Expectations versus reality: moving from a tiny to a huge nonprofit

I’m a risk-averse person, but I’ve never been bothered by jumping from a secure pond to a comparably scary ocean. I went from a small town high school with 500 students to a metropolitan college with 50,000 students. I stayed in the English speaking world while studying abroad, but the size of the city I was living in jumped from 400,000 to 8 million. And just a few months ago, I left a job at a nonprofit with 3 full-time staff to a job with…a lot of staff. Something along the order of 150 people work in my building, which is the home base of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota. Dozens more work at our health centers and offices around the region, and our three-state affiliate is part of a nationwide network with global reach, which puts us at some huge number or another.

A lot more than 3, is the point.

I’d internalized certain narratives around the differences between small and big workplaces, and I took those with me on day one of the job. Like with so many things, the expectations and the reality didn’t quite match up. 

Expectation: Being an anonymous cog in a big machine

Reality: It’s true—I don’t know my boss (that is, my boss’s boss’s boss). The numbers I report that get sent to the leadership team are in no way indicative of how good I am at my job, and that freaks me out.

But even though I no longer make up a third of the staff, my work feels more important than it did before. That’s in part because I’m surrounded by people with parallel talents, who recognize a job well done. I traded in the ability to “do whatever” for an approval process, but I love that, when I get an OK to proceed with a piece of writing or design, it usually comes with a delicious scoop of praise.

Expectation: More people, more resources, and a different pace.

Reality: I have yet to wrap my head around the idea that I can ask for new software that will help me do my job, that I don’t have to salvage long-broken equipment, that I’m not expected to learn a brand new set of skills every time we can’t afford to hire a vendor who could do the same job better and faster.

Even though the availability of resources sometimes makes me feel spoiled, just because my org isn’t being scrappy doesn’t mean it’s not all hands on deck every day of the week. Somehow, there’s always more work to be done than people available to do it, and I’m busier now than I was when I was balancing a wider range of work to fill multiple roles at a small nonprofit.

Expectation: A corporate atmosphere and the Dilbert-esque pitfalls that come with it.

Reality: Okay, there’s a bit of that. I work with two different departments and my cubicle is next to a third department, and it seems like the three of them don’t know much about each other. That makes sense, because I don’t know much about what goes on outside my little circle. There can be uncomfortable, forced fun. Some of the training I underwent will never be used in my position. Baffling decisions are made on high. There are so. Many. Forms.

At the same time, I have way more schedule flexibility than I did before. The dress code frustrates the higher-ups and is loosely interpreted by all. (Come to think of it, I really don’t know who’s enforcing that). We have cubicles, but they are filled with neon posters and anatomical models of genitalia. Those projects that take too long? They’re always welcomed and encouraged. It’s as though being bound by a common passion has created a one-of-a-kind ecosystem that thrives in spite of (or in sync with) the strictures of a more corporate-style environment. 


Somewhere along the way I got the idea that working for a large organization would be less rewarding than being part of a small one. And while making the move from a tiny to an enormous organization didn’t come without its culture shocks, good and bad, I mostly learned that work experiences have way, way less to do with the size of the organization and way more to do with the culture created by (and beneath) leadership.

What surprised you when moving from one workplace to the next? 

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