#nplabor: Advice from Alison Green of Ask A Manager

#nplabor: Advice from Alison Green of Ask A Manager

Alison Green is the manager behind the Ask A Manager blog, where she answers reader questions and shares her expertise and insight into labor and management issues. We love Alison's respectful and no nonsense approach to workplace relationships and management, so we asked her to share her advice for young nonprofit professionals.

You've worked in both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors. Are there any key differences that you've noticed or any management and HR best practices that should be tweaked for the nonprofit setting?

You know, I think there's sometimes lack of clarity in the sector about what good management means in the first place. It's not about having an effective board or a happy and empowered staff -- those things are important as means, but the fundamental aim of good management is to produce results that you can sustain over time. Everything else stems from there. Too often, though, nonprofits managers lose sight of the central question of what results are being produced. It's something you see less often in businesses, because there's a clear bottom line (which is profit). In nonprofits, that bottom line is social impact, but it can be easier to lose sight of that when you're not vigilant about keeping your focus there.

You've said in the past "The work many nonprofits do is crucial, and what’s at stake is so much more important than some business’s bottom line. Because of that, nonprofits have a special obligation to be as effective as possible in pursuing their missions, which means that they need to be really committed to effective management [...]." What can YNPs do if they feel they're not being managed effectively?

Honestly, it's very hard to change bad management from below. You can certainly think about what pieces of the situation are within your control and focus on making those pieces go as smoothly as possible.  But what you don't want to do  -- and what happens too often -- is to end up stewing in frustration over things about boss or your organization that you can't change. You need to either find ways to work effectively within that context or -- if you realize that you can't work reasonably happy in that environment -- realize that you might need to move on to somewhere where you'll be less frustrated.
The nonprofit sector is unfortunately infamous for low salaries and tight budgets. How would you advise a young nonprofit professional who wants to negotiate for a higher salary handle it if their manager responds, "We don't have the money"? Does the conversation have to end there?

Try asking what you'd need to do in order to earn the raise. If the answer is still some variation of "we don't have the money, no matter what you do," at that point you'll need to decide what to do with that information. Can you continue to work there happily for now, knowing that your salary isn't likely to go up any time soon? Some people decide that they can, because they're sufficiently fulfilled by the work and like what they're doing. Or you might decide that regardless of how you feel about your work and your mission, you'd like to earn more money. Either is a legitimate decision, and you'll be helped in your thinking by understanding what is and isn't possible in your role at your current organization.

It's also useful to understand what your market value is. It's worth doing some research to figure out what salary you'd command somewhere else, and what the trade-offs of that might be. For instance, you might find that you could earn more money somewhere else, but wouldn't enjoy the work as much, or wouldn't have something else you that like about your current job (like great benefits or working on a high-profile issue). Or you might realize that you WOULD prefer the total package you could get somewhere else. Overall, though, more information is better than less.
One of our board members was curious to hear your advice for middle managers in nonprofit organizations around supporting and keeping YNPs who may be in organizations where there is little opportunity for actual advancement. How can managers best support their employees?

Sometimes the way you support staff might be by accepting that they won't stay forever. Not every role has a career path within the organization, especially at smaller organizations, and that's okay. The best thing you can do is to be realistic about that, with yourself and with those staff members, and think about how you can help them prepare for their next role somewhere else. For instance, are there ways they can improve their skills in their current roles? Development opportunities to expand their skills in ways that will be useful in their current work? Ways to give them increased responsibility or a greater role in your department without moving them?
A talented YNP is going to stick around longer with a manager who's helping her gain skills for her next role, even if that role is at a different organization, than with one who won't let her develop at all.
One of our members is wondering how recent graduates can make a phenomenal first impression? Many 'entry level' jobs require 2-3 years of experience but many graduates are entering into the job market with patched together experiences or jobs that they needed to take to pay their way through school. What can they do to break into the field?

