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Techie seeks non-profit job: How to be a big, misunderstood fish in a small pond

Trends in social entrepreneurship and skills-based volunteering, inspired by boomers who want more from work than wages and worry, are motivating greater numbers of corporate employees - even techies - to consider careers in the non-profit sector.

Trends in social entrepreneurship and skills-based volunteering, inspired by boomers who want more from work than wages and worry, are motivating greater numbers of corporate employees - even techies - to consider careers in the non-profit sector.

If you're a techie who has bravely tuned into your wild inner longing for social change, no longer satisfied in hunting down bugs for dollars, you may be tempted to follow the scent to freedom. But making the transition from corporate to charity can be a rough one - akin to stepping back in time 20 years.

Trackball mice, Windows ME and After Dark

Most not-for-profit organizations operate primarily on funds from grants, foundations, and contributions from corporations or individuals Because of this, even if millions of dollars pour in, spending priorities are different. A charity that helps sick children is going to place services that directly help sick children as a higher priority than upgrading Windows on workstations or developing an Intranet to increase efficiency.

The politics around how dollars are spent making society better can be just as unpleasant as corporate budgetary meetings - or worse. Many IT leaders in non-profits spend the greater portion of their energies:

  • Proving how technology is critical to the organization in fulfilling its mission
  • Coming up with technology plans that can adapt to major fluctuations in funding
  • Writing grant applications that will pay for at least some of what they need
  • Finding creative workarounds using donated or traded materials and services
  • Keeping up with support tickets (which may include fixing the one yellowed fax machine that 50 people use all day long because a fax server has proven too difficult to explain, obtain and train)
  • Writing and communicating policies designed to protect users against themselves and the rest of the world

For all this effort, you may be compensated at a third of what you could be making and expected to solve problems caused by trackball mice, Windows ME and even After Dark. But each day, each difficult decision is worth it because you know that by "making do", others are no longer doing without.

The tip of the iceberg

Technologically-savvy employees are often greeted with mixed emotions by less savvy employees in any job. The mystification is magnified for most techies working for non-profits. Your internal customers are likely to both revere and resent you as a magician that has the power to push the buttons in the right combination, allowing work to resume - but only after 50 other buttons have been pushed. Because you can walk into a meeting and solve a 3-year struggle with a simple suggestion, you can seem like the superhero that saves the day but leaves everyone else feeling vulnerable and defensive.

The effusive appreciation for small fixes will likely make you uncomfortable at first, because you know how simple the problems can be to fix. But when the issues increase in complexity (especially if they are costly), you'll find that communication skills are far more essential in a non-profit. Trying to convince passengers, who've never sailed the waters before, of the hidden dangers of the iceberg (even if they're the elite in their particular circles of service) can require the patience of a titan.

Compassion as a commodity

Not every non-profit is behind in technology and trends - there are many that are run like successful for-profit businesses by thought leaders who are paving the way for a massive new generation of volunteers. Corporate baby boomers are raising the bar for the level of service offered by non-profits, and the way that service is implemented. Conscious endeavors in corporate social responsibility are being pioneered by companies like Gap Inc, Deloitte and Salesforce.com that donate the time and expertise of their staff to grow non-profits through pro bono engagement work and skills-based volunteering. Social entrepreneurship is fostering the growth of for-profit businesses that serve missions in order to generate positive impact.

You don't have to work in a small pond to enjoy a deeply rewarding career serving a nobler purpose. But the closer you can get to the front lines... the more you can directly serve those in need side by side with others...the more you feed your own reserves of compassion and hope... the more you will feel like you're making a difference. And in the process, you'll engender the credibility and channels of communication that will bring technological progress to non-profit organizations in desperate need.

