Nonprofit organizations are notorious for the many hats their employees wear. Usually this kind of role-sharing is built into the history of the organization: it was founded by one or two people who were passionately committed to the values and goals of the organization, and who had to do everything, from planning to marketing to running programs to financial management to fundraising — to keep it going.
Then, the typical nonprofit reaches a second stage: the organization becomes somewhat financially stable, the team is somewhat expanded to respond to increased need and interest. Yet the culture of “everyone does everything” remains inherent to the organizational weltanschauung. And at this stage, this is sometimes still the appropriate modus vivendi for a small organization, since at times of pressure or need, everyone is expected to put in additional time and to take on roles that are not in their natural comfort zone, for the good of the cause.
But what happens when an organization achieves greater success, and finds itself quite stable financially, and with an ever growing demand for its services? This is the moment where the value of professionalism becomes paramount; or if it does not, the organization is in danger of disappointing its constituents and its supporters.
What does it mean to professionalize your team? Simply put, it means clearly defining each person’s role, and ensuring that they are professionally trained and experienced to excel at that role.
This may sound obvious, but to many nonprofit leaders it is not. It’s hard to make the transition from “everyone does everything” to “each professional does their part”. A founding director might think, When we started out, we did all the fundraising ourselves, with no development training; why do we need to hire an experienced fundraiser or grant writer now? When we founded this organization, we managed the finances ourselves; why must we hire a professional to manage our finances now?
When you are starting out, enthusiasm and passion will cover a multitude of mistakes; and donors and service recipients alike are forgiving as they watch and cheer the struggling idealists on. However once the idealists have fulfilled the dream of establishing their nonprofit and offering its services to an expanding population, both supporters and those on the receiving end will begin to expect more than passion and enthusiasm: they will expect professionalism. And whether or not an organization can supply professional services will define its success or failure at this new juncture.
One central concern of the founders at this stage is commitment. If this becomes “just a job” and not an all consuming passion for the employees, they worry, the organization will lose its fuel and its idealism. I want to reassure you: people who choose to work in the nonprofit arena are already passionate and idealistic. They will retain their idealism, and also their commitment to your cause, if they are allowed to focus on their professional area of expertise, and are respected for their professional skills. The best and brightest will burn out, on the other hand, if they are expected to do everything, and are not given the space to deliver professional service in their field.
So if you are the director of a nonprofit that has developed into a thriving (or at least surviving) and growing organization, it could be time to reconsider the structure of your professional team, and to define roles more clearly, even if that means replacing idealistic but untrained staff with experienced professionals. You, your supporters and your clientele will only gain from the change.