5 Key Skills for Nonprofit Professionals to Develop

Quick Note from Diane:
We’re thrilled to have a guest blog for you from Matt Hugg of Nonprofit Courses. I’ve had fun sharing resources back and forth with Matt and digging deeper into some of our shared passions like talking about “Not Treating Your Grantmakers Like an ATM.” His take on skills for nonprofit professional to develop is right on point (spoiler alert, it *does* include building grant-related knowledge). We’re curious to know which of the 5 you think is YOUR strongest.


What defines a “skilled professional” in the nonprofit world? Yes, you need to know exactly how to fulfill your role and grow your abilities within it. That’s a given whether you work for a nonprofit, the government, or a business. 


But for nonprofit professionals, there’s a lot more to it than that. Your nonprofit’s staff and your constituents will look to you for professional abilities that can lead your organization through challenges and help sustainably grow your nonprofit, all without losing sight of your mission. Here are five of those vital skill areas:


  1. The skill to be a mission advocate 
  2. The skill of a “marketing eye”
  3. The skill of revenue generation
  4. The skill to spot ethical problems 
  5. The skill to handle money


Few nonprofit professionals will start work with a mastery of all of these skills. For most professionals, these skills develop over time and may even require dedicated training. Let’s dive into what each of these skills are in greater depth and how you can start developing them. 


1. The skill to be a mission advocate

Working for a nonprofit is more than a job, regardless of your position’s level, the nature of your work, or the size of your organization. For instance, if you work for a company that makes widgets, your neighbor probably won’t take more than a passing interest in your work. If you work for a nonprofit, you’re expected to be able to answer questions about your clients and how you impact their lives. 


Even more important, developing a level of expertise in your mission helps you be better at your job, even if you don’t work directly with your constituents. An accountant who understands the process of working with a homeless man is better able to assign expenses when allocating funding for the annual budget. A fundraiser who understands the experience of a student receiving financial aid is better able to advocate on their behalf for donations to create a scholarship. Digging deep into your mission recipient’s experience will always serve you well.


Knowing how to be a mission advocate can also keep you and your nonprofit out of trouble.


For example, Politician A might be a great supporter of your cause, sponsoring bills and making appearances that impact the lives of your constituents for the better. The race between Politician A and the opponent, Politician B is close, and you want to help. To avoid putting your nonprofit and your job at risk, you’ll need to know the difference between speaking for yourself and speaking on your nonprofit’s behalf. 


2. The skill of a “marketing eye” 

Marketing is advocacy and so much more. It’s how you serve clients, the contact information on your emails, the conditions of your organization’s waiting room, just to name a few.


Notice that advertising, logos and branding aren’t on that list. They’re marketing, too, but unless you are on your nonprofit’s marketing team, you probably don’t have control over those. Marketing is about how the public sees your entire nonprofit. You might be surprised at what you can do to improve this image, even if you’re not in an explicitly marketing-based role.


So, what’s a “marketing eye”? It’s the ability to look at your organization from an outsider’s point-of-view. For example, the flakey paint on your headquarters may have been there for so long, it hardly registers in your brain. But to a newcomer, it stands out as a symbol of deferred maintenance at best, or financial crisis at worst. 


This doesn’t just impact visitors and clients. Workers and volunteers feel the effects of good and bad marketing, too. Everyone wants to feel good about where they work. If your staff and volunteers see bad press in the paper, or shabby furniture in their office, it will be much easier to become cynical about their work, regardless of how important it is. 


3. The skill of revenue generation

There is no mission without the money to pay for it. This is true whether you run an all-volunteer, grassroots community service organization, or a billion-dollar hospital or university. 


One of the biggest “best kept secrets” in the nonprofit world is that most revenue comes from the same kind of sources that businesses use, like sales and subscription services. But nonprofits can do more, such as seek charitable gifts from private donors and apply to foundations for grants. It doesn’t matter what kind of revenue generation your nonprofit uses, understanding it, and better yet, aiding it, can boost your career and be a great service to your nonprofit. In fact, being useful in the revenue generation process, whatever it is, can help you keep your job.


Let’s take grants, as an example. Grants are much, much more than writing and filling out forms. Grants start with “grant preparedness.” 


For your grant, you need to understand who you are soliciting the funds from. You may be surprised to know that prospect research is a major part of the grant proposal process. Sure, you can apply to every nearby foundation, and waste your time and theirs with all the rejections. By homing in on foundations who fund missions like yours, in your area, at the amount you need, you’ll greatly increase your chances of earning funding. 