These strategies will help make working for a non-profit the best career experience you've ever had:

  • Do your research - Finding an IT job with an organization that suits you well can be more of a challenge than other IT jobs, because the work environments, cultures, job responsibilities and technology needs can vary immensely. Indeed is a leading job search engine for non-profit jobs, and Charity Navigator is a great way to look into an organization's fiscal responsibility. There's a charity in virtually every region and area of service, so choose one that has a mission that you truly believe in.
  • Develop complementary skills - Unlike IT careers that constantly require learning new technologies, the greatest challenge in a non-profit career can be to develop not-so-technical skills. Gaining expertise in leadership, grant writing, training, communication, negotiation, purchasing, contingency planning, and marketing can give you the resilience you need to thrive.
  • Be resourceful - According to Blackbaud, only 63% of North American non-profits actively raised funds online in 2010 (almost twice as much as in 2005). This means there's a lot of room for ideas and expansion - as long as there's capacity. Your applied expertise in supporting fund raising through automation, unification, and accessibility will demonstrate both your value and the importance of technology to the organization.
  • Focus on the mission - Because all employees of a non-profit are united in a noble cause, it's important (and easier) to feel connected with the organization as a whole. Engage in the team dynamic, participate in the larger plan, and be clear on how the work you do each day has a positive impact on you and the world around you.

Ellen Berry writes about a variety of topics related to education and careers for BrainTrack.

57 comments
jk2001
jk2001

Some nonprofits have a good understanding of tech, but others do not. I'm in one that kinda doesn't, and there are just different expectations. For example, they expect their computers to be fast all the time. They expect everything to be "easy". They expect the IT person or staff to do anything that involves computers and is too complex for them, because they are unwilling to spend time learning complex applications. I think consumer electronics and websites are shaping their expectations, and part of IT's job is to unravel these expectations. Of course, some IT folks coming from tech companies also have expectations. Here were mine: - I expected the unknown. Not knowing exactly how long a new process would take, or even not being sure of outcomes, was normal to me. It wasn't normal to management, who expected IT to be more about implementing well-understood tech. - I expect to learn constantly. I learn one major new tech every couple years, and a lot of miscellaneous tools all the time. I learn a new computer language every few years "just to do it." This pace of continuous learning isn't part of every organization's culture. - I learn autonomously. I learn from books, articles, web pages, documentation, source code, and by talking to people. Nonprofits thought more in terms of "training" or courseware, which I considered "spoon feeding" info. This is legitimate, but kind of alien to me. (You will have to adopt these ideas to train other staff.) - Build versus buy almost always tilts toward buy, not build. I like to build.

william.sibbing
william.sibbing

Just a few notions to offer. We don't ask, at our soup kitchens in the Dayton, Ohio area like the House of Bread and Martin's Meal, if our guests are deserving. We serve all alike and leave it to God to judge their worthiness. Our charity should be open-ended; as Mother Teresa taught "You do the thing that's in front of you." (A good read: former Dayton congressman Tony Hall's book "Changing the Face of Hunger"). Yet it's important that government-related charity be judgmental, unlike private charity. County-wide tax levies here provide distributions to several non-profits around the metropolitan area which meet basic needs, like the Salvation Army and the FoodBank. This November, voters supported the Montgomery county Human Services levy with 70% in favor. Other recipients of government giving, supported by the voters, are the arts non-profits like Culture Works and the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra. Arts organizations meet the community's need to feed the soul and make the area a great place to live and work. The DPO, for example, spends some of its state and county tax dollars in a variety of outreach programs, musical and educational, across several counties. In short, government grants for all non-profits are distributed judiciously, based on a well-considered, competitive process. But in the end, private donations are absolutely essential to keep these operations going. The DPO, for instance, relies on government money for a very small portion of its budget, the bulk coming from subscription fees and donations. This conversation is very important to me since I'll be retiring next July from IT work at Wright-Patterson AFB and am looking to volunteer for non-profits. I admit to some trepidation anticipating this adventure. Ellen's cautions hit the mark: I intend to get involved with the entire work of the charity (the mission and even the messy politics!) and offer to do IT where the opportunity arises. Thanks to all! Peace!

