Working for a Cause

Working with nonprofit groups has a special set of rewards and challenges. Jessica Quillin offers advice on collaborating with mission-driven (but often resource-impaired) organizations.

October 28, 2011

As an academic serving as a consultant or vendor, nonprofit work can be among the most rewarding and valuable jobs around. However, it’s not always easy to handle the pressures that come with working for organizations with limited resources, tight schedules, and small budgets. The key is to balance doing work that interests you with making sure that the project is viable for you in terms of time and finances.

Over the summer, I put in over 80 hours a week, including nights and weekends, on a massive project for a nonprofit company. From its inception, I knew that the project would be a challenge, especially since it required me to manage 30+ consultants and their work, never mind the issues of tracking multiple large deliverables. Oh, yes, and at the time I was eight months pregnant.

What I didn’t expect was that the project proved to be a logistical nightmare due to major technical problems that were not our fault. I lost consultants over the course of the project, and those who stayed with me remained frustrated with the difficulties they had with the project. But the rewards of the work somehow stayed in focus, particularly as the problems with the project began to clear up.

Despite all the problems, the project was one of the most important I’ve ever done. It was for a cause that I support, which meant that the work was both interesting and satisfying. Also, I was working with a major client who was refreshingly open, transparent and communicative even about the project’s problems. As a result, I was always keen to build a good and long-lasting relationship with them.  

Yet I quickly learned from this project that it is absolutely critical to maintain a realistic perspective about how much working you’re putting into a project and what you’re getting out of it. This is the eternal balance between working and working for a cause or specific goal.

While it’s easy to say that it’s all about the optimal combination of factors, consulting work, particularly for nonprofit organizations, is rarely an ideal situation.

Deadlines are frequently tight, with budgets even tighter. Also, limited capacity on the client side in terms of resources and human capital means that nonprofit clients rely on you, the vendor or consultant, to do your job as perfectly, efficiently, and cost-effectively as possible, which is a tall order even for the most experienced business person.

Over the past year of doing nonprofit consulting, I have learned a few tricks that have proved helpful to both my business and my sanity.

Determine Your Priorities

Before beginning any new project, it is important to assess whether the project specifications and rate of pay make sense for your schedule, budget and business goals. Sometimes it’s worth earning less money for a project than you otherwise would like in order to work for a cause in which you believe, as well as to build your portfolio, win clients, and maintain a steady stream of work. However, this decision is never easy to make, particularly when you have to weigh the opportunity costs of whether the project is substituting for other, more lucrative work you could be doing.

For me, the top priority has always been a question of investment rather than straight finance. As an entrepreneur, I know that I have the potential to earn both more and less than those with salaried jobs, depending on the client and the project. My decision generally comes down to a matter of how well a particular project adds value to my professional portfolio and builds the reputation of my own organization.

Determining the priorities for your professional goals can be liberating. Being decisive but passionate about what you do opens you to new possibilities or types of work that you wouldn’t normally consider doing.

Ask Questions

When consulting, many people are often afraid to ask their clients too many questions for fear of seeming ill-informed or pushy. Yet good communication is key to producing quality results and to building solid client relationships.

People who work in nonprofit organizations are generally passionate and committed about what they do, which makes them motivating to work with. However, many organizations don’t have a clear idea of how to articulate their needs and preferences for a project or, worse, have a changeable notion of what they want, both of which can prove disastrous when hiring external vendors and consultants.

Being inquisitive from the inception of a project is critical to making sure that you understand the specifications, milestones and timelines, and also to showing that you’re genuinely interested in and committed to the project.  

Maintain a Sense of Humor

One of the other main lessons that I learned from my busy summer nonprofit project is the import of not taking everything that happens in a project too seriously. This is not to say that you shouldn’t take yourself or your work seriously. It’s just that you have to realize that some things are out of your control, particularly when working for and with other people in a cause-based context.

Indeed, I find that keeping a sense of humor about your work and life is productive because it keeps you in a solutions-based mindset. That is, instead of focusing on the problems or difficulties of a project, if you’re able to take a step back from a situation and even laugh at whatever challenges you’re facing, it is often relatively easy to find a workable solution. Pressing the panic button when encountering problems within a project is a good way to raise your stress levels, but is no way to work through the problems and move forward.

Having gone back to work almost immediately after the birth of my child, I highly value how and with whom I spend my time, and thus on what I’m working. I have no choice but to take things one deadline and one day at a time, particularly as my days are currently an odd mix of strategic consulting work, writing, and caring for a newborn. The most important thing for me is to find projects that are both lucrative and about which I am passionate. This has not always been an easy balance to reach.

But, working with nonprofit clients, finding the ideal balance between passion, money, and professional growth is strangely both feasible and worthwhile if you take the right approach.


Jessica Quillin is owner of Quillin Consulting, LLC, a consulting firm in Washington, and author of the forthcoming Shelley and the Musico-Poetics of Romanticism (Ashgate). She has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Cambridge.


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