By Maria Ward
Like many of you, I came to work in the non-profit sector because of my passion for social justice. Fresh from college and student-led advocacy groups, my head was filled with facts about inequality and injustice and my laptop plastered with bumper stickers.
When it came time to find a job aligned with my beliefs, however, I was at a loss. You can’t make a career out of just believing really, really hard in a cause, unfortunately. You have to gain some tangible skills to support the cause, skills which sometimes don’t feel all that connected to that passion that led you to nonprofits in the first place.
I tested out the nonprofit career paths that felt most connected to the passion I felt, dipping my toes in community organizing and direct service, areas where I could talk about the issues as a public figure. Much as I wanted to be the hero on the front lines, I found these jobs to be a mismatch to my personality. What kind of career could I build when I wasn’t a natural with a bullhorn or an extrovert with the energy to interact with people all day?
As I entered the nonprofit world, it seemed to me that there were the people who served the mission (program staff, social workers, policy advocates), and the people who just handled the paperwork (accountants, financial officers, administrative and development staff). With all that passion for rectifying injustice, of course I initially gravitated towards the obviously mission-related work. It took some time to recognize that the paperwork handlers are just as essential to the mission as the program staff, and that the financial side of the organization underlies everyone’s ability to achieve the mission. Could there be room for me on the less sexy side of the nonprofit world?
Hoping to gain a better grasp on the numbers-and-laws side of things, I attended the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits’ Nonprofit Essentials Conference with a scholarship from YNPN. The Conference covered all the basics of running a nonprofit, from what you’re required to report to the IRS, to whether you need to comply with various employment laws, to how to be an effective supervisor (and much more).
This is all the stuff that keeps an organization running smoothly, so that we can focus on ending hunger or preventing domestic violence instead of worrying about lawsuits or a budget deficit. If you don’t keep on top of your paperwork, you can lose your tax-exempt status and leave yourself open to attacks from watchdog groups, among many other headache-inducing consequences. When one nonprofit mismanages its donations or violates employment laws, we all lose credibility. So now, far from dismissing the financial staff as paper pushers, I’m starting to think of them as superheroes disguised as office workers huddling behind Excel spreadsheets and calculators.
Even if your work puts you out in the community everyday or advocating at the capitol, consider and appreciate all of the infrastructure that allows you to do your job effectively, and be an active financial leader in your organization. And if you find you’re more comfortable processing the payroll than leading the rally, never fear! Your job is mission critical, too.
Maria received a scholarship for the MCN Nonprofit Essentials Conference as a member benefit of YNPN-TC. Thanks to Minnesota Council of Nonprofits for their partnership in providing discounted membership and scholarship tickets to YNPN-TC members.