Frequently, people come to me looking for advice about how to find a job with a nonprofit organization. My guest, Patton McDowell, and I speak about how to do it.


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Jeff Altman 00:01
So, my guest today is Patton McDowell. Patton has spent his 30-year career helping talented individuals effectively lead nonprofit organizations. The founder of PMA consulting, he and his colleagues have worked with the leaders of over 240 organizations in every nonprofit sector that especially enjoys coaching aspiring leaders through his unique mastermind program and designing strategic plans, expanding fundraising programs, why nonprofits need fundraising anyway, right and training volunteer board leaders. He's also the host of the weekly podcast, your path to nonprofit leadership. Patton. Welcome.

Patton McDowell 00:44
Jeff, delighted to be with you. Thanks for the opportunity.

Jeff Altman 00:47
You're welcome and I'm looking forward to this and I have been for some time now. So, nonprofit, for profit, what are the misconceptions about working for a nonprofit. I know you should be able to do that in about 30, 35 seconds.

Patton McDowell 01:04
It may take us a few more than that, Jeff but I know you and I can unpack it and again, I'm delighted for the opportunity here because I love to get talented people to consider the nonprofit career path and so, I would be delighted for individuals and your listeners to consider it. But I do think there are misconceptions sometimes that here's number one. I volunteer for my favorite nonprofit. I have a wonderful feel-good Saturday experience with an event and perhaps think that would translate to a full-time job and so, number one, I would say be careful. Yeah, that your fun Saturday, volunteer experience is not necessarily what the full-time job would look like. So, just be careful that you might not be getting a full view.

Jeff Altman 01:51
And it's funny because I know of people who actually think that way and it's like, oh, we're going to the funhouse, we're going to have a party, working at a nonprofit is going to be a party too. Everyone's going to have fun.

Patton McDowell 02:07
Not always the case and again, I acknowledge, it's often well intentioned because the call is your supporting is a feel-good cause. Jeff, I worked for Special Olympics right out of college and so that many people have experienced that organization. They volunteered maybe when they were in high school or as an adult and it is a powerful, good experience and you get that working for the organization. But it's not just that volunteer experience that maybe some people are limited in their exposure.

Jeff Altman 02:39
It's funny. I've been involved with an International Men's nonprofit for a long time and I eventually rose to a role where I was leading their retreats. A fairly significant thing for that and there'll be people who come to staff them and work for me. They have a great time and for me, it was a job. I have a responsibility for the safety of everyone to come in, making sure we deliver a great experience for everyone. I'm looking at it at a high level and then down to the minutiae. That's not what people are doing when they're coming into the weekend.

Patton McDowell 03:12
Such a good point. They show up on that Saturday and using your example or mine. But you were working months before that day or that weekend for the retreat and that's, of course, what I'm suggesting that be careful that while your feel-good experience is important. It's not entirely what it would be like to work for that organization.

Jeff Altman 03:34
So true. How else do people have a misconception about working for a nonprofit?

Patton McDowell 03:41
You know, it sounds cliche but there's just a significant lack of resources, often, particularly those who I call lateral entries. They want to move from the corporate or for-profit sector into nonprofit and they just are hit with that reality of, wow, I don't have an HR person to call anymore. I don't have an IT person to help me. It is the same amount of work and with less resources and so, I think I have seen some unfortunate, nonprofit careers derailed early because they just didn't fully evaluate the challenge of trying to do this important work with significantly less resources.

Jeff Altman 04:22
And that's interesting because I know of quite a few wealthy nonprofits.

Patton McDowell 04:27

Jeff Altman 04:28
There's no (Inaudible 04:28). It's stupid money at times.

Patton McDowell 04:33
You're right. I would suggest that's at the high end of the pyramid in the nonprofit world, most nonprofits are operating into their credit with great efficiency. There's not a lot of wasted resource there. But you just have to be clear on that when you come in, you're going to have to roll up your sleeves and perhaps wear more hats than you did in a larger perhaps for-profit organization.

Jeff Altman 04:57
Is it equivalent to being in a startup environment? Again, limited resources, exceedingly long hours, how did the hours part of this work in as well?

