My Nonprofit High and Low: Both on the Same Day

Katya Andresen is hosting this month’s Nonprofit Blog Carnival where the theme is Nonprofit Highs and Lows, so I thought I’d share a story with you that several people have asked me about recently. If you want to know how Nonprofit Marketing Guide really got started, here’s the honest account.

Let’s flip back to March 2007 . . . way before the word “webinar” entered my daily vocabulary. It was only three years ago, but it feels like a lifetime.

Back then, I was consulting full-time for nonprofit clients, providing a variety of communications services. Though I was working with about six or seven clients at a time on average, one client, a national membership organization, represented about 75% of my workload and my income from 2003-2006. It seemed like a pretty sweet situation.

The executive director and I were friends from way back, long before either one of us began working for this organization. So while I wasn’t formally on staff, I was treated not only like the staff communications director, but also as a trusted confidante for the executive director. We had both worked in this particular field for a long time, so I knew many of the people on the board of directors and got along very well with the rest of the staff.

Then in 2006, several problems that had been isolated and somewhat independent started to coalesce. If you’ve worked in the nonprofit world for long, you’ll recognize many of these situations:

The organization developed some corporate partnerships, largely to secure much-needed funding, but some board members objected to these new relationships.

New staff were brought in to implement the programs these new partners wanted, but those staff had little history within the field. Some people considered these “fresh voices” and others considered them “flacks.”

Many people became concerned about mission-creep and where the organization was headed.

The executive director started confiding in a few select board members and funders, effectively shutting everyone else (including me) out of the conversations. What remained of our friendship quickly evaporated.

Board members on the outs with the executive director started calling me and other staff members to get information, and various dueling  camps formed within the staff and the board. Many ugly conversations took place.

By late 2006, I hated working for this client, and because they were my largest client, I hated my job. Because my work is so important to me, that meant I hated much of my life.

I knew I had two choices: I could either let the situation continue to drag on and end up having my contract terminated, probably by the summer of 2007, or I could take control of the situation and terminate the agreement myself. The first option was the financially prudent choice. It would have allowed me to continue receiving my biggest paycheck for a while longer, while I worked to pick up more clients.  But I would have been miserable for another six months.

So, I chose the second option. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it, but I registered the domain nonprofitmarketingguide.com on January 24, 2007 and gave my client six weeks notice shortly after that.

On my birthday, March 31, 2007, I was broke and not sure how I would pay our bills in the coming months. I also remember being completely overjoyed to be free of this huge, depressing burden and thinking that I had given myself the best birthday present ever: freedom to start anew.

It was my worst low in the nonprofit world, because I saw how the desperation that comes from inadequate funding and the lack of honest, consistent communication can tear organizations and people apart. It was my best high in the nonprofit world, because that’s also when I started to figure out the role I really wanted to play in the nonprofit sector.

It took the rest of 2007 for me to really understand what it was that I wanted to do with NonprofitMarketingGuide.com, and in December of that year, I launched what has grown into our weekly webinar series. Instead of working with a handful of clients each year, I get to work with thousands — everyone who attends one of our webinars or my in-person workshops — and I love every minute of it. Truth be told, I’m still paying off some of the debt that carried us through 2007. But it was the best money I ever spent.

So that’s my story. The lessons?

Don’t stay in a job you hate, especially in the nonprofit world, where you have so many opportunities to do work you truly love. When you see people keeping secrets from or gossiping about other staff and board members, either shine a bright light on the situation or get out fast. Change is always hard, but in my experience, it’s nearly always good.



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