3 ways to tell if you work in a nonprofit twilight zone

I love watching Twilight Zone reruns!

I remember scheduling my activities during its periodic cable TV marathons back in the 80’s so I could catch at least a solid 6 hours of it. I really don’t know what captivates me so about the series even to this day –maybe it’s because it dealt entirely with human psychology and I was once a student (briefly).

Thing was, the characters would know the situations were out of this world (literally and figuratively) but would still try to adapt common reasoning as they would to normal situations. One thing you could always count on was the reality check soon to come because nothing in the Twilight Zone, though apparently normal, is ever as it seems.

And as I soon learned, neither was life at a nonprofit.

Like many of you, my foray into nonprofit fundraising was by happenstance. I’d started out as an applicant for an administrative position and by the time I got to the interview was being considered for development coordinator. Though I wasn’t clear about what development was, I was relieved to have been considered qualified to do it. I wanted a career, not a job, and I felt like I’d finally found my purpose.

Well as time passed, my skills and training got me positions with more responsibility. These organizations seemed to be sound, and as they’d been around for several years I assumed their leaders knew something about development.

I soon got my reality check on that because through the years I’d slipped in and out of The Twilight Zone on several occasions. What you are about to read are true accounts of a few of my experiences. If they sound familiar, maybe you too have and one time or another entered the nonprofit Twilight Zone.

Submitted for your approval . . .

1: Your job description states that you are to be a “self starter, take initiative and work with little supervision” yet you’re regularly quizzed, sometimes harshly, about decisions you’ve made.

My training and professional development endeavors taught me best practices that I was eager to apply to my job tasks. One thing that kept me motivated to continue doing nonprofit work was the entrepreneurial freedom I had to, in essence, “make my own job”. As a development director/manager/specialist, etc. there is the expectation that you know what to do and if you don’t you’re gonna ask somebody.

But mentors were VERY hard to find in the grassroots/small nonprofits I worked for so I’d relied on my training and common sense, which on one job almost got me fired because I’d decided to address donors as “Mr. Smith” or “Ms. Smith” in solicitation letters and not as “Dear Friend” as had been customary.

2. Gaining access to program information/data that everyone knows you need is tedious and cumbersome.

New to the organization, there were regularly scheduled grant proposal and periodic reports that the ED knew needed to be completed with program information that I’d assumed would be at the ready.

Instead I was told I needed to talk to three different staffers to get the information; one had the info in a format she could easily email to me and I could cut and paste, one had nothing documented and would have to “wing it” and the other, seemed reticent and even borderline defensive saying he’ll have to think about how to give the information to me because he doesn’t want to give away any “trade secrets”.

3. You’re told you’ll need to make up a budget shortfall/campaign goal increase without being included in the budgeting conversations.

Three months before the end of the fiscal year my ED informs me that the development committee increased the annual campaign goal by $70,000 in response to a budget shortfall and that I need to figure out how to get us in the black. She apologized for the last minuteness of the announcement—she was always so pleasant, and genuinely so—but made it very clear how urgent it all was.

I had a fleeting moment of panic followed by considerable moments of resentment at being put in this predicament and while in the midst of trying to figure out which donors I could tap yet again, a champion on the board came through with contributions from colleagues and friends. Crisis averted—one that for some reason she thought should land solely on my shoulders.

Now, I know I’m not alone here, as Earl Holliman wondered in the first episode of The Twilight Zone, “Where is everybody?”

Can YOU relate?