First and foremost, get as much work experience as you can before you graduate. Employers are looking for experience, not just knowledge, and so new grads who come out of school with work experience on their resumes have a significant advantage, even if it's patched together from internships and part-time jobs. Next, get a practical understanding of what your degree qualifies you for in the work world. Too often, people pick a major without fully understanding what jobs it will and won't qualify them for once they graduate, and then they end up frustrated to learn that the major doesn't open the doors they thought it would, or that the career paths it opens up aren't ones they're interested in. And third, figure out how to help employers understand how your experience relates to their needs. New grads often come out of school without much understanding of how to frame their qualifications in terms that will resonate with employers. The language and framework that worked in academia may not work with employers, so it's really important for them to figure out how to translate that.
You recently answered a question from a reader about being asked to work incredibly long hours at evening and weekend events. There was a similar question a few months ago about employees being asked to donate to their organizations. Some of the demands made in the name of "the cause" can get pretty unreasonable. Do you have any recommendations or scripts for employees who need to set boundaries with their organization around their personal time and money?

Be clear about what you can do -- and what you can't. For instance, if you're asked to donate money to your own organization (something that I find ridiculous, for whatever that's worth), you can say something like, "I'm glad to put in hard work because I care about our mission, but I'm not comfortable donating to my employer" or "Unfortunately my budget won't allow it" or whatever other polite version of "no" you're most comfortable with. Similarly with unrealistic hours, it's fine to say, "I understand that from time to time I'll need to work nights or weekends and I'm glad to do that on occasion when the work requires it, but I also have other commitments that don't allow me to do it this often. Can we talk about other ways to get the work done?" (Obviously, this wouldn't be appropriate in a context where the nature of the job truly does require odd hours.)

Realize, too, that there might be times in your life when you WANT to throw yourself into work and focus a ton of your energy on your job. You might have times when your professional goals are more important to you than your personal goals. At other times, other things in your life might take priority. The key is to have clarity on that yourself and choose roles that align well with your personal and professional goals at any given time.
Last month we spoke with Paul Schmitz about his book "Everyone Leads." During our chat, he encouraged YNPs to step up and take leadership opportunities when they see them. Do you have any specific tips for young nonprofit professionals who might be interested in taking on a bigger leadership role in their organizations? How can they do it in a way that's effective and doesn't play into some of the millennial stereotypes that are out there (e.g. that we're overly ambitious and don't want to pay our dues)?

Well, first you want to make sure that you're doing a great job of your core responsibilities. You want to be able to prove that you can handle what's already been throw at you. But from there, volunteer to lead team projects, to take the lead on investigating potential new initiatives, offer to manage your team's interns, etc. If you're stepping up to take on new responsibilities in a way that will be a help to your employer, it's more likely to be well-received than if you seem to just be looking to advance without thinking through the organization's needs.

What's the worst piece of career advice or conventional wisdom that you see being repeated?

The idea that there's such a thing as a dream job. The reality is, you have no idea whether a particular would be your dream job or not until you’re actually in it and have been for a while. In fact, there's really no such thing as a dream job that you can truly recognize from the outside. As much as you think you might love doing that work for that particular organization, it might turn out that the manager is a nightmare, or the organization makes you bring in a doctor’s note every time you have a cold, or your workload is so unachievably high that you end up having panic attacks every morning.

Dream jobs do exist — when it’s work you love, at an organization that treats employees well, working for a great manager, alongside coworkers who are competent and kind — but it’s dangerous to think something is your dream job before you’re really in a position to know. It can lead you to turn a blind eye to warning signs or to make decisions you wouldn’t make if you had all the facts, and you can end up miserable as a result. It can also cause you to pass up opportunities that might become your dream job if you gave it a chance.
What are your top three tips for young professionals looking to advance their career in the nonprofit sector?

  1. Be really, really clear on how the work you're doing -- any given project and your role overall -- ties to your organization's fundamental mission. How is it driving your organization forward? What are the results it's getting that will advance that mission? If you can't answer those questions, there's a problem.
  2. Find mentors. These don't have to be formal relationships with an official "mentor" label; they can simply be more experienced coworkers who you have some rapport with. Regularly talking with someone more experienced can give you a broader perspective on office life, help you navigate tricky situations, and succeed faster.
  3. Do what you say you're going to do and by when you say you're going to do it. Always sticking to your word will establish you as someone reliable and trustworthy, someone who is on top of their game, and it's such rare behavior that you'll stand out for it.

If you want to read more from Alison, check out her blog Ask A Manager and the book she co-wrote, Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results.

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