How to Succeed in a Nonprofit

There’s so much bad advice out there on the topic that my first goal has to be not to add to it. So I’ll do my best to dispel some of the more prominent myths and then, like any good multi-tasker, I’ll make a list.

First, a disclaimer: I don’t know the answer. I have, however, learned a few things in almost ten years at the Mercatus Center that might be helpful. During my time here, I’ve had five jobs, three bosses, and dozens of unbelievably accomplished colleagues. Some of the most important lessons for my current role as chief operating officer I learned just months out of college in my first role as program assistant.

Another disclaimer: My scope is fairly limited. These may be terrible lessons for an investment banker. But presumably you’re reading this because you’ve made the ever-so-important decision to do what you love and work for a cause you believe in. If that sounds cheesy, you need to reconsider this choice. Go be an investment banker. This love of, and belief in, your cause is what will get you through the long days and nights and, for most of your career, relatively thin paychecks.

Which brings me to the list:

Lesson 1

Love what you do. The nonprofit that you choose is a mission-driven organization. How do you feel about that mission? It probably shows. I have not read a good book on nonprofit management, which means that I’ve had to learn whatever I know about it from experience. And—though this will be disappointing to those who thought a 700-word essay would provide all the answers—so will you. This means you’ll have to put in a lot of time working through problems, making mistakes, and figuring out how to do things better with less information than your counterparts in business. That’s a lot of work and it will be unbearable if you don’t really believe in the reason you’re doing it.

Lesson 2

Learn your limitations. You’re not going to be great at everything. But you’ll be much better at what you’re good at if you know what you don’t do well and act on that knowledge. This is a good thing to keep in mind as you take on your first few roles at an organization.

Lesson 3

Don’t think too much about it. Don’t let your career goals distract you from the job you’re there to do. In my limited experience, climbers tend to fall. Maybe not immediately, but eventually. I’m not a big believer in the five-year plan. That’s not to say that people who have their act together and a clear vision of where they’re going can’t succeed. But sometimes you can focus too much on the map and miss the road ahead.

Do the job that you have well. Or to put it in “Career Guide” terms, don’t dress for the job you wish you had, dress for your day.

These are qualities that are largely within your control. But all the self-awareness in the world won’t be enough to get you there. The rules within which you work will have a lot to do with how well, or poorly, your efforts are rewarded.

Brian Hooks is the Chief Operating Officer for the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. This post is an excerpt from the Institute for Humane Studies “Creating Your Path to a Policy Career” guide.

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