Three Critical Components of Nonprofit Job Satisfaction

I used to think that job success was all about doing good work. Along the way I learned that perceptions, relationships, politics and more actually have as much of an impact on your success within an organization as the quality of work you produce.

The ladies in my church used to say "Baby, just keep on living" whenever I hadn't yet had certain life experiences. Well I've been living a little longer, and I'm learning that job satisfaction, like success, is more than just about the work I do in my office day in and day out. It includes other factors that weigh equally, if not more, on my professional happiness.

Allow me to share in the order in which the epiphanies have come over the years.

The Role and Mission of the Organization

I love working. I love getting lost in a problem or task, and I love seeing results. When I chose a career out of college in management consulting I just knew it was going to be an awesome professional experience after college because the work of a consultant - for the most part - is really interesting. And it was.

Once I learned how much I enjoyed facilitation and strategic planning I made it a mission to pursue opportunities that allowed me to do more of that work. And when I was doing it, I couldn't be happier. What was missing for me was feeling connected to something bigger and more impactful.

Now that I work at a nonprofit, this aspect includes my role as it relates to the mission of the organization. I love working on something that contributes to the vision at large, whether it's serving more youth, creating a world free of sexual violence, or reaching more underserved entrepreneurs. That connection is what fuels me.

The People

In consulting I was pretty lucky. While many of my peers were stuck on projects for long periods of time, some with teams and managers who were unpleasant - I seemed to end up working with the best folks. I didn't realize how good I had it either until that lucky streak ended abruptly one day. I then spent nearly a year observing a lot of what-not-to-dos and experiencing lots of professional growth. The most valuable thing I learned is how much of an impact people have on your job satisfaction.

Doing interesting work is awesome. However, doing interesting work and having the opportunity to interact with intelligent, humorous, and interesting people on a regular basis is like a dream come true.

This is one area that can be difficult to assess prior to taking a new job. Sometimes we are lucky enough to know a few people within an organization, but very rarely do we have the opportunity to really get to know what a department or office is like. As I “keep living” I realize that it’s probably worth the extra networking time to get connected with as many employees within an organization as possible.

The Organization

When companies recruited us in college many of them would talk about their firm’s culture and the focus on “fit” during the interview process. I honestly thought that was their way of getting rid of anyone they didn’t like during the process for whatever reason unrelated to actual qualifications.

I've since learned otherwise. At my last job I thoroughly enjoyed participating in the hiring process of new analysts because in some ways it gave me a renewed respect for the organization. There was a lot of emphasis placed on a culture of collaboration and individuals who exhibited signs that they wouldn’t “fit” into that culture – e.g. cockiness – were often eliminated.

It’s important to learn as much about how an organization operates as possible. Start by observing their approach to hiring and interviewing you. What did the job description look like? What is your experience like communicating with them through the hiring process? Once you get to know more individuals in the organization start to learn more about how the office operates. What is daily communication like? How do employees socialize? How does management engage and communicate with staff? What’s the history of that office or department in the context of the organization’s history?

All of these questions – and more – give you a greater understanding of the organization’s culture. And while you’ll probably never fully grasp the culture until you’ve operated in it for several months, you can begin to get a sense of whether it’s a good fit for you. It may very well be the difference between being successful in your role and needing to find a new job before planned.