JCitizen
JCitizen

and other posters here, that working the non-profit side can be rewarding. I worked for one, that paid me reasonably well, my work was appreciated, and actually they had pretty good benefits. Our CIO was one of the best leaders I've ever worked with; in fact all the leadership at that organization was excellent! Our sector lost the government contracts the organization was supporting however, and I was laid off. That is how the ball bounces, in this economy, and I have no regrets!

bboswell
bboswell

I fit that category. After I was laid off at a Fortune 500 company, I went to work as a network admin for a mid-sized nonprofit (around 1000 employed here). Expect everyone in the company to come to you with every matter, a non-clearly defined job role, and just as many expectations as you had in the private sector. Oh, and the pay cut. Most non-profits cannot afford to pay market rates for I.T. labor. And expect the budget battle. When you go to upgrade those Windows ME machines, you have to be able to buy licenses for them. Fortunately, there are non-profit technology clearing houses, like TechSoup.org to help you out... Beats being unemployed, though. In the area I live, there are lots of unemployed techies whose jobs are permanently gone (thanks to everyone outsourcing everything and sending jobs out of the US).

Dave.A.Townsend
Dave.A.Townsend

I worked 10 years in the museum field in management/archives/anthropology. Generally, the pay was extremely poor (low and no benefits), working conditions were poor, and the environment was constantly stress filled dealing with boards, committees and government officials who only wanted to cut funding. I am not sure what other nonprofits are like but I would rather work in a place that appreciates my work.

mvonderlinn
mvonderlinn

Sounds like the right priorities to me.

akadis
akadis

Nonprofit is not hyphenated. I have spent over 20 years working for nonprofits and I have been rewarded with working with some of the brightest and most motivated people I have ever met. Money is not always the best reward.

jon.kilcrease
jon.kilcrease

There is a significant difference between "non-profit" and "not for profit"-- I work for the later. "Non/Not for Prof" status doesn't equate to caring for the needy and destitute, although thanks to those that do. It does mean that our focus is not governed by lemming-like investor behavior, and we can truly have a "mission statement" with some teeth. Smart management and on-going dialog between tech and users keeps our group an active player in company decisions.

reynoldsjea
reynoldsjea

Geez, there's some awfully harsh criticism here. Surely the author suggests situations that exist (I am working through some of the contexts she presents), not trying to paint all nonprofits with one brush...give her a break. Take a look at the census/profile of US nonprofits and you will see that those of you with the luxury of financial and technology resources are not the norm.

bpauls50
bpauls50

What a painfull, "crank-out an article before I go on holiday vacation", fluff piece this article is. Among the fallacies printed are "communication skills are far more essential in a non-profit", and working for non-profits is "akin to stepping back in time 20 years." When did communications skills become less essential in private business? Non-profits may have been slow adopters of IT twenty years ago, but everybody was initially hesitant to adopt cutting-edge tech. That has significantly changed to where many non-profits lead the way in tech adoption. I have worked more than half my 20+ year IT career for non-profit organizations. In that time I have seen private sector companies less willing to invest in IT training and infrastructure improvements, as well as, private companies more concerned with the quarterly profits than long-term strategic sustainability and competitiveness. Not every non-profit is dependent upon year-to-year grant funding and are often more knowledgable about IT industry trends sand opportunities than their private sector counterparts. It often comes down to simple business leadership. State and local government IT operations are often among the worst of enterprises in terms of making important IT investments to increase productivity and professional services to their customers: taxpayers. Lastly, non-profits are often leading the way in use of social media to connect with both their clients and the general public. Non-profits understand their essential role in serving the nation's many unmet needs that the private sector deems unprofitable.

SeenItBefore
SeenItBefore

I have worked in dot com and I have worked in a non-profit that had obscene amounts of money. Bringing the corporate I.T. mindset doesn't always mean that it is good. Neither does bringing the "dot com" mentality. It just means that some one is trying to bring in the politics and incompetent planning that can plague I.T. departments to a different group of people who some times don't know any better. Large non-profits with millionaire large ego CEO's have to deal with the fact that their ego won't allow them to acknowledge that they don't know squat about computers and as such don't have realistic expectations about how much time it takes to implement complex new systems. They depend on their marketing people who couldn't get jobs in the corporate world who always promise more than can be delivered. The CTO ends up being a brown noser who will blame his screw ups on his subordinates and they take the heat. Managing expectations and project management skills are critical and having broad technical knowledge is important but beware the politics. Think of that odious show "The Office".

