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What to expect from a year of nonprofit work


Think you’re ready for your first year at a nonprofit? No matter how well you plan, the reality of working for a nonprofit may have some surprises in store for you. Be aware of these potential pitfalls and you’ll make it through your first year just fine.

You can’t fix everything on your first day

You’re entering your new career in the nonprofit industry because you’re a driven individual who wants to make the world around you a better place. However, the first day on the job is probably not the best time to start fixing problems you might see in the organization you’re working for.

Ananda Valenzuela, managing director of Rainier Valley Corps in Seattle, says she sees this a lot with young, idealistic new hires. The problem isn’t the desire to improve the organization, she says. The problem is not taking the time to understand the problem in its entirety, the underlying factors that contribute to it, or the people who may want to help or hinder your efforts.

It’s a workplace like any other

You may start working for a nonprofit with the idea that all of your coworkers at your new nonprofit, university, or hospital will be a mission-focused crew all pulling in the same direction to accomplish the higher calling of the organization. Don’t worry, you’ll certainly find those people.

However, it’s important to remember that people are people, even when working for a nonprofit. All workplaces will have some amount drama and internal dynamics to navigate. Erin Martin, a registered nurse for Community Hospice of Texas, says you’ll find both supportive mentors and bullies among your new coworkers. The trick is to learn how to spot the two.

Steven Weimer, music professor at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky, adds that understanding the lay of the land can be a challenge. It takes time to figure out who has seniority and how to avoid stepping on toes.

While smaller organizations may give you plenty of chances to prove your skills... it can be harder to stand out in large organizations.

Managing your personal budget

Whether you’re starting a fresh career in education, healthcare, or nonprofit operations, if you’re moving into the nonprofit industry from a good job elsewhere in the economy, your finances may change.

If you’re coming straight out of college, however, you may already be used to living frugally. David Erpenbach, a physician’s assistant at University Orthopedic Surgeons in Knoxville, Tennessee, suggests you simply stick to the penny-pinching skills you honed as a student and you’ll make it through okay. And take heart, because this won’t last forever. Eventually you’ll move up to a better paying position.

Keeping tabs on your time

Wiemer says you’ll have to budget more than money. Budgeting time can also be difficult in your first year at a new job. Keeping up with emails and keeping track of student performance can be hard to juggle on top of your other teaching and preparation commitments.

Finding a way to stand out

While smaller organizations may give you plenty of chances to prove your skills, Valenzuela says it can be harder to stand out in large organizations. Rules and responsibilities may be firmly cemented, so it may be difficult to take initiative when working for a nonprofit like that.

Wiemer says the importance of standing out can depend on the field. At his university, professors are fairly autonomous, but it’s always important to make sure you’re serving as a strong complement to the department as a whole.

With these challenges in mind, hopefully you’ll be a little more prepared to start. You may not need to take on the whole world all at once, but you will need to survive your first year.

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