How to choose your next nonprofit job

The concept of loyalty in employment for the most part no longer exists in today’s workplace.

What we have now are business arrangements predicated upon the employer’s expectations being met. With both for-profit and nonprofit employers, I’ve had some really good work relationships and some bad ones—really bad. The bad ones were in part because I was never really good at determining early enough when the employer went from considering me a valuable organizational asset to that of a mere warm body, tasked to check my brain at the door, make like an automaton and produce!

In hindsight, because every organization has a culture and philosophy about how employees are regarded (written or unwritten), I just didn’t recognize where I stood initially and by the time my intuition kicked in it was too late.

My perspective now is that regardless of how tough the job market is, job seekers don’t have to feel like they have to be on the losing end of that business arrangement, not if they go in knowing as much about the employer as the employer knows about them. In this economy, one could argue who holds the handle as opposed to the blade, as my mom used to say, but past experience taught me that I have just as much to lose, if not more, as any employer if I don’t do my homework before selecting the right nonprofit employer for me.

Employment specialists will counsel on the things you should do to position yourself as an attractive employee prospect, including researching your prospective employer. But along with appearing knowledgeable and proactive during the interview, also consider how you can get information that will help you determine what kind of employment experience you’ll have even before you walk through their doors.

Like they say, turnabout is fair play so use some of their vetting processes to get as clear a picture as you can of what you may be signing up for. You know what they are:

1. Check their “resume’” to see what they’re saying and reporting about themselves.

They have (or will eventually have) your social security number; you have the internet. Beyond reading about their program achievements on their website, brochures and press releases, obtain a copy of the last few annual reports and 990’s. Financials can paint quite a revealing picture including, most importantly, whether or not they’ll be around in a year. You can find out the percentage of the budget spent on administration and fundraising, who their significant funders were for the year of filing and the size of gifts they’ve been able to secure, whether there’s consistency with those awards over time, who their board members are, etc. And if you can’t find a 990 filing, that is cause for concern. No matter how small they are they’re required to file and there are dire consequences if they don’t.

2 . Check their “references” to see what others are saying about them.

Do an internet search using certain key words to see if they have been involved in issues (positive or negative) that can shed light on their organizational, business, program or fiduciary practices or if there are particular issues trending that may affect their field of work. Use your networks to find out if anyone you know has either received services, volunteered or, more relevant, were once an employee.

Enlist some dear friends (folks who owe you a favor will do just as well) to do some investigating for you by calling and inquiring about services or volunteer opportunities. You could glean quite a lot from this, like how long it took for someone to answer the call (possible staffing issues); whether the inquiry was handled appropriately and timely (level of program/organization knowledge and professionalism), how long it took for the voicemail or written message to be returned (customer service), or how their volunteer service experience went. Having objective impressions from impartial parties can give a much needed perspective.

3. Listen to your gut.

The ideal would be that you’re able to complete all this before your interview, so you can bring up any concerns during the “Do you have any questions for us?” closeout phase. Broach the topic through questions that give them the opportunity to state some of their challenges, some of which you may very well be able to help solve should you be hired.

But once all the questions have been asked and answered, listen to your gut, considered by some to be the “second brain”, with a power to command our attention when things just don’t feel right. If there’s anything you discovered during your research or during the interview that doesn’t sit well with you, you’ll have a tough decision to make should they offer you the position.

It is important for a job seeker to seriously guard their professional reputation, particularly in the case of resource development professionals. A bad employment experience, especially as regards work conditions, management philosophy, performance expectations and the availability of the tools and resources you need to do your job exceptionally well, can set your career on the wrong track, or completely off it.

Then you’re stuck having to explain to the next employer prospect how it is you ended up as a DD or ED with an organization facing devastating financial straits that threaten its existence just six months after you took over (trust me, I know).

Remember, regardless of what job market you find yourself in, you always have control of who you work for. In fact, giving yourself permission to say “No” can lead to your smartest career move yet.