kwickset
kwickset

Excellently described and the first 3 parts also describe my experiences with for profit enterprises. Always miles behind, but the company cars unquestionably had to be the latest and most expensive models. They could never bring themselves to upgrade to even the level of the most basic home hobbyist. Happy to run my own business; no "company policy" to comply with.

evanmathias
evanmathias

I understood that capitilism was the way to solve many of the resourcing issues in our modern times. So why is it that the most vulnerable have to rely on charities? Are charaties a modern idea? I would happily pay more in taxes to garuntee the vulnerable areas of society have a regular accountable serviced income, and utilise competitive technology and resources. The world governments should collect funds, and responsilbe for objective, political, competitive, proactive and accountable mobilisation of the private sector. We all value those working to do good, to break the cycle of poverty, and do not understand why they should be payed nothing. If you were in a vulnerable position, maybe a starving kid in Africa as a result of a corrrupt government policy for buying weapons, in our day and age, would you be a charity case, or would you be someone supported by a preemtive global system? I am not impressed that the government, us, have convienently offloaded this problem, or mute this point as political. Everyone should give, not just the kind hearted. Its not right for you to feel good about giving, often when its far too late, its better you feel sore that you have to give, but see proud countries capable of supporting themselves. In some cases might there be a small incredibly powerful group representing a charity, accountable to whom.. and whos power is representative of advertising poverty.. Is it a way of avoiding tax? Is it a way of selling inferior products? Truly charaties were a step forward, but surely we are at a new age? Proactive, not reactive, not manipulated by our hearts by terrible pictures. And remind me of the hypocracy of handing out charity with one hand, from economies devestatied by third world debt, to us. It would seem sometimes it is convienent to have charaties. A horrible thought, maybe if it were starving 'white' kids, we would be less tolerant of our current strategy.

bob
bob

I spend 40 hours a week working for the Public Sector (after 30 years in corporate American) and I spend 20-30 hours (un-paid) a week working at a non-profit, some of it tech stuff, and a lot of management and teaching time. What I have seen is governments do good and do poorly. Non-profits do good works and some are not so charitable. I have seen fabulous mission-oriented churchs and some downright stingy ones. I have also seen that it is very easy to critizie others, somewhat harder to praise, and even harder to give up our preconceptions. I have known people who don't want to work, and I know many more who would love to work if they were healthy or could find a job. My bottom line is, I don't care that the government isn't always efficient. I care that they manage to do a lot of good. I don't care that some churches can be intolerant. I care that a large number of them give a lot to needy people. I don't care that non-profits are clueless. I only care that they follow their mission. In this holiday season, lets forget about slamming other people and organizations. Instead lets concentrate on whatever good we can do. And that will make for a Merry Christmas for all.

tony
tony

I too have over half of my 20+ years in non-profits and you are correct.

sissy sue
sissy sue

However, I just have to comment on your statement "When did communications skills become less essential in private business?" You are absolutely right, of course. Communication skills are as vital in private business as in non-profits. However, I, like you, have worked on both sides of this fence, and I have to say that, by and large, I have seen far worse communication skills in private business than in non-profits. Perhaps this is because non-profits usually have a mission that reaches out to a variety of audiences. Private businesses have their audiences as well, but communicating well with some of these audiences is often not considered essential to "the bottom line." In our personal lives and in our careers, we know the major disasters that can occur when there is lack of effective communication. Wise businesspeople know the value of communication, and they just don't give lip service to it.

evanmathias
evanmathias

Another perpsective is that countries are their own entities, and we have limited capacity to meddle in their affairs. The government tries to be proactive on our behalf. However charaties are the reactive blanket that reflects this independance. Dealing with fall-out and disasters. My concern is that I read an article about a study that showed charaties, even the large, show little accountability of long term benefit of those they are helping. Not all, infact a few did show a good accountable difference, such as the Red-Cross. However this may simply be a result that they have to deal with consequence, and not the underlying cause. I guess its just put the money in the pot, and hope for the best? It just seems so hollow...

