The Size of a Nonprofit Organization Matters | Here’s Why

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Finding a workplace where the organization’s culture feels like a fit can greatly affect your overall job satisfaction. In addition to social and professional development opportunities and the general office vibe, another factor to consider when gauging office culture that is often overlooked is an organization’s size.

Keeping in mind that one size isn’t always “better” than the other, and culture can still vary widely among organizations of the same size, there are some important differences between working at a smaller nonprofit versus a larger one.

In the absence of a standard definition, let’s consider a small organization as having 20 or fewer staff members and a large organization as having 100 or more. These ranges are subjective and can depend on where you live and the work you do, so you may need to adjust the ranges in your mind as you consider what size is the best fit for you.

Available resources

Larger organizations: A larger budget doesn’t necessarily mean that there is money sitting around waiting to be spent, but it can make it easier to meet beyond-the-basics expenses, such as event sponsorship or conference attendance.

A larger nonprofit may also offer a wider range of staff support services. Jordan Dashow, a public policy professional who went from working at a small advocacy organization to the more-than-200-person Human Rights Campaign (HRC), says he was surprised to find that he had access to different types of software and subscription services at HRC.

Smaller organizations: The flip side of having more resources at a larger organization is that there can be more hoops to jump through in order to access those resources. At a smaller nonprofit like Dashow’s first employer, getting approval to co-sponsor an event could be as simple as asking one person, he says.

Another resource difference is staff capacity, which can affect the kind of work you do.

Scott Hertz, a communications professional in New York, moved to a small, local organization in 2016 after nearly 15 years at a 300-person national nonprofit where he was running communications and marketing for a division comprising more than 60 youth programs. Now that he’s a team of one, he works “in the weeds and the big picture,” instead of focusing more on the latter while his staff focused on the former.

Processes and structures

Larger organizations: When Edwith Theogene moved from a nonprofit of about 15 people to the Center for Reproductive Rights, a global legal advocacy organization with more than 150 employees spread across six offices, she noticed that the day-to-day work had more formal processes and structures than she was used to.

Instead of communicating information in informal interactions, such as walking into someone’s office, now Theogene writes a memo or shares the information at one of her cross-functional team meetings.

Those processes and structures are more important in a larger organization “because there are so many different moving pieces and different people that either need to be included or informed,” Theogene says.

Smaller organizations: In a smaller nonprofit, things may get done more quickly because they need fewer levels of approval—largely because there aren’t a lot of levels in the first place. If you like speed and efficiency, this may be for you.

But sometimes the additional levels of approval are a good thing. That can help guard against mistakes and ultimately improve the quality of your work.

The scale of the work (which tends to be smaller at a smaller organization) also affects how many levels of approval are needed.

“The email I’m putting together because school has closed is different than the email I’ve put together because the whole school system is closed,” says Hertz.

Opportunities for learning and growth

Larger organizations: At a larger nonprofit, you may have more people to learn from, more steps to climb on the career ladder, and more resources for professional development.

Over the course of nearly 15 years at a larger organization, Hertz worked his way up from webmaster to director of marketing and communications for an entire division, with access to mentors from different backgrounds and an executive coach along the way.

Smaller organizations: On the other hand, ProInspire Founder and CEO Monisha Kapila notes that working at a smaller organization may enable you to “receive greater responsibility and opportunities to demonstrate capabilities faster than peers at larger organizations.”

By starting her career working on policy campaigns at a small nonprofit, Thogene says she got a close-up look at all aspects of a campaign and was able to pitch in wherever she was needed. When she would talk to her peers who had similar jobs at larger organizations, they didn’t seem to have the same opportunities, she recalls. She describes that early hands-on experience as giving her a springboard into her current position managing the national Act for Women Campaign with nearly 100 partners.

Opportunities to build relationships

It’s not that an organization of one size gives you better or more opportunities to build positive work relationships; rather, the opportunities are different.

Smaller organizations: At a smaller organization, it’s easier to get to know your colleagues because you naturally end up interacting with everyone.

You may also get more opportunities to build relationships with the people you serve. At the smaller organization where Hertz works now, he spends more time with volunteers and community members, whereas his staff at the larger nonprofit had handled the majority of those on-the-ground interactions.

Larger organizations: You still have opportunities to build relationships within your department, division, or team. You may just need to be more proactive about building relationships outside of your orbit in a larger organization, Dashow of HRC says.

Dashow says he’s also noticed that a larger organization creates space for the formation of affinity groups united by shared interests or identities.

Greater diversity in a larger organization can also affect the impact of microaggressions, says Theogene, a woman of color. Theogene says microaggressions can exist in organizations of any size, but you may have more opportunities at a larger organization to find allies and more avenues to address the issue.

What’s the same

This isn’t an exhaustive list of differences. And remember, size isn’t the only factor affecting an organization’s culture.

Pro Tip: Informational interviews are a great way to gain insight into an organization’s culture before you accept a position. No matter what, one thing will always be the same:

“When you’re a mission-driven organization, whether you’re a team of 10 or 10,000, the sense of purpose and the sense of mission is still there,” Hertz says.

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What differences between smaller and larger nonprofit organizations have you encountered? Did anything surprise you when you switched from one to the other?

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As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.
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