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Experience an asset for nonprofits

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John Borrillo

Imagine a well-financed organization that has no staffing problems, plenty of qualified people to do the work, and plenty of resources, but everyone seems to be  failing to accomplish what they set out to do.

Think of for-profit businesses, where customers complain about routine tasks taking forever, long lines and poor service. (I always think of banks during lunch hour.)

Or worse yet, think of government bureaucracies.

Indeed, what is usually treated as either a funding or a human-resources problem ignores the crucial element of management– of how to organize resources, processes, people and tasks in ways that are efficient, effective and equitable.

In nonprofits, more than in for-profit businesses or government, the management problem is glaringly obvious because it is in the “voluntary” sector that inexperience is increasingly thought of as a virtue.

The trend in the financially-strapped nonprofit sector has been to keep salaries low, and costs down, by discounting experience in favor of “commitment,” “enthusiasm,” and what I call BBP — best and brightest potential.

I have noticed more and more young people with good technical skills, and virtually no experience or training in managing organizations, being rapidly promoted to mid and high-level executive positions.

The results are often disastrous.

But to be honest, and accurate, I have met ineffective managers of all ages and levels of experience.

The problem, I have come to believe, is less about demographics than it is about training: How are nonprofit managers trained? How many nonprofit managers are trained to be managers of nonprofits?

The answer, I suspect, is very few. And this is alarming.

It is alarming because, in nonprofits, we are not simply meeting a bottom line; we are typically providing vital services to vulnerable people.

Yet, even the most advanced training in core activities — social work in social services, medicine in health-care institutions or education in schools — does not ensure, and may actually work against, administrative best practices.

There is a difference, after all, between being an excellent practitioner or service professional and acting in the best interests of an organization, between being responsive to the needs of clients and formulating policies that will withstand external audits and legal challenges, between being committed to helping people and helping an organization to overcome the myriad obstacles that threaten its ability to carry out its mission and even its very existence.

At the very least, someone who commits the time, energy and resources to pursuing an advanced degree in public administration or some aspect of  nonprofit management has established that he or she takes the idea of management seriously  and wants to be better at it.

And so, there should be more professional managers at all levels, and more MPA’s working alongside the MSW’s, MD’s and MS.Ed’s who do the essential work.


John Borrillo is quality assurance manager at Community Counseling & Mediation in Brooklyn N.Y., and teaches public affairs and administration at the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College.

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