Patton McDowell 05:10
Yes, great point and not to suggest that people aren't working long hours in any sector, including for profit. But yes, nonprofit can be in fact, a lot of my coaching with nonprofit leaders is preventing burnout, Jeff because they can work tirelessly especially with a cause that's so powerful. They just feel like they're not getting enough done and so, you have to be sensitive to that overload effect.

Jeff Altman 05:36
It's interesting. At the end, the idea of avoiding burnout.

Patton McDowell 05:43

Jeff Altman 05:45
Obviously, it exists everywhere. But given the fact that you raise this as a subject, it suggests it's even more acute and nonprofit that is in for profit. Am I reading that correctly?

Patton McDowell 05:58
You're absolutely right and again, I don't know statistics in every sector, but I know in particular, nonprofit fundraisers as you mentioned before, as a critical element to generating revenue are turning over at a rate of every 18 months in many nonprofits. So, imagine, not just the burnout effect of those individuals who were arriving and leaving quickly but it creates a whole problem with everyone else in the organization. So, if you're leading an organization and your team is constantly turning over that, of course, adds stress to your life. So, it's another of those misconceptions, Jeff that I think is worth mentioning,

Jeff Altman 06:37
And there is zeroed in on that one in particular, the fundraiser side of this because I've worked with fundraisers and helping them land the roles and you're right 18 months, was about what I was seeing in their bios, for how long they Rolandic. Sometimes less, rarely more.

Patton McDowell 06:55
It's sad but true. We parachute in talented people like you, and I've worked with but often the job description is not clear which is again among the advice you and I could offer listeners thinking, make sure the job description is clear. I see a lot of people hired in a quote, fundraising role. But that's not fully defined. Does that mean special event management. Does that mean Marketing and Communications, does that mean annual direct mail activity? Does it mean foundation and grant writing? I could unpack fundraising having done that job myself for 20 years. I'm still recovering from that. But you have to be clear because someone may describe it as, quote fundraising. But you need to ask good questions to assure you know what that means.

Jeff Altman 07:44
And the work that I do with people that's one of the things I always insist that they ask about the expectations in the role. How the firm's evaluate success over the first half.... I have a better language, the one I'm using now but over the first three months and over the first year, an individual has a sense of how they're going to be evaluated and that lays out what the expectations are that allows them to deeper dive into areas and understand how they're going to be measured and what success is going to look like. But so often without that kind of coaching, people walk in with that happy smile button face only or have the smile, just wipe it off.

Patton McDowell 08:28
It's such good advice, Jeff that you're suggesting because I think I'm being intentionally provocative because there are exceptions. But most nonprofits do a poor job of orienting new talent and I say that with some degree of respect because if the executive director is overloaded to start with, they often are so excited to get the new person in. They're like, good, glad you're here, get started and then that lack of orientation, unfortunately, I think sets things in motion that may not work out and thus, we lose them 18 months later.

Jeff Altman 09:02
Unless if you were advising a fundraiser and then we'll get off this topic to hold on to some other things. But if you were advising a fundraiser on the way in the door, knowing that the executive director is overtaxed and isn't going to orient them, well, what would you advise them to do in order to, shall we say, onboard themselves that's really what's going to be?

Patton McDowell 09:27
That's exactly what I'd say. You need to create, be responsible for your own orientation. Take the job description in whatever format it is and break it down. I think executive directors would delight. If you were to come in and say okay, I see that I'm in charge of A, B and C. Let's break that down. Let's hopefully they've gotten some good data before they arrived as to what those functions achieved in the previous year or years. But if you're not getting that orientation, make one for yourself who are the 10 people you need to meet associated with the organization. So, if I'm a fundraiser, I want to know individual philanthropists. I want to know corporations and sponsors. I want to know foundations and grant sources so that I understand the kind of ecosystem in which I'm going to have to operate.

Jeff Altman 10:15
In this, how much of this should you do on the way in versus once you arrive. Could you offer some insights?

Patton McDowell 10:23
They should be on your list of questions, Jeff, in the interview process. You're exactly right. I want to hear stories from the hiring agent if you will. Tell me about the individual philanthropists that support your nonprofit. Tell me about those corporations. How did those relationships build and what do we need to do to make them even stronger? If you can't get good answers then maybe you should be careful about following through and actually accepting the job.