sissy sue
sissy sue

Risking my message being deleted, and taking full advantage of the holiday season, I would like to inject some Christian perspective. There are some who point to the teachings of Jesus as proof of his "socialist" proclivities. However, Jesus never advocated that government was the entity that should be responsible for providing for the needy. Instead, he said that we as individuals are responsible. And, until recent history, charities operating on individual contributions did provide for the DESERVING needy, and government did not intervene. However, modern government has taken charity out of our hands, denying us the grace that comes from being a willing giver. Instead, government takes money from us in the form of taxation and gives it to people whom it wishes, whether we support such "charity" "on our behalf" or not. Having less income through taxation, we can afford to give less, and we resent the income that is taken from us to support those whom government, and not ourselves, believes are more deserving. I do not want government to force me through taxation to support those who choose not to help themselves. I applaud those of you who work for a nonprofit, and especially those who volunteer their time. Merry Christmas to everyone!

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"I would happily pay more in taxes to garuntee the vulnerable areas of society have a regular serviced income, and utilise some of the best technology and resources available." Then why not give that extra money you're willing to pay directly to the charities that already provide those services? Why get the government involved? I don't have 'some of the best technology and resources available'; I'm darned if I want to pay more taxes to provide them to someone else, and certainly not to provide them a regular income. There's already a source for a regular income; it's called 'work'. THAT'S the point of capitalism: you get what you earn.

vic_curtis
vic_curtis

You echo thoughts I have had about this for ages now and have stated it more succinctly than I could have.

eb-braintrack
eb-braintrack

Thanks all for the great discussion. Some clarification: - Yes, thank you - miserable serial trackball mice, not optic - Great point - managing expectations is key - Communicating complex technical issues can be a challenge in any less-than-IT-savvy organization, not just non-profits. It's just less likely that non-profits are highly tech savvy for the reasons stated. Therefore, advanced communication skills are relied on more frequently in non-profit IT discussions (in general). - Wikipedia and dictionary.com do not distinguish between the terms non-profit and not-for-profit. However, it is true that some not-for-profits consider themselves to have a difference business model than non-profits. - According to dictionary.com both non-profit and nonprofit are acceptable - I've met brilliant people with extraordinary character from all walks of life working for non-profits. They're to be commended for frequently working with less to accomplish more meaningful goals.

jk2001
jk2001

I think in the private sector, in tech companies, IT people are allowed to focus on development or operations to the exclusion of other things, because IT is part of the profit-making machine. In non-profits, the role of IT is secondary to providing services to clients or customers (whatever they're called). The communication become important in "selling" new IT ideas to management.

JCitizen
JCitizen

In 30 years working in the high-tech arena with exception for military work. I have seen the best leadership in the military and the one non-profit I worked for. I only worked for one [u]profit[/u] based company that had a lick of sense; and I've lost count of the number of other companies. Communications skills were more valuable in the non-profit and the military. Of course the military IS a non-profit!

JCitizen
JCitizen

is the lazy man's way to give, as they supposedly watch charities to makes sure they follow standards and practices for efficiency. Trouble is - detractors point out, who is watching the United Way? Oh Well! Ya gotta give somewhere! Maybe Consumer Reports rates charities? :)

jon4t2
jon4t2

@sissy sue: Bravo! Does anyone become a better person filling out a tax return and letting the government handle all the messy details? And to those who think the government should do all the heavy lifting in this matter: How are things going in Greece and Ireland? And how is the clean up proceeding following the student protests over the tuition hikes for higher education in the UK? (i.e. being told to grow up and carry your own weight).

cj_frye
cj_frye

The problem with leaving all of this support to charities is distribution. Having grown up in a rural area, I've seen folks stranded 'cause they can't afford car repairs, there is no public transit, and there is no Salvation Army, or church, or other charity within walking distance. Government has a reach most other agencies do not. Folks where I grew up had telephones and electricity because of government mandates, not through the good graces of the utilities!

