19 February 2011

"Executive Director" is a really bad entry level position in the nonprofit sector.

In a rational society, I would not be allowed unsupervised contact with young people. However, perhaps as a sign of the times, my advice is often implored on behalf of students hoping to work in the nonprofit sector, or very junior nonprofit professionals in need of guidance.

I suppose that I am the living embodiment of the principle that a glib tongue and a willingness to point out where other people have gone wrong will garner anyone a reputation as a mentor, even in the absence of more essential traits, such as a wisdom, patience, and kindliness.

But where was I? Oh, yes. Sorry about that digression.

A large number of these young people are imbued with a desire to change the world for the better, or at least fight a rearguard action on behalf of decency. I applaud that. However, I have a hard time containing myself when they confide that they are planning to found a new nonprofit in the near future in order to realize their visions.

My advice? Don't do it!

Why not?

1) You're not qualified. I've already explained why a pure heart and a just cause are not in themselves sufficient; you need more on your resume.

2) You may see starting up a new organization as an opportunity to live out your vision of a better world, but it probably won't be. For almost every founder of a nonprofit, the early years are all about
  • Finding money to operate.

  • Checking Craiglist to see if anyone is giving away office chairs.

  • Submitting forms to various governmental agencies.

  • Bookkeeping.

  • Filing.

  • Flattering idiots whose help you need.

  • Doing without the services of crucial staff members because your can't afford them.

  • Supervising volunteers who are a bad match for the task but are available, often because they are justifiably unemployed.
  • Being snubbed by executive directors from organizations that are already engaged in the serving the needs that you hope to serve.

  • Doing janitorial work. (I know of one executive director of a now defunct start up whose first task each morning was the scrub the doorway of the human waste left there in the night by homeless people. She was remarkably plucky about doing it, which is a good thing, because there wasn't anyone else that she could ask to take charge of it. "Cleaning excrement off the steps" literally had to take precedence over "transforming the community" on her to-do list every day.)
3) While the world and the nonprofit sector are both fraught with problems, there are plenty of ways to make the case that starting a new organization is not the answer.

Do you know who I blame for the persistent delusion that founding a nonprofit is a good option for an idealistic young person? Of course, I'm always looking for a chance to excoriate someone, even though in this case, it's a dubious undertaking, since this delusion is more of an expense of spirit (though perhaps not a waste of shame) than an evil. Still, I'm inclined to blame established nonprofit executives for failing to create career ladders for talented young visionaries who want to work in our sector. Think about it. If these young people were having a good experiences in searching for jobs - or in working for nonprofits that offered them encouragement, professional development, and real opportunities to make a difference - would they be asking me for advice?


Marc Baizman said...

Hoo boy, this is a good one. How I've missed your posts, Nonprofit Curmudgeon. :) I'm the Co-chair of the Boston Chapter of Young Nonprofit Professional Network, and we see the lack of a career ladder and professional development for young nonprofit professionals as a fundamental problem with the sector. We are doing our best to address some of this by providing our members with career development resources and professional networking, but it's just not enough. We need people (read: established nonprofit executives and leadership) to wake up and realize that if you don't provide these things, that spunky 24 year old who runs all your programs is going to quit to get a job with a living wage and a defined career path.

Anonymous said...

Hm, a defined career path? Would this be different from the current "need a raise/promotion in nonprofit? Find a new job at a new nonprofit!" career path?
Drives me nuts!
(30-something mid-level nonprofit worker)