Rich Peterson Questions Whether IT Careers with Non-Profits Are Profitable

Christine Williams is so busy recruiting technology professionals for the National Geographic Society, where she is
Manager of Staffing and Recruitment, that she barely has time to stop and talk about what it’s like for such professionals to work in non-profit organizations. But it is apparent that the market for IT professionals in that  segment of our economy is robust. What may not be so apparent is that non-profits can offer an attractive alternative for IT job seekers.

Williams doesn’t believe technology workers necessarily think of non-profits when they begin looking for positions. “They consider the big corporations first, or maybe they look for a technology firm,” she says. “Fortunately for me, many prospective applicants see the National Geographic name and choose to apply because of our worldwide reputation for superior quality and integrity of content. It also helps that the Society has a strong commitment to utilizing the most current technologies. We have a lot to offer a prospective employee.”

There’s certainly no lack of employers in the non-profit world, particularly in this area. The Baltimore/Washington corridor is home to thousands of non-profit organizations, from hospitals and universities to charitable foundations, small community organizations and very large groups, such as the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), with nearly a half billion dollars in annual revenues. Countless advocacy associations, such as the Humane Society of the United States and the US Chamber of Commerce, have their headquarters in the Washington area in order to have access to federal officials. Many large non-profit organizations, like the NAACP and International Youth Foundation, have recently selected Baltimore for their national headquarters, following organizations like the National Federation for the Blind and the American Urological Association that located their national headquarters there some time ago. These non-profits often have substantial operating budgets and relatively large staffs.

A recent study by Lester Salamon of The Johns Hopkins University demonstrated that nonprofits are a vital part of the economic engine that drives the state of Maryland. From 1989 to 1996, non-profit organizations accounted for half of the net new jobs that Maryland generated, with 35,000 new positions. More than 185,000 people in Maryland – about 8.4 percent of the total workforce – are employees in the non-profit sector. With wages of more than $5.3 million in 1996, they accounted for 7.4 percent of all Maryland wages that year. It’s likely that one would find similar statistics for the Northern Virginia and District of Columbia. Says Peter V. Berns, Executive Director of the Maryland Association for Non-Profit Organizations, which worked with Salamon to produce Private Action/Public Good Maryland’s Non-Profit Sector in a Time of Change, “When we talk about the vitality of our economy -in Maryland and throughout the Baltimore Washington corridor – we are not getting the full picture if we don’t include the non-profit sector.”

So, the employers are there. What does that have to do with you? The opportunities in non-profits abound for IT professionals. If you thought your job search should be confined to banking and finance, technology or distribution companies, you’re overlooking some interesting prospects.

First, you’ll find respect. Although there are exceptions, most non-profits have relatively small IT/IS staffs. You won’t be just another “tekkie” in the crowd. The skills and experience you bring to your internal clients will be appreciated, valued …and much in demand. LiAaron Johnson is the MIS Manager for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based family foundation with more than $1 billion in assets. “Technology is highly valued here,” he says of his three-person staff. “We’re like fire fighters. If we’re doing our job – preventing fires – we’re invisible. When we have to put out a fire, our internal customers really appreciate us.”

You’ll also find variety. “Associations like ours tend to be smaller enterprises,” says Michele Fantt Harris, Assistant Vice President of the 300-employee Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). “That means the IT professional has to be a jack of all trades.” Other employees at the AAMC tend to come from colleges and universities, so you might find an unusually technology-sophisticated group there.

Johnson confirms Harris’ observations. “You’re not pigeonholed into one thing, with just a small piece of a project, like some of my friends complain about their jobs. Our staff is cross-trained and we all participate in brainstorming for solutions.” It helps to have a variety of technology skills, although other in-demand specialties include web enabling, Y2K readiness, systems integration, database management, server technologies and others.

You’ll also find support for professional development. “We have a lot of diverse needs and individuals have a lot of opportunity to grow and broaden their capabilities beyond those they had when they joined us,” says Harris. Johnson adds that continuous training improves the “idea pool” and speed of problem-solving. In addition, his staff is very involved in training other employees to work with new technology. Last year’s complete changeover to a new grants management system, from a DOS-based system to an NT platform, was successful, in Johnson’s estimation, because training was required for every Casey employee before their equipment was updated.

When you join a non-profit, you will find that the organization’s mission is the primary driver for new technology, budget decisions and, often, for its corporate culture. At the Casey Foundation, technology is expected to support and enhance the Foundation’s mission of improving the welfare of children across the nation. Established by the family that founded the United Parcel Service (UPS), Casey has. formed partnerships and alliances across the globe and uses technology to maintain those relationships, often raising the level of technical sophistication of its partners. Says Johnson, “Since we’re a non-profit, our budgetary constraints center more around “What’s the most efficient technology to get this job done?” That can be a far more intriguing question to answer than “What’s the most we can spend on this project?”

While very small non-profits are often under severe budget constraints, you’ll find that salaries at the large and mid-size organizations are very competitive, with reasonable benefits packages and perks. Many technology employees of these groups will tell you that they find that they, too, become infused with the missions of their employers. When you combine that kind of job satisfaction with competitive salaries and benefits, you may just discover that a career with a non-profit organization pays big dividends for you.

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