From Private to Nonprofit | Inside the Culture Shift, Part 2

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Switching from the for-profit to the nonprofit sector comes with plenty of rewards—and potentially a few bumps as you navigate new territory. This article, the second in a series on sector-switching, covers strategies you can use to set priorities and balance competing demands in your new nonprofit position.

Before we dive in, here’s a quick look at why and how priority-setting might look a bit different at nonprofits.

Plenty of possibilities

Take a minute to reflect on how you used to set priorities in the private sector. Did your clients scope out well-defined deliverables and hard deadlines? Did you have monthly sales targets?

Priority-setting could be similarly clear cut in your nonprofit position—for instance, if you have a set number of clients to counsel each week. However, depending on your role, it may not always be so straightforward.

Nonprofit positions can be fluid, encompassing a loosely defined range of responsibilities or multiple functions. This is often the case at small nonprofits with limited staff, or when organizations take on a wide range of activities to bring in revenue. Some might combine human resources, finance, and accounting into one department or position—or design a role around someone with a diverse skill set.

Beyond this, your motivated, mission-minded colleagues are bound to send a steady stream of ideas and opportunities your way, asking you to engage new partners, speak at conferences, coauthor policy papers, or take on any number of new projects—not all of which will be funded.

All this makes nonprofit work dynamic and engaging, but it also means you need ways to remain discerning and focused while figuring out how to prioritize your work.

Read on for tips to guide you through that process.

Assessing your options

  • Take your time. From day one, make time to talk to colleagues about their priorities, and join as many meetings as possible. Give yourself time to get to know the organization and its resources before committing to work that requires long-term investment. You can also develop a learning agenda for your first 30 to 60 days to guide how you collect information.
  • Create a performance-based decision making framework. Use key performance indicators (KPIs) to inform how you prioritize day-to-day, quick-turnaround demands and assess longer-term projects. Develop KPIs that link to your organization’s strategy, and iteratively adapt them as your understanding of the organization evolves.
  • Create a “parking lot” of ideas. Meeting facilitators use parking lot lists to set aside topics that could derail a conversation. As ideas stream in from colleagues and partners, jot them down or use an app like Evernote. Before you take action, ask yourself:
    • Does this idea align with my KPIs?
    • What sort of time, funding, or expertise will it require?
    • Are these resources readily available?

Bottom line: Resist the temptation to say “yes” to every opportunity that comes your way. Stay focused on the big picture, and on what you aim to accomplish.

Communicating your priorities

  • Be transparent. Before declining an invitation, explain your thought process, and why you may not immediately jump at the opportunity. For example: Instead of saying: “Thanks for the idea, but I’m already overloaded. Can we revisit this?” Try: “This looks like a great opportunity. I just need to think through how this aligns with the goals I set for the year. Could we find a time to meet and weigh our options? It would help to talk through what we want to get out of this, and what it requires.”
  • Check your approach with colleagues. Ask your colleagues up front whether and how delaying or declining an opportunity could affect their project deliverables, partnerships, or funding leads. Odds are they will appreciate your effort to understand their pressures. You can also get ahead of potential conflicts by presenting annual goals for your position or program.

Bottom line: The important thing is to show colleagues you’re ready and willing to collaborate, but that you’ll take on only as much as you can effectively deliver. Making thoughtful, carefully considered decisions is a trait guaranteed to garner respect.

Tracking your time

  • Be accurate. Unless you keep close track, it’s easy to forget how many hours you work each day. Accurately tracking and reporting your hours helps you—and your organization—understand the actual time investment required for your current workload, and how much additional work you can feasibly add to your plate.
  • Categorize your hours. It helps to know which activities demand the majority of your time, whether it’s interactions with clients, partner meetings, or administrative tasks. Look at whether the majority of your hours are going toward work that advances your goals and plays to your strengths. If not, consider what you can put on hold, or even delegate (where possible) to willing colleagues.

Bottom line: If you do your best to prioritize and still wind up working 50 or 60 of hours most weeks, tracking your time will offer valuable insight into how you really spend it.

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What do you do to set priorities? Give some examples in the comments section.

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Jen Bogle is a communications professional based in Cologne, Germany. She has more than 10 years of experience working with the non-profit, public, and private sectors to develop and implement strategic communications campaigns and stakeholder engagement strategies that promote sustainable development. She is passionate about team building, leadership and using communications to drive social change.
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