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6 Fresh Thoughts on Non-Profit Organizations

August 14, 2012

This summer has been my first experience working professionally with non-profit organizations. While I have been a volunteer for multiple organizations, my job experience has been primarily through WWU as an event programmer, administrator, and coordinator in a variety of settings. There were challenges working as a student employee but I could always be assured of a solid budget and a captive student audience. Not so in the dog-eat-dog world of NPOs. However, if you are interested in international affairs, chances are you will work for or with an NPO. Below are 6 suggestions for working within or running your own NPO as examined by a fresh pair of eyes.

Note: These observations do not reflect the practices of the companies I work for and with. My observations are shaped from my experiences, research, and thoughts over the last 4 years.

Quinn working on his eagle scout project, creating an outdoor classroom for environmental science and biology

1. Reflect on Mission Statement and Scope of Work. One of the most important aspects of a non-profit is the mission statement and scope of work. It is important because a mission statement helps you and those you work with find purpose in the day to day tasks. Often, NPOs can get bogged down in daily to-do lists and task sheets, social media posts, contracts, and invoices. While daily to-dos are a necessary part of running a NPO, keeping the big picture in mind will keep you motivated to make positive steps forward rather than maintaining a static position. I recommend having and encouraging strategic meetings that incorporate the opinions of the entire company, or at least the department, where you outline your successes, ongoing challenges, and plans for the future.

2. Don’t Sell Stereotypes. Be conscious of your company’s mission and marketing strategy, especially when working with underrepresented groups. For example, the face of a helpless African or malnourished children is perpetrated when marketing charity and non-profit organizations to the public. In a study by Small and Verrochi (2006), they found that participants were more sympathetic when they saw sad expressions and more likely to donate when they see sad expressions versus happy or neutral expressions. While an effective short-term strategy, what are the implications of marketing a country, or a continent, as overwhelming poor and helpless? It impedes our ability to work with them as equals, and these perceptions become ingrained into American culture, something short-term donations will not be able to fix. I believe this can be applied to any underrepresented group and should be seriously discussed before finalized.

3. Create a communications and marketing strategy for your NPO. NPOs rely on solid communication to clearly convey the company message to an audience. After all, NPOs rely on persuading the community to donate and get involved to survive. Because NPOs can typically operate on a tighter budget, free marketing tools such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, WordPress, etc might seem like a god-send. Furthermore, other modes of communication which cost money such as marketing data bases, print media, promotional materials, and other forms might be ignored. While every company is different and require diverse strategy, the communications team needs to be consistent, thoughtful, and innovative in order to not confuse the audience. Check out this article on 10 common mistakes made by non-profits on social media for some ideas on increasing your presence effectively.

4. You’ve got a friend in me. What do you get when you combine a large amount of work with a small budget? Unpaid

Working at an orphanage in Saigon, Vietnam

interns! Yes, unpaid interns and volunteers are the backbone of NPOs. While working for free looks great on the resume, motivation will suffer if interns/volunteers do not feel appreciated and welcome. And there are plenty of non-profits to work for if yours doesn’t suit them. The most important thing I learned while running a club at WWU was that social events and creating opportunities to build friendships among the team can make even the chores and daily work seem fun. Create an environment where you have too many eager volunteers. That might involve donuts.

5. Don’t recreate the wheel. If you are thinking of starting a non-profit, do your research first and see what is already happening in your area. In addition, many non-profit organizations would benefit from co-sponsored events and networking. Instead of cutting the pie into smaller and smaller pieces, be on the look-out for organizations with similar missions and ideas and suggest that your companies work together, even as an intern or volunteer. I found this article on too many non-profits interesting and thought-provoking. I hope to encourage thoughtful programming rather than repeated events.

6. Serve the people. Do you know the needs of the people you are serving? Everyone looks at the world through a unique cultural filter. Rather than assume that “everyone” needs this or that, speak with the community you are serving, whether this is the homeless population in Seattle or a rural Brazilian village.  Do your research on the topics and issues at hand and view yourself as serving a population rather than helping or fixing it.

If you are interested in working for a non-profit organization or what to know how to get involved, email me at or comment below. Through my work and research, I have worked with and applied to many NPOs and I am aware of many more. I also know of some great search engines, so feel free to ask!

What tips can you give for running and working towards a successful NPO? Want to bounce ideas around about creating camaraderie? Comment below!

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