As the summer comes to a close, and now that final projects are turned in, I want to take some time to reflect back on what insights into nonprofit work and leadership I gained from my experience at the Public School Forum. Hopefully, I can meet Prof. Dehart-Davis’ standard of being “non-platitudinous,” but if I fall short, I apologize.
The following are my four key takeaways from my summer working in nonprofit:
- Development is everyone’s responsibility.
My former Executive Director where I worked before starting in the MPA program was fond of saying this at our staff meetings. Every time she’d say it, I would nod along with everyone else, but as the coordinator of a state-funded program, I never actually felt like development mattered to me.
This saying finally clicked for me this summer, however. The Forum used to be much like my old job – where the majority of the work was funded by state dollars. Then in 2012, the legislature cut the Teaching Fellows program and that all changed. The Forum had to diversify their funding and the work they did to stay alive. It’s a process that is still ongoing and that I got to be a part of.
One thing that made this hit home for me was the understanding that development being “my” responsibility doesn’t mean I have to be the one making the ask, or building donor relationships. There is much more to the process that is nonprofit development than these steps. The roles and responsibilities within development are much more diverse and include things like record keeping, proofreading, conducting donor research, and – perhaps most importantly – doing the high-quality programmatic work that other people and organizations want to fund.
- Rely on research and best practice when designing programming.
Every program I interacted with at the Forum was well researched and developed based on what was described in the literature as being most effective. This research and development was completed not only by Forum staff but also through their Study Group program, which brought together stakeholders from many sectors to think through wicked problems in education – such as poverty, trauma, and racial inequality.
Nonprofit work is sometimes seen as the “soft” or “touchy-feely” sibling of the public and for-profit sectors. After seeing the amount of research and planning that goes into nonprofit administration, however, I think this stereotype is undeserved.
- Learn to write well. When you think you’ve mastered it, continue learning.
Whether it was researching and drafting memos to answer legislator questions, writing up research findings, or editing and revising grant applications, writing was always on the agenda. Being able to be clear, concise, and match the language to the audience were all vitally important.
I came into this internship feeling fairly confident about my writing abilities, but I still picked up new skills along the way – like improving memo introductions, and transforming a memo into a news article. While some of these particular skills may be more relevant to research or policy, strong writing skills are essential to nonprofit work in general, as writing grant applications, updates, and evaluations are often one of the main ways the organization gains funding and showcases their success.
- Teamwork and flexibility are essential mindsets.
I wrote in my first blog post about starting my internship during a week where the Forum hosted a gala event. During that week of final preparation, the office had the electricity of an “all hands on deck” effort. Staff members jumped into different roles where needed to ensure the event went off without a hitch.
While teamwork is perhaps most visible during a large event, it was also interwoven into the everyday life and work of the organization, making the products and outcomes stronger. No grant application or report was any one person’s responsibility. There may be primary writers, but other sets of eyes always helped refine and improve the document.
Along with teamwork, flexibility is also important to ensuring effective operations. As an intern, I had to exhibit flexibility to jump in on a task or meeting when needed, or to accept edits and revisions to products. I also saw other staff members exemplify flexibility with each other as legislative priorities shifted and tasks were reorganized. The organization would not have been as effective without this type of collaboration.
I am so thankful for the experience and relationships I have gained from my time at the Public School Forum. I feel I am leaving this experience with a greater understanding of not only education policy and climate in North Carolina, but also of how to be an effective public servant.