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 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.