Having started library school only this past January, I found out quickly how broad the profession can be. I found myself informally networking every other week with professionals in the tech sector, government records managers, digital archivists from across Austin, and several people who didn’t fit any sort of mold at all. I regularly came out of classes with new job titles to add to my Indeed alerts, but in doing so, I noticed a gap that no one around me seemed to be talking about.
Where were the nonprofits?
I worked for a nonprofit for almost 2 years and I cannot emphasize enough how gratifying it was for me to go to work and, to use a cliché, “make a difference.” The concrete impact my work had in the world was a huge motivator to get out of bed in the morning.
Nonprofits aren’t all sunshine and roses, of course. Budget cuts, unhappy clients, and the classic problem of low salaries abound. Behind these very visible problems, though, was a set of challenges that library school students are more than equipped to handle. So I did a research project about it and what you see here is an abbreviated set of my findings
(Standard disclaimer: this project was limited in scope—five nonprofits in only one city—and intended as the start to hopefully more research.)
Finding One: Nonprofits are starting to collect data, but they do it largely for two reasons: they have a vague idea that they should, and they have a set of metrics to deliver in their grant compliance reports. This results in a lot of data that no one has the time to deal with. Not only that, the majority of time gets spent (by necessity) getting whatever data makes the funder happy, whether or not that data actually can help staff improve programs. If a funder wants to know every detail about the participants who graduated the program, will you have time to put together a study about those who dropped out and why? Likely not, but how interesting and useful would that be?
When looking into this, I discovered a number of useful resources created by nonprofits themselves. The first was the State of Nonprofit Data Report, compiled by NTEN in 2012. The big takeway is the importance of leadership buy-in and working with other nonprofits to get to a place where data is a useful tool instead of extra work.
Finding Two: Nonprofits who provide social services tend to have some level of disparity between their staff and their clients. Dubose points out this problem, identifying a lack of non-white leaders, a lack of transparency about hiring practices, and a lack of outreach to other communities as problems. Project participants took this a step further, saying that different communication strategies were needed as a result of these disparities, and cultural competence training was identified as extremely helpful among one group who had gone through it. (Example: https://www.compasspoint.org/sites/default/files/documents/CP%20Cultural%20Competence%20Lessons%20FINAL%20RPT.pdf)
Finding Three: Institutional memory tends to be fairly short in nonprofits, thanks to a lack of succession planning policy and an increasing voluntary turnover rate. (Source: http://www.nonprofithr.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/2015-Nonprofit-Employment-Practices-Survey-Results-1.pdf) Several project participants said that when they were hired, no documentation existed about their jobs or what had been done previously, leading to frustration and redundant work. The literature revealed several important trends in workplace support – promoting healthy work habits and coworker support networks, as well as providing less traditional benefits like working from home – on top of instituting succession planning as good ways to relieve this problem.
Nonprofits represent in some ways the best part of our community, serving those who may be neglected by more profit-driven entities. Nonprofit staff members, across several interviews, seem to be drawn to this work because of the ability to make a difference, and they rarely let challenges keep them from delivering programs to change lives. One contributor insists that, “While we do complain about chaos… we’re able to get by [and] do what we need to despite the issues that we have. I also think that it has a lot to do with the kinds of people who are employed by nonprofits [who are] used to working in environments like that. We recognize barriers, but it’s not keeping us from doing our jobs.” The challenge now is to reward this commitment to improving the city with better systems that make programs more effective and broaden a nonprofit’s reach. Library students absolutely have the skills to tackle this.
Gina Watts started her MSIS at UT Austin in January of 2016, specializing in archives and records management. Overall interested in how information management can make a concrete difference in the world, she hopes one day to find that perfect job in a museum, a nonprofit, or the social-good tech world, where she can spend all day making sure information makes it to the right hands and makes an impact on the world.
Photo credit: “Tubular connection” by Ros Ottaviano, Flickr