bkindle
bkindle

Your exactly right. There's a big difference. There's a difference in helping someone who is physically disabled, or severely mentally challenged receiving a hand-up (not to be confused with a hand-out). For those who just "need", I really question it. As far as regular income goes, it is called work, and there is nothing keeping a person from working for someone else or for themselves to earn. It's moral to earn.

daveevans28
daveevans28

Sorry folks, tired of talking politics. On the subject, I VOLUNTEER as administrator for an non-profit NPR radio station (admin practice for the real world some day). We have a mission, we have no money, and thank God we have no trackball mice. Some of our desktops are painfully slow, some we have replace with good desktops that were donated. We need a new server, upgraded MS Office (the staff doesn't like open-office), and policies designed to protect users against themselves and the rest of the world" (Thanks Toni). I can't keep up with support tickets (Huh? You mean a phone call saying "this doesn't work like it used to") cuz I'm a volunteer with a life. It's pretty much like Toni described, without the salary! Merry Christmas!

santeewelding
santeewelding

Aboard an Amphibious Force Command ship (AGC), that was not secured for rough seas that time in the '60s. I turned just in time to see this $800 marvel slide off, fall, and smash itself into pieces on the steel deck.

JCitizen
JCitizen

of them in the service, that had the ball pop off so hard, it flung to the ceiling and left a crater in it! Probably as the result of improper seating on the print head. It always made for good laffs and conversation that-a-way. =D Next came the daisy wheel and memory writers!

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

Companies, like ours still use official typewriters for one-off mailing labels. I enjoy hearing its clatter.

santeewelding
santeewelding

And such, are beyond me. When I left the military, I tried to buy the upright, black Underwood I had been banging away on those four years. The Yeoman told me, "Forget it." Too much paperwork and highs to hurdle. I bought one at an antique store, years later, just to decorate my study. What I got me here now -- what a marvel! -- beats the hell out of all that reed/clay stuff.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

The Selectric III used a type ball, not individual keys. It may have been a SmithCorona. They had several models that looked quite similar to the Selectric, but still used the individual keys. IIRC, they were also prone to jamming when the return springs got weak.

eb-braintrack
eb-braintrack

They actually had the first typewriter you show at one of the nonprofits where I worked. The type levers? (I can't even remember what they're called) kept getting jammed.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

your seniority is showing ;) Sorry, that was bad, I should have written "seƱority" :D

santeewelding
santeewelding

While I clean my reed stylus, that I might respond to you two ancients.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

that IBM... we had one of those at home when I was a kid. I used it too, until computer printouts became nice-looking enough. With the little paper cards with the typo-be-gone substance...

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

With the carbon paper, one of these, or maybe even one of there. And one of these. They might get the idea then...

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

CIO's should keep a huge stack of carbon paper, winch-powered calculators, winch-powered copy machines etc. in a corner of their offices, and put a sign "In case of acute lack of IT department" on it. Big parts of non-tech-company IT seems to this outsider to be savings-enabling too... it's just that that money was saved a long time ago, and nobody remembers the alternative.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

In tech companies and consultancies, yes, IT can be (and usually is) part of the profit-making machine. Outside tech companies, IT is not a profit maker, IT is a profit [u]enabler[/u]. Too many people either lose site of that, or never knew it in the first place.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

are helpful only when someone is potentially listening ;)

eb-braintrack
eb-braintrack

CharityNavigator.com is the leader in charity watchdogging...

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

But these guys do: Charity Navigator American Institute of Philanthropy Charity Guide You can also check at your local Better Business Bureau.

JCitizen
JCitizen

I agree with you TNT!! :)

JCitizen
JCitizen

I live in the desert where there weren't no government either; and we built our own power companies, banks(credit unions), and communication companies; all owned by the pubic ourselves. We also took care of our own with non-profit Christan charities, and did just fine without the gubba-mint! :) People have forgotten how to pick themselves up by their own boot straps, apparently!

TNT
TNT

In my experience there are far more churches than government offices. You think the government is good at distribution? How about asking Katrina or Gulf oil spill victims about that. Government is always slow to respond. People helping people is preferrable to big-government-programs helping people. As someone who has worked for non-profits in one form or another for almost 30 years I can tell you that government has its place, but its not in a service industry.

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