Jeff Altman 10:53
Here's the last thing folks you want to do is to step in and to use this old expression. These are one armed paper hanger without understanding the way the wallpaper is supposed to be laid out.

Patton McDowell 11:04
I have seen recovering one armed paper hanger is indeed and it's a shame because the intentions are good. I think on both sides. But the connectivity doesn't occur.

Jeff Altman 11:15
Yeah and that's part of the overwhelm of the environments that are other resource they know. Where else do people arrive with misunderstandings or misconceptions about working in nonprofit?

Patton McDowell 11:29
Well. I think they struggle with clarity about exactly what the job is. Sometimes I see a loss in translation between, let's say, if I were in sales in a for profit sector, thinking that will automatically transfer to philanthropic or fundraising activity and indeed, there are skills that are transferable. But what I found sometimes that inhibits progress is understand the vocabulary of the nonprofit sector and not just to be respectful to your new boss or potential new boss. But you do need to understand that funders speak slightly different language around what I would call a philanthropic cycle of activity. Now, is it similar to a sales cycle and a for profit venture. Sure. But I talked to a lot of nonprofit leaders, like yeah, I think this person might be good. But I wish they had translated a little bit better how their relationship management skills would apply to our nonprofit because it is Jeff about relationships whether it's sales, whether it's fundraising, whether it's grant applications. It is about that but do your homework and because we can talk about that. But that's where I'm suggesting people can get better.

Jeff Altman 12:47
And thus, let's go into that because I think it's great stuff. Let's talk about some of the language and how to translate it from for profit to nonprofit. So, this reminds me of conversations, I've had with people leaving the military.

Patton McDowell 13:05

Jeff Altman 13:06
Now, when you leave the military, there's military speak in the civilian speak and it's military behavior and civilian behavior. I tell the military guys, you're used to hard work with the civilian sector considers hard work, you're going to laugh at.

Patton McDowell 13:23
That's such a good point and a great comparison.

Jeff Altman 13:26
Thank you and thus, could you offer some comparisons in vocabulary and how do you express the for-profit work. I mean, you just mentioned one in passing there to the nonprofit space?

Patton McDowell 13:43
Again, understanding the different roles of philanthropy that when you go into discuss, it sales in a for profit venture. It can be broken down differently in nonprofit. How you attract and invite investment from individuals is different than seeking a corporate sponsorship for your nonprofit which is different, again, from seeking a grant from a foundation. So, simply understanding their different types of revenue streams coming into nonprofit would illustrate that you get it that it's not one size fits all in terms of revenue generation. How you appeal to those individuals, how you appeal to the companies that alone would get you. I think a head start on someone else who is really looking at a one size fits all approach.

Jeff Altman 14:30
So, for example, someone who's done proposal writing that may translate into grant writing. Someone who's involved in business development work might be more involved in philanthropic cultivation. Now the farmer in sales versus the hunter in sales, the farmer might work very well in that philanthropic cultivation.

Patton McDowell 14:58
Absolutely and it's important, Jeff, as you pointed out earlier, do your homework understand where the revenue comes from for the nonprofit about which you're seeking a job. In other words, are they largely dependent on grant funding then yeah, you need to come in and talk about how your proposal writing skills would apply to their grant world? But however, if this organization is largely dependent on individual and family foundations then that might be a different mindset and a different approach and therefore, you translate according to where their revenue already comes from.

Jeff Altman 15:33
And for those who aren't familiar with the term Family Foundation, we're all headed in family office.

Patton McDowell 15:41
Well, and it's important to note and you know this but in the nonprofit sector, there's about $400 billion given away in the United States each year. 80% of it comes from individuals and families and sometimes through their family Foundation's. But the point is that's why I'm always suggesting you want to be conversant in individual relationship building because that's where the money is and nonprofits need to focus on that not to dismiss the big foundations, the grants, the corporate sponsorships, the money's with individuals and so your understanding of that dynamic will help you be more successful.

Jeff Altman 16:20
And thus, any place where you have sold into that market. Into that clientele, into those organizations seems like it would serve you to present that type of nonprofit whose funding sources come from those organizations.

