Hans Keller is scheduled to go dive in a tank and feed the fish after lunch. It won’t be a onetime event for the CTO either. As the tech leader at the non-profit National Aquarium in Baltimore, Keller supervises 10 IT staffers and is busy these days implementing a system for entering data on the aquarium's 18,000 animals. The organization hopes that the system will improve the care and maintenance of the aquatic facility. This system is proof that the bottom line isn't always what IT managers at nonprofits eyeball most. Instead, Keller’s focus is on member satisfaction and humanitarian needs.
"The [data system] application doesn't hit our bottom line at all," admitted Keller. "But from a productivity standpoint, it's huge."
Keller isn’t the only IT manager who has found a good fit with a not-for-profit organization. Many tech leaders are finding the slower pace and reduced pressure of nonprofit work attractive enough to forgo the larger salaries offered by corporate jobs. To give you a better idea of what it’s like to work for a nonprofit, here are some of the highlights of letting the work be the biggest reward.
How the challenges differ
If you’ve been frustrated with the lack of new skills and new tech challenges that your corporate job offers, you might find that nonprofit work could be more rewarding. Nonprofit environments generally offer IT professionals ample time and space to stretch their tech skills. That’s doable because the environment is not as fast-paced as it is in the for-profit sector and there is often little supervision from higher management. This means that you often have the time and the latitude to do things the way you want to do them and to try new technologies whenever you are able.
For example, Keller’s slower-paced work environment allowed him the opportunity to help create a collaborative environment for others working in nonprofit IT. Right now, only a handful of U.S. zoos and aquariums staff and support technology efforts but, thanks to Keller’s system, IT professionals in nonprofit groups can now swap techie tips and organizational options. Leading the project was an exciting opportunity, he said.
"The training we provide is not necessarily the bleeding edge, but on the cutting edge, definitely," he explained. During the last two years, his program has provided training on database design, programming handheld computers, and using Windows 2000.
Of course, while the time may not be as crunched, there will still be interesting challenges to test your abilities. When Victor Kunze stepped in as director of IT at Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) in Washington, D.C., he found himself knee deep in putting a 104-year-old paper filing system of ancestors into a computerized system.
While he enjoyed getting a free license to change a system that wasn't working, getting the employees to love the new system was a different story entirely. Moving a user base into technology can be a much greater challenge at a nonprofit than a typical corporate environment. That’s because employees stay with nonprofits for as long as 10 or 15 years, quite different from the typical two- to three-year duration at a typical company.
"The skill set is more or less homegrown," Kunze said. "You get people who are not accustomed to changing very often."
A different work environment
For Tina Mattison, her nonprofit work seems very much in line with one of the more traditional business goals: recruiting and retaining good employees. Mattison works as a service manager at Siemens Business Services, which is a service partner with Northrup Grummond at the Peace Corps. Mattison provides network management and help desk support for the Washington, D.C., headquarters and 11 remote offices.
While the recruitment and retention efforts are traditional, the work culture is clearly much different than a traditional business. In comparing the Peace Corps with other corporate environments, Mattison said, "It's always been relaxed here—not a lot of pressure.”
The workday itself is often much different than most businesses. Kunze said he rarely works more than 50 hours in a week. And the workday can be flexible—employees taking college courses are permitted time off when needed, said Mattison, and vacation dates are plentiful.
It comes at a price
All the excitement, flexibility, and unorthodox work environments do come at a price—namely, a lower salary, in most cases.
When Kunze made the leap from Chase Manhattan Bank to the DAR, his salary was pretty much cut in half. But to him, that was a small sacrifice compared to the rewards.
"Salary? In no way can we match for-profit corporations that are lobbying on The Hill. The main selling point for Daughters of the American Revolution is its environment," said Kunze. The organization’s operating expenses are pulled from association and annual dues.
Another big change when working in the nonprofit sector is that there isn’t the usual abundance of tech toys. "We're not able to keep up on the latest technology and services," said Kunze, "but you do get to do more stuff because you have a smaller staff."
Job opportunities likely increasing
Maybe the most encouraging aspect about working within the nonprofit world is that the job sector is slowly expanding.
More and more nonprofits are realizing that if they want to host a solid IT team, they need to be able to attract employees with solid expertise, and that means paying a competitive salary.
For example, the National Aquarium now uses Salary.com to determine competitive pay and benefits. The federal government, including the domestic Peace Corps, recently changed its pay scale to attract more workers. Training and career paths are offered, too. The pay scale and benefits are only likely to increase—something not forecasted for corporate America any time soon.
Making the switch
What do you need to know before switching over from, say, a financial institution, software company, or law firm? The most important thing is that you should be prepared for a more loosely organized work environment.
"You need to be flexible and relaxed. If you're looking for high-paced, this is not it," said Mattison.
Beyond learning to relax, the switch isn’t so difficult, and the bigger-picture rewards can make the job seem like something more.
Keller said, "Having been on both sides of the fence, the not-for-profit [organization] is much more rewarding at the end of the day." The reason?—the organization's mission is kept in clearer focus, he explained. With nonprofit organizations, the goal is always grander than just the bottom line, and that makes for a satisfied feeling at the end of the workday.