Two-Year Nonprofit Anniversary

Today I’m celebrating my second anniversary of working a real job in a nonprofit!

Balloons, Photo by Ric e Ette
Balloons, Photo by Ric e Ette

Here are the top 5 things about my experience that surprised me:

  1. How easy it would be to put in ludicrously long hours.
  2. That relatively little changed as a result of my ludicrously long hours.
  3. How readily colleagues accepted and relied on my “technology” prowess.
  4. That I would be part of such a close-knit team.
  5. That I would be so frustrated by so many things.

Based on those surprises, here is some unsolicited advice I have for people getting started:

  1. You need to watch out for yourself when it comes to work load, hours, vacation, etc.  Yes, we work for the benefit of others, but it is still okay to advocate for yourself.  You cannot help others effectively if you are burned out.  If you do not draw the line, you will burn out.  The line can be drawn reasonably, tactfully, and respectfully.
  2. Organizations and work flows change slowly.  New systems take time to design well and additional time to implement and reinforce.  They are worth this investment.  Pursue change, but understand that it’s not just a quick sprint down the lane, and pace yourself accordingly.
  3. I advise you to be careful about what you take on.  If there isn’t room for it in your work plan, there isn’t room for it on your list of responsibilities or in your schedule.  That being said, also understand that sometimes, things just need to get done.  It’s a tough balance.  Be in good communication with your supervisor, and see advice item #1.
  4. Value your team.  Be sure to tell your team that you value them and tell them why.  Mean it, or don’t say anything.  Harness the power of gossip for good – tell other people how awesome your team is and why.
  5. Nonprofits are noble and support causes etc. etc., but they’re jobs, organizations, offices, etc. like every other place of work.  They are not immune to annoyances, challenges, surprises, and other such typical work-related frustrations.  Communication, the major challenge of all organizations, is not magically solved in nonprofit land.  Work through it, and see advice item #2.  It is worth being patient and persistent.

What do you have to say to nonprofit newbies?  Do nonprofit newbies have any questions to ask?

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Addressing Communication Escalation

At work we’ve noticed some… communication escalation.  By this I mean:

  • One person will call 3-5 of the staff running our program and leave them all the same voicemail, which does not mention that she was calling several of us.
  • One person will both email me a question and leave me a voicemail about it within five minutes.
  • Someone who leaves a voicemail at 8AM (I don’t get in until 9) expresses frustration that she couldn’t get through to anybody when she calls again at noon and I “finally” answer.

It’s a typical case of people not seeing the big picture.  They’re thinking about their isolated concern, not about what they’re doing to the office and our ability to address everyone’s concerns.  Let me tell you, it’s frustrating to listen to a two-minute voicemail, look up some answers, call the person back, talk for ten minutes, then bring other questions to another colleague, only to find that that colleague had just talked to the person in question an hour ago about the same thing.  Yes, that has happened.  It’s a pity I couldn’t have used that time to call back 5 other people who also needed answers.

I honestly don’t blame people for getting worked up and feeling that they need to bombard us in order to receive an answer.  I do want to offer them some guidelines for not slowing down everything for everyone else though.

I’m not the only one in the office who’s noticed that this problem has been increasingly insistent, and we’re discussing some policies that might help us reign it in within our department.  Measure’s we’re considering:

  1. Sending out an automatic reply to every email stating our reply policy (i.e. staff set aside x amount of time to reply to emails per day.  Non-urgent emails will be answered, but not immediately.)
  2. Leaving a new voicemail greeting everyday outlining our meeting schedule for the day and when callers can expect a reply.
  3. Indicating on our voicemails and emails that staff check both regularly, so a message in one of those systems will be sufficient.

Has anyone else noticed this happening?  What do you think causes it?  How have you addressed it, or how do you wish you could address it?  Can social media help?

Attitude and Hypothesis

Hot Air BalloonsToday’s Positivity Blog post points out that your attitude can absolutely change your experience of reality.  The author uses the example of a hot air balloon ride: passengers on the very same balloon ride will have very different experiences if one spends the whole time worrying about crashing and the other doesn’t.  Your reality is all about your attitude.

I didn’t see “bad attitude” vs. “good attitude” so much as “he thinks the balloon is going to crash and kill him” and “he does not think he is about to die.”

My question: are your “attitude” and your “educated guess about what the future will be like” the same thing?  I’ll spare you my chain of philosophical reasoning, but I’m thinking that in day-to-day life they’re very similar and that in extreme situations they diverge.  In any case, I think it’s hard to argue that your perception of what future is likely is entirely unrelated to your attitude.

I see a big opportunity here for management to help their employees have a positive attitude by providing evidence and assurance (two separate things!) that their future will be positive.  I’m sure this is easier said than done.  One idea: use the strategic plan (I know you have one!) to directly and intentionally show employees how they will continue to be supported, recognized, and provided with growth opportunities.

What messages are your employees receiving about the future?  What kind of a message is no message?  Are you inadvertantly working against your employees’ efforts to channel Polyanna?  How can you support your employees’ attitudes with evidence that the balloon won’t be hit by a meteor?

Management Suggestions: Communicating

One of my organization’s biggest strengths and biggest challenges is that we have a main office and several satellite sites.  This week I got a chance to talk to some satellite coworkers I rarely see, and it was fantastic to get to reconnect.  I spoke with one coworker in particular, largely about communicating with supervisors.

What I Realized:

  • When people work really really hard, they need to know that the people above them do also.
  • The wheels that aren’t squeaking still need you.
  • It’s easy to assume the worst in lieu of facts.
  • Face time, with people and at places, makes people feel better.

Management Suggestions:

  • Face time.  Make time for it.
  • Make sure that at least some of your hard work is visible.
    • If you’re at work at 10pm, make sure to send some emails then.  Time stamps are subtle and say a lot.
    • Share your to-do lists, projects, and finished products.
    • Take a moment (not an hour) at check-in meetings to report on what you’ve been up to too.
    • Make at least some piddling tasks a priority.  Fix that water cooler, address the lighting in that parking lot, help with that crazy landlord.
  • The line between trusting an employee and ignoring an employee has a lot to do with the employee’s perception.
    • Send a quick thank-you to the people doing a great job.  Acknowledge that you’re being very hands-off, and that you’re still there when they do need anything.
    • Have regular meetings and switch up the location.
    • Publicly recognize accomplishments, and not just the momentous ones.

What are some other suggestions or lessons that come to mind?  How else can management communicate effectively?