Patton McDowell 16:38
So, it's a great point. You can always connect the dots. Do your homework, again. You're talking to a nonprofit who currently sponsors them. you may well have connections within those organizations, reach out to them, talk to those corporate sponsors or families that you might know, why do they give to the nonprofit that you're seeking employment and understand that dynamic. Think about how powerful that is to go come into the interview and say, well, yes, in fact, I do know XYZ Corporation. I've worked with them, or I know some of the leadership and that Family Foundation, it allows the nonprofit leader to say, okay, I see this person could translate their skills and their network in a way that will benefit our nonprofit.

Jeff Altman 17:21
And I'm going to jump on that last word you threw in there, your network.

Patton McDowell 17:27
Indeed and if you're getting into the nonprofit space, strategically expand your network. I would say before you go interview for a job with a nonprofit, talk to somebody who's doing that job at an equivalent nonprofit across town. That would give you some great advice and often nonprofit leaders are willing to share their story if you're respectful in the outreach. So, if I'm interviewing for a fundraising job at one organization, I'm going to look and see who else is in that sector and go talk to the fundraiser who's working for a different but similar nonprofit. I guarantee he or she will give you some great insight to talk about their challenges and opportunities. Therefore, your network appears even stronger when you interview.

Jeff Altman 18:14
And I'm going to play the ignorant applicant for a while. Why would they talk to me, if I'm going to go talk, now try to find another organization does the same work that they do?

Patton McDowell 18:29
Most nonprofits have unique subsets of funders and so, I would say, it's not a minimal kind of environment. In turn, there's an abundance mentality to most nonprofits and so, in fact, if you reached out and said, "hey, I'm impressed with what you're doing over there. I'm exploring something over here at a different organization. I would almost guarantee there'd be a willingness to have some conversation not as competitive in other words, Jeff, is I think, sometimes the for-profit sector can be.

Jeff Altman 19:03
Agree. knowing your work, you obviously work with boards. You work with leaders in organizations, what are the challenges that they're facing that you can share without being specific to any one organization that would allow someone to understand what they might be stepping into?

Patton McDowell 19:24
The biggest challenge, I guess, on a board side sometimes is prioritizing nonprofits spread too thin which in fact, leads to some of the turnover issues we talked about. If the organization does not have clarity and much of my work is in fact strategic planning and achieving kind of prioritization. There's so much to be done in the sectors whether it's healthcare, education or arts and culture, you have to find focus and that focus though leads to not only more success, but I think greater attraction and retention of talent, If I know what I need to do when I get here and so that, to me is a challenge that nonprofits can help themselves and in fact, a benefit of that will be talent retention.

Jeff Altman 20:12
Do they tend to fear missing opportunities because of the idea of focusing or do they just breathe a sigh of relief that someone has channeled their energy in one particular way?

Patton McDowell 20:27
I think it's sometimes a little bit of both. But I think you're right, the majority is relief at clarity. But occasionally, there's that well but are we going to miss out. FOMO, here is a reality. Particularly if a board member comes in and says, "well, I saw that a big funder gave a lot of money to that other nonprofit across town and shouldn't we then chase that same money and of course, my counsel is almost always don't chase the money, focus on your strategic priorities". The money will come to you, the right money. But unfortunately, sometimes organizations fear they're going to miss out and then they spread themselves too thin and create an environment they can't escape.

Jeff Altman 21:08
Right. We're back to that paper hanger again. What other sort of misconceptions exist for people who are looking at nonprofit?

Patton McDowell 21:22
They don't fully understand the increasing depth to the profession that it's not just what maybe 20 years ago, people thought, "well, I can volunteer and fundraise" that fundraising, for example is in fact a profession there is certification. The CFR a certification is an example. That is internationally accredited study and recognition and so, I think that's something I would point out that some people think they can walk into.... You wouldn't walk into an accounting job, or you wouldn't walk into a legal career without having to do the appropriate and requisite study. But I would suggest the nonprofit profession is increasingly professional. In its dynamic, there are increasing number of college and even graduate programs now in nonprofit leadership, management, fundraising and so, I think sometimes a misconception. Now, again, I don't want to scare anybody off, but I just don't want them to walk in and think, "Okay, well, I can do that. Because I read a brochure about fundraising and I'm ready to go".

