted to learn more about PC from a management perspective. “By that time, I knew that working in a nonprofit was what I wanted to do professionally, so I asked Mrs. Gage to take me on as her informal intern.”
Robyn Gage, a former nurse who currently serves on the Board of Directors for PC, works specifically with fundraising, membership and donor appreciation. “In addition, my husband and I occasionally lead delegations of college students to Nicaragua,” Gage details. “Our mission is to alleviate extreme poverty in Latin America by removing people from dumps and teaching them the skills needed to survive outside. More specifically, this means helping Latin American people find or create safe environments, provide materials and education, and informing U.S. citizens of the dangerous and unhealthy situations that many of Latin America’s indigenous poor experience.”
Gage and Fauchet’s effort to gain support from the American public has been very educational. “You would be surprised how layered the work is,” Fauchet says. “Generating donor lists, drafting and preparing materials, mailing, collecting, keeping records, creating brochures, going to meetings…it’s very time-consuming.”
What is a nonprofit, exactly?
So how exactly is such a multi-faceted organization managed? How can you get involved? What types of roles exist in nonprofit management? We asked Heather Tunis, senior consultant for the Center for Nonprofit Management in Los Angeles, to fill us in. “A nonprofit, legally, is a public benefit organization that has a specific tax status,” explains Tunis. “Under the IRS determination, nonprofits can receive tax-deductible public donations, but cannot engage in political activity and need to be able to legally identify the organization’s missions, goals and how this work benefits the public.”
That being said, nonprofit organizations may have surprisingly similar structures to that of the coexisting for-profit businesses. “Nonprofits, after all, are in the business of doing public and social good,” says Tunis. “The roles, management and responsibilities are the same as you might see in a for-profit business. For example, there is a Board of Directors. This may be made up of roles such as a chief executive or executive director, financial management executive, people to manage human resources and facilities to oversee and manage services, administrative staff, etc.”
What you need to know
Tunis continued, “In nonprofit organizations, the Board of Directors’ role is particularly significant; they are charged with organizational oversight to assure effective operations, sound financials, ethical practices, [and] quality program delivery, [among other tasks]. Another key role in nonprofits is in fund development, or fund raising. Each nonprofit needs to have a carefully thought out annual fund development plan — a set of strategies and programs to generate the income needed to run the operation.”
Tunis explains that students who are passionate about nonprofit management should consider developing the skill sets that are valuable in business management as well. “Coursework in financial management, technology and information management, communications, marketing, administration, human resources…these are extremely valuable.” In addition to academics, Tunis validates Fauchet’s internship, adding that “learning on-the-job is one of the best ways to discover more about an organization and what is involved in its management processes.”
Tunis also encourages aspiring students to research organizations thoroughly, considering their mission, specific areas and type of programs, services and management style. Gage adds that even as a board member, she still “attends local conferences on mission statements, grant research, and writing…relying on online sources for suggestions.” Most nonprofit organizations will communicate through social media as well, so looking to Facebook and blogs can be very informative.
Fauchet sympathizes as a student; she says, “sometimes this is the overwhelming part because there are so many different organizations and so much great work being done; it can be hard to decide where you fit in.” Her advice? “Just do something; get out there! Volunteer and intern - even with multiple organizations. That’s how you learn what you really want to do and where your specific experiences and skills are best put to use.”
It takes commitment
Of course, as with any career, nonprofit management has its challenges. “For me, it is the time involved in being a board member,” says Gage. “It takes many hours to accomplish what needs to be done…fundraising is difficult because there are so many worthy agencies all needing funds.” Tunis adds that, “a lot of organizations are also working in the same space or in complimentary services. There could be more consolidation.” Additionally, there may be a general assumption that nonprofits only offer low salaries. Tunis reassures that, “nowadays, nonprofits are working hard to provide competitive salaries and benefits for employees.”
Ultimately, both Gage and Tunis agree that the rewarding work of a nonprofit significantly outweighs any difficulties. “Seeing the difference your work makes, getting to collaborate with wonderful people who are bright, creative and want to make a difference, sharing a common goal.” Tunis remarks, “It’s a truly rewarding experience.”
On a final note, Gage adds that in a world full of difficult choices and vast opportunities, the words of theologian John Wesley have never failed to guide her decisions: “Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.”
Sarah Girouard is a freelance writer and works as a project coordinator in the financial aid office of the school of education at Boston University (www.bu.edu).