Alyssa Sweet, Member Relations Specialist and Nonprofit Coordinator at Op4G, shares insights from 8 years of working in the nonprofit industry.
When you were a child and someone asked what you were going to be when you grew up, what was your answer? I can tell you that working for nonprofits was far from the top of my list. I thought I was going to be the coolest teacher around. Yet somehow, nonprofit work found its way into my heart in the form of museums. Through life's twists and turns, I have spent the past 8 years working at a handful of different museums, and interning with several archives and historical societies. It was no surprise to my parents when I declared I wanted to focus on museum education in college. My childhood had been filled with vacations focused on battlefields and historical centers instead of amusement parks and beaches. When I had a realization that my childhood dream of being a teacher was not a great fit for me, museum education seemed like the perfect solution.
My journey from that moment was a path of varying opportunities, leading me to working with our nonprofit partners here at Op4G. I have worked with nonprofits of all sizes, from a small 2-person staffed historical society to a major museum in Boston. And while almost all the nonprofits I have worked with have different ways of operating, varying budgets, and contrasting missions, they all share some core similarities.
Nonprofits Have Passion
The most memorable people I have met in nonprofits radiated with a passion, constantly striving to meet the goals of their nonprofit. They have felt so strongly about why their organization’s work is important, that it was hard not to get excited about it in their presence. I once worked with a historical museum educator that was ecstatic about the importance of flax in Southern Maine during the 18th Century, a subject that normally would bore me to sleep. She was so passionate about how flax played into everyday lives, that it easily spread to the students who visited the museum. I often heard older students reminiscing about the activities regarding flax. And to this day I get excited thinking about how flax is turned into linen.
Nonprofits need this level of passion. Running a nonprofit is not an easy task, often requiring long, strange hours with little pay. From my experience, passion is what can carry an organization through those long nights and challenging days. It provides that extra special push to keep moving forward, even when the obstacles feel impassable.
A passionate team also directly influences the way supporters and donors view a nonprofit. I have experienced a few organizations who had a staff member or two that were tired and did not contain the fiery passion they once had. It showed when they were interacting with the public, and I watched people walk away, bored and unimpressed. This is why it’s crucial for every organization to have a dedicated and passionate team backing their mission.
Nonprofits Have Community
Where would a nonprofit be without its community? Nonprofits exist with the purpose of adding to the community, providing something that is beneficial and inspiring. Looking at my experiences, the most successful nonprofits resonate well with their community. They continuously listen to what the community needs, and mold their organization around it.
For example, the last nonprofit I worked for provided a place for children and families to visit and engage in interactive educational play and activities. While there were several wealthy towns surrounding this nonprofit, they understood that there were many more areas where families struggled financially. This led to their determination to make sure that children from all financial backgrounds would benefit. This included creating different admission programs offering lower prices, grants for Title One schools to visit on field trips for free or at a discounted rate, and visiting classrooms to hand out books and free pass vouchers.
While nonprofits work to support their community, communities can in turn provide their own support. I have found that every nonprofit I have worked with has volunteers from the community that are happy to assist by donating much needed supplies, resources, or time. Making connections with other local nonprofits is also a great way open up opportunities to gain additional supporters and resources. Almost all the nonprofits I have worked with have also been part of community festivals or events, which helps to raise awareness and further build connections within the community. Once a nonprofit demonstrates how they will support their community, they will find that the community will return the favor.
Nonprofits Have Adaptability
The smallest museum I ever worked for was on the outskirts of my university campus. I started my sophomore year before it opened to the public, and continued working there until I graduated. While there was an initial boom of visitors for the first few weeks, the exhibit quickly quieted down. And I found that few visitors actually came. There was little activity from the public visiting, and even less from students visiting. When I left they had several great ideas for expanding, but did not have the support to do so.
While I no longer work with this museum, I still follow their story through social media and their newsletter. Throughout the past few years, they recognized that they were not meeting the needs of their current supporters or new potential supporters. Listening to both the university and town communities, they worked to change their approach. They started switching their exhibits more than once a year, and changing the subjects to reflect what the students and younger populations wanted to see. This includes hosting events, both fun and educational, that appeal to audiences in the community. And they changed how they market their events and exhibits, catering those specific audiences.
This nonprofit has done a wonderful job adapting their mission and operations to the needs of the community, instead of creating content for an audience that was not giving the necessary support. The nonprofit sector is a competitive environment that is constantly changing. Successful nonprofits understand that growing and gaining supporters sometimes means adapting to the community around them, rather than the community they wish they had. It’s important to occasionally take a step back and observe what is working and what needs to be improved on. Looking back at all the nonprofits I have been involved with, the most successful ones are constantly re-evaluating if they are meeting the needs of their community. And when they find something is not working, they adjust their plan.
I constantly find myself inspired by nonprofits. Throughout the years, I have discovered that the wonderful people who work in nonprofits are devoted and hard working, determined to make this world a better place. They work tirelessly to provide services and items that will enlighten lives and minds, even when little or no thanks is given in return. There is a certain passion and dedication that emanates from them when they talk about their work, inspiring others to get involved. With a passionate staff behind them, nonprofits find their calling within the community and support it the best they can. With any luck, the community will return the favor and will become an integral part of the nonprofit. This blanched relationship can help move the organization forward, adapting its methods to accomplish its goals. I have observed that nonprofits are always growing, continuing to spread the word about the amazing work that they do along the way.