What Is Nonprofit Management? And What Does It Involve?

Serving in a management role in the nonprofit sector is intellectually rewarding and relatively lucrative (compared to many other nonprofit roles). But, from my experience, most folks in nonprofit management roles end up there by accident—some for the better, some for the worse. Perhaps this is largely because many people starting out on their career path do not know what nonprofit managers do exactly, and even if they do, they don’t know how to navigate their way into such a role. In this section, I try to shed some light on these two questions. 

What Is Nonprofit Management?

At a meta level, management—in the nonprofit sector or otherwise —is about creating and maintaining an environment in which limited resources are deployed to create as much value as possible—that is, creating an environment in which people can “mix their labor” with resources (software, desks, etc.) to succeed in creating something of value. In the nonprofit sector, the value being created is generally a social outcome, such as a more-informed public. Creating a productive environment generally involves:

1) Obtaining and developing resources: This includes fundraising, obtaining equipment and technology, hiring staff, training, contracting with vendors, etc.

2) Setting and Aligning Expectations: Making sure each person on the team knows exactly what outcomes they’re trying to achieve, giving them a roadmap for how to achieve those outcomes, clarifying what resources and decisions they have discretion over, and aligning their incentives to pursue those outcomes.

3) Facilitating Good Communications and Integration of Efforts: In most, if not all, operations, it’s absolutely critical for staff to share relevant information with others in a timely manner; this helps avoid problems caused by lack of communication or miscommunication, and it improves the ability of the team to understand and leverage each other’s efforts.

4) Providing “Leadership”: Without stepping into the longstanding debate about the meaning of this term, I can say confidently that managers must help develop and articulate a clear vision and strategy that staff genuinely believe in and thus pursue doggedly. The manager also helps to shape the organizational culture by communicating and living the values of the organization and making sure that organizational policies and processes are consistent with those values.

5) Making Decisions: Decisions should be made throughout all corners of an organization. But managers tend to have discretion over many relatively complex, important decisions.

So, how do these somewhat abstract responsibilities translate into day-to-day activities? That is, what is the job like at a more tactile level? Here is a non-exhaustive list of some of the everyday activities of a nonprofit manager:

1) Lots of Meetings: With department heads to engage in day-to-day problem solving, provide guidance, and share information; with current and potential donors; with senior managers to discuss strategy; with allies to leverage or facilitate their efforts; and more. (Done right, such meetings aren’t drudgery; they can actually be very interesting and productive.)

2) Conceptualizing, Strategizing, and Writing: This includes thinking about and creating multiple iterations of strategic plans, budgets, reports, and proposals. (It’s worth noting that drafting proposals is surprisingly productive in helping to conceptualize your vision and strategy, so it’s not just the rote activity of putting words to paper.)

3) Hiring and Vetting Applications, Interviewing Candidates, and Making hiring decisions: Getting the right people into the right roles is one of the most important things you do as a manager, because the difference between an average performer and an A+ performer is not small; it’s an order of magnitude difference that drives organizational success and makes your life easier.

4) Individualized Coaching and Mentoring: Talking with individual staff as needed to understand their needs, act as a sounding board for their ideas, help solve problems, etc. (Your goal is to help them succeed, because their success is your success.)

Chad Thevenot is the Vice President and Chief Operating Officer for the Institute for Humane Studies. This post is an excerpt from the Management chapter of the IHS Policy Career Guide. The next excerpt from this chapter will answer the question, “How Do I Become a Nonprofit Manager?”

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