Missed (Nonprofit) Connections: Finding community when you’re a one-person shop

Numerous people wearing winter coats and standing on a NYC subway platform | Photo by Simon Shim on Unsplash

In over a decade of working in the non profit sector, I have never had a colleague with the same exact job. In fact, the last time I had a manager who had the next-level version of my job was 2010.

So often at non profit organizations, or even at small organizations, we may be a one-person shop. Even at larger organizations, when it comes to specialized roles, there is often still only one person in that position. And of course, the saying that it is lonely at the top still holds true regardless of the kind of organization you lead.

Even if your colleagues respect what you bring to the table and your manager trusts you and happily serves as a sounding board, it can still be lonely at times not to have someone who knows exactly what you’re dealing with at your organization.

It’s great to have colleagues willing to help you brainstorm or pitch in, and we certainly benefit from a diversity of perspectives. But it’s still not the same as talking through a change management plan with someone who has managed a database migration before. If you need advice on how to handle a client whom you suspect of violating program guidelines, you probably want to get that advice from someone who has seen it a few times and can tell you how it might go sideways.

That’s where conferences, communities of practice, and other learning opportunities come in!

Have you ever gone to a workshop or conference related to your line of work but that was not specifically aimed at non profit organizations? How useful was it?

Don’t get me wrong. I am a firm believer that the basic principles of a discipline should be translatable to a variety of situations — or they’re not true principles. However, it can be deflating to read case studies where teams had access to resources we could only dream of in the non profit sector. Who don’t have a significant portion of their budget tied up with restricted funds.

It is is extremely frustrating to get suggested implementation plans that offers no guidance on how justify such an investment of time and capital to one’s board. Let alone how to sell this project or expense to donors who would question why your overhead percentage drastically increased one year, even if it was to build up your organization’s capacity to increase its impact in the future.

But before I go off on a tangential soapbox that we can discuss another time, my point here is that workshops and conferences and vendors that are not designed with non profit organizations in mind are usually lacking. That’s cool and all, but I have no idea how I can apply any of that since my circumstances and constraints are wildly different from your typical business customer. This island grows further from the shore by the second.

Occasionally it swings in the other direction as well. There’s a sudden fall in the other person’s face when they hear you say that you work at a non profit. There are assumptions that your organization has no money for business tools or wouldn’t be sophisticated enough to use them. Or simply that strategies used in the for profit world would not be applicable.

It’s rare that I run into these attitudes these days, but that’s probably because I spend much of my time in spaces for non profit organizations and staff by non profit organizations and staff.

There are so many!

First off, there are vendors and service providers who primarily serve non profit organizations. You can also find freelancers and consultants — many who have experience as non profit employees — who are eager to have you as clients and understand your constraints and opportunities. Not to mention the increasing number of software programs, platforms, and systems geared towards our needs.

There are online communities and in-person meetups where you can connect with peers and get assistance with challenges. There are groups related to different areas of operations, groups for executive directors. There are professional organizations that are both more general and more specific.

There are blogs, publications, conferences, and courses specifically for people working in the social sector. While we’ve covered the importance of professional development, these are also good avenues for feeling less alone.

And that’s the real reason why it matters so much that we find that sense of community, of connection. As useful as it is to be able to get practical advice or not reinvent the wheel, it is so much more meaningful to be understood. To not need to explain yourself or the absurdities of the people expecting you to solve world problems while being handcuffed in ways businesses are not.

We’ve heard time and again about burnout and its pervasiveness in our sector. Sure, sometimes we do need to step back and put our oxygen mask on first.

But recharging is not about doing less, per se; recharging is about making sure we do the things that make us feel energized.

Which is the difference between spending time alone and feeling lonely. Burnout is not simply about being overworked; it is about feeling alone, unseen, and underappreciated. To know that we are not alone, and that we are supported, matters.

The problems we are trying to solve will do enough to deflate us and make us feel defeated. To do our best work, we need to feel energized. We need to see that vision — to taste it and touch it.

We need to know that we are not alone, that we are supported, and that our drops in the bucket are in fact part of a river. And given enough time and volume, rivers can carve through rock.

Whoever your people may be, and whatever way you enjoy connecting, make time to find your people.