Jeff Altman 22:28
And that's the way amateurs behave and I say it right away, folks because so many of you from a job-hunting perspective, I see it all the time and it's not specific to nonprofits. It's about every sector, you're amateurs about it and the research that you do is very thin. Your preparation before interviews is even thinner and the result you walk in, you get blindsided which we do doing transitions from for profit to nonprofit. The last thing in the world you want to do is to come across as an amateur who's blindsided by some of the things that you'd be walking into.

Patton McDowell 23:07
Even if you get in the door, Jeff, at that point, you're going to struggle sooner than later. So, that's why I'm glad you and I are bringing it up now that you just don't want to get into a situation that you're going to fail ultimately.

Jeff Altman 23:20
And that's the key thing, you get hired, you wash out.

Patton McDowell 23:25
That's the risk.

Jeff Altman 23:27
And you don't want to do that, obviously. You're betting the farm on a transition like this and thus, in betting the farm again, a great metaphor.

Patton McDowell 23:37
Yeah, I love that. But it's appropriate.

Jeff Altman 23:40
You're pushing all your chips. Chips into the center of the table, another good one that allows you to say, I'm gambling everything on this and I love when people do it. But they're calculated about it.

Patton McDowell 23:54
And that's why I'm glad you do this so well through your programming and content. Do your homework and among the advice I offer someone in these areas is to avoid exactly what you said that burnout effect.

Jeff Altman 24:09
Now, time is always finite here. I want to make sure we cover everything that we should. What haven't we covered yet that we really should in giving people a sense of what it's like a nonprofit, how to find work in nonprofit? Actually, we haven't talked about how to find work and nonprofit?

Patton McDowell 24:28
Right segue.

Jeff Altman 24:30
I'm just so skillful.

Patton McDowell 24:32
You're good at this, Jeff. It's clear and that leads to a point, I make to someone who comes to me says you know what, Patton, "I'm thinking about making the jump, tell me what I should do". Alright, here's what I say, "strategically network". What I would try to do is find two or three persons in your community who are doing a job you think you would like to do. It's kind of what you and I were talking about earlier. So, even before you get to interviewing anywhere, talk to a few because you may find their distinct differences. Speaking of misconceptions, Jeff, working in healthcare, philanthropy and nonprofit is different than education different, again than arts and culture or a faith-based organization. Talk to some people who are doing the work, not just go and volunteer one day but talk to people that is doing the work and I think that will help. Maybe strengthen your resolve to work in the sector which is great. But it also may raise some good questions for you to ponder.

Jeff Altman 25:29
And my big thing about that is, people have fantasies about what it's like to do something.

Patton McDowell 25:35
It's a good way to put it.

Jeff Altman 25:36
And the reality between what it's really like and the fantasy can be fairly stark. It's better to do it on the way in when you're first dating.

Patton McDowell 25:47

Jeff Altman 25:48
You got married and you go, "Oh, I made a terrible mistake".

Patton McDowell 25:51
While speaking of dating Jeff that leads to some other advice, I always offer strategically volunteer and what I mean by that is, yes, do the fun day, a volunteer event with your family on a Saturday whatever the fab k run, the gala event. But if you really want to better understand the organization, talk to some staff about volunteering on a more extended basis, join a committee, join the board, volunteer for an initiative that requires multiple weeks or months to get to know staff and board on the inside. That is significantly different. I believe, again using my special Olympics example, it's one thing to show up and hand out Awards on a Saturday. It's another thing to be on the games committee that starts meeting six months earlier and as a volunteer then you'll get a better idea of what it's really like to work before actually getting married and working there full time.

Jeff Altman 26:50
It is unfortunately in the United States, one attitude marriages ends in divorce and you don't want to be that statistic professional.

Patton McDowell 26:58
Indeed, such a good point.

Jeff Altman 27:00
Thank you. Throwing out a lot of good points in my direction and you're making a lot too. I should someone do in order to prepare for exploring or getting that job with the nonprofit.

Patton McDowell 27:14
A part of strategic networking, in addition to identifying individuals that work in roles that you aspire to work. Identify the community networking organizations. In other words, almost every community has a united way. Has a Community Foundation, has an association for Fundraising Professionals chapter? Thank identify who those organizations are. They have events, they have networking opportunities. They are great opportunities to learn, meet people and often find out about job openings. So, I'm in Charlotte, North Carolina. I'm always steering people to those Charlotte based entities, so that they can learn and network and I would suggest that something to that. Look at your local community colleges and universities for their nonprofit curriculum. I guarantee it exists somewhere. Often those programs are also hubs for nonprofits seeking talent and final point there Jeff is think about enrolling in a class yourself. You don't have to go through a degree program to maybe take a course or to strengthen your knowledge and by the way, you probably find some good networking opportunities as a result from registering for a class that's taught by nonprofit leaders in your community.