You’ll also need to educate your grant writer about your program and provide them with background material. Whether you hire an external grant writer or have a member of your staff fulfill the responsibility, no one can be expected to know every individual nuance of what’s needed to complete your grant and present your nonprofit in the best light. Your assistance here can be critical.


But it’s not just the writer who needs help understanding your nonprofit, it’s the funder. Are you there when they ask you for a demonstration of your work or a tour of your facility? Remember, funders are not omniscient gods. They’re intelligent people who may or may not have expertise in your field. You can be a major help in ensuring that they grasp the importance of what you do.


So, revenue generation isn’t just the mechanics of getting the money. Your skills, even if you don’t “sell” your nonprofit, can make a major difference. 


4. The skill to spot ethical problems

“Are you a good driver?” That was a trick question my driver’s ed teacher would ask. “Of courses you are,” he would answer his own question with more than a touch of sarcasm. “Everyone says they’re a good driver. But if everyone is a good driver, why do we have so many accidents?” It’s the same with ethics. When asked, everyone says “I’m ethical.” It’s the other person’s ethics that are suspect, right?


Ethics are huge in nonprofits. Why? Because nonprofit professionals hold the public’s trust to fulfill promises about the missions they serve. And it’s not just about money—although there are a lot of ethical issues in that sphere, as well. 


Ethics is about who your nonprofit serves, why you serve those people and not others, and how you serve anyone you deem “deserving” of your mission. 


Who and how you serve gets to the core of why nonprofits exist. Of course, you would see that racism, homophobia, gender discrimination, and the like are an unethical basis to determine whether someone gets served by a nonprofit. But how about not providing the most up-to-date services when you know that better are available? How about eliminating your services altogether and letting your clients fend for themselves? That may be morally repugnant to you, but is it unethical?


We tend to put ethics in the realm of money or human relations. We excuse ourselves by saying “I treat people well and don’t steal, so I am ethical.” It’s a lot more than that—just like driving!


5. The skill to handle money

You have an ethical responsibility to handle money well. Just as important is the practical reality of money management. It builds trust. 


Trust is the basis of just about everything you do in a nonprofit organization. Your clients trust that you have their best interests at heart and can care for their needs. Your staff and volunteers trust that their work is making a meaningful difference. Your funders trust that you are being good stewards of the money they provide. 


The most obvious among these are donors. Donors provide funds for a lot of reasons, and the basis of those reasons—from their social standing to a tax break to simply feeling good about themselves and more—is that they can trust what you are doing with their money. 


Does this mean you need to be so thrifty that you sacrifice the quality of your services or that you pay poverty wages? Not at all. (Back to ethics, above, right?) It means that you need to show that every dime was spent well and in the service of your mission.


You don’t need a degree in accounting to manage money well, either. While some accounting training could help, being able to tie every expenditure to a legitimate mission purpose is essential. 


Think of it this way. In a grant proposal having a clear spreadsheet is great. What’s better? Having a clear budget narrative. Explaining the “why” of what you spend is just as important as the numbers, themselves. 


These are just a few professional skills on what could be a much bigger list. Regardless of your formal role, nonprofit professionals need more skills than most because nonprofit professionals tend to have broad responsibilities and, with that, greater public accountability. It’s the burden and the fun of working for an essential mission, serving people who deserve its help.


Guest blog by Matt Hugg of Nonprofit.Courses

Matt Hugg is an author and instructor in nonprofit management in the US and abroad. He is president and founder of Nonprofit.Courses (https://nonprofit.courses), an on-demand, eLearning educational resource for nonprofit leaders, staff, board members, and volunteers, with thousands of courses in nearly every aspect of nonprofit work.  

He’s the author of The Guide to Nonprofit Consulting, and Philanders Family Values, Fun Scenarios for Practical Fundraising Education for Boards, Staff and Volunteers, and a contributing author to The Healthcare Nonprofit: Keys to Effective Management.

Over his 30-year career, Hugg has held positions at the Boy Scouts of America, Lebanon Valley College, the University of Cincinnati, Ursinus College, and the University of the Arts. In these positions, Matt raised thousands of gifts from individuals, foundations, corporations and government entities, and worked with hundreds of volunteers on boards and fundraising committees, in addition to his organizational leadership responsibilities.

Matt teaches fundraising, philanthropy, and marketing in graduate programs at Eastern University, the University of Pennsylvania, Juniata College and Thomas Edison State University via the web, and in-person in the United States, Africa, Asia and Europe, and is a popular conference speaker. He has a BS from Juniata College and an MA in Philanthropy and Development from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. Mr. Hugg has served on the board of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the Nonprofit Career Network of Philadelphia and several nonprofits.



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