Jeff Altman 28:44
You find that the online classes again, putting aside the networking aspect of right class, are there online classes that are available that you're aware of that you give any credence to?

Patton McDowell 28:57
Absolutely and again, I'll use the AFP Association for Fundraising Professionals. There's an international component. You can just go to that website and find out more of their courses both paid and free and as well as most of the local chapters, AFP offers right now, of course, many of them are still in a hybrid mode. But once they get back out, you may find more in person but yes, there is good online content that you should absolutely take advantage of.

Jeff Altman 29:28
This is fabulous. Last check, anything that we should cover.

Patton McDowell 29:33
I think, I'm looking back at my notes here. Oh, be a student of job descriptions. Jeff, that's kind of one of my advice points. You and I talked about earlier understanding the job and what I encourage people to do and I my mastermind program, I have them identify what are their ideal jobs, seek out job descriptions that match the ideal job and really study it for what it tells you because I think a lot of times, first time applicants don't read the fine print and it's things that you can learn and understand what organizations are asking for. So, you can better translate your skills to address their needs.

Jeff Altman 30:17
And thus, a specific question about doing that for a resume. So, in the example of grant writing as part of what you're trying to demonstrate and your proposal writer and for profit, would you in parenthesis, put the phrase grant writer or grant writing or grant writing equivalent in words, who's number one, half the keyword show up but number two, transit translation for them.

Patton McDowell 30:47
Absolutely. Right and good example, Jeff, of using the nonprofit vocabulary in your resume, in your LinkedIn, in your other kind of social media profile information so that you translate more quickly to a nonprofit setting because the skills there. I don't want you to lose it because you didn't say grant writing and you use corporate speak instead.

Jeff Altman 31:11
Beautiful. Patton this has been fabulous. How can people find out more about you in the work that you do?

Patton McDowell 31:16
Find me on LinkedIn, Patton McDowell is my name and my website is a great way to see more about our firm and the work we do both with nonprofit organizations and with individuals. You were nice to lift up the mastermind program for your listeners that are in the nonprofit sector. That has been the most rewarding thing I've done over the last two years. We're bringing together nonprofit talent and putting them together in a virtual environment, so they can in a safe space, explore career development. So, that may be of interest to those of your listeners already in the sector and then thanks, like, when they're listening to you, Jeff, they may also want to listen to your path to nonprofit leadership. Thank you for lifting up my podcasts. What might be helpful to those pondering nonprofit leadership is, I'm talking to nonprofit leaders every week and one of the questions I often ask them, what are you looking for when you hire and so, for someone pondering the profession, listen to some of the podcast episodes. You may get some insight as to what nonprofit leaders are hiring for and thus, maybe sharpen your case accordingly.

Jeff Altman 32:27
Excellent. Patton, Thank you and folks, we'll be back soon, with much more. I'm Jeff Altman, The Big Game Hunter. Hope you enjoyed today's show. If you're watching on YouTube, click the like button. If you listen to his podcast, please feel free to share it as you might with the video as well. It does help other people discover the show connect with me on LinkedIn at Mentioned that you saw this because I just like knowing I'm helping some folks and I've also said my website has a ton of great information that will help you with job search hiring more effectively managing and leading and workplace related issues as well. You can go to the blog there, go exploring, it's a ton there and if you're interested in my coaching, you can schedule time for a free discovery call or schedule time for coaching. I'd love to help. Hope you have a terrific day and most importantly, being great. Take care, I just stop the recording.


Jeff Altman, The Big Game HunterJeff Altman, The Big Game Hunter is a coach who worked as a recruiter for what seems like one hundred years. His work involves career coaching, as well as executive job search coaching, job coaching, and interview coaching. He is the host of “No BS Job Search Advice Radio,” the #1 podcast in iTunes for job search with more than 2000 episodes.

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