Do silicon valley style nonprofits (or for-the-public-good companies) exist?
April 12, 2010 4:13 PM   Subscribe

Can NGOs get beyond the dollars and cents of fundraising and really be creative, dynamic, fun places to work? Is it wrong to want to work for a Threadless/startup-style nonprofit? Also: Am I just asking the wrong questions?

When I read this post on Signal vs Noise I thought about the fact that I've never heard of a nonprofit that is run like 37signals - or like any sort of Silicon Valley style organization where individual creativity is valued above raw need to raise the dollars and cents. Perhaps I'm overlooking some fantastic exceptions (please correct me if I am), but as far as I know, nonprofits and social entrepreneurs are beholden to the financial stakeholders that donate the money.

Granted, I know of quite a few organizations that listen well to their constituent audience, and are dynamic to the needs of the population they serve. But I know of none with social media savvy or exciting work environment that values creativity and fun while balanced with real work like Threadless.

Maybe it's just a fact that nonprofits must be inherently lean organizations with never enough cash to bring about the dynamic, entertaining and interesting working environment. Maybe I'm being selfish for wanting to work full-time for the public good while having a blast going to my job every day. Maybe it's just inappropriate to combine a working environment like the one I'm describing with public service. But I doubt it.

I would bet that an organization like I'm talking about already exists, or that there's a bunch of them. If so, I've never heard of 'em.

Please, please, let me be wrong. If I'm missing some amazing startup style nonprofits (or for-the-public-good companies) let me know. I'd love to be corrected on this one.

Also: Am I just asking the wrong questions?

posted by Political Funny Man to Work & Money (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
In all the nonprofits I've worked for over the years - seven? eight? - individual creativity is valued insofar as it serves the needs of the population the nonprofit serves (disabled people, homeless people, animals at shelters, art programs in schools, etc.). Nonprofits I've worked for have certainly been concerned about fundraising, but depending on the size of the organization, you may never have to deal with that aspect, as it's handled by the development department.

Nonprofits are also accountable to their boards, which 37signals may not have.

Honestly, though, I'm not sure I understand what you mean by "having a blast going to my job every day." I've worked for small for-profit companies that were NO FUN AT ALL, and nonprofits that were awesome.
posted by rtha at 4:30 PM on April 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @rtha: You might be right that I need to rethink my question: I guess it's more "how do you find a nonprofit that's a blast to work for?" (size or age of said organization nonwithstanding).
posted by Political Funny Man at 4:38 PM on April 12, 2010

I would look into nonprofits started by or funded by people who made their fortunes via internet startups.
posted by Jacqueline at 4:45 PM on April 12, 2010

You may be best at a place like ActBlue or Kiva.
posted by rhizome at 4:49 PM on April 12, 2010

I think you might be idealizing the Silicon Valley working style a bit too much.

Maybe it's just inappropriate to combine a working environment like the one I'm describing with public service.

No, but the working environment you describe doesn't really exist. Sure, people who work for start-ups don't face the same problems and frustrations that you do, but start-ups have their own dysfunctions. These can be even more frustrating, because the official company line is "Working here is a blast!" In reality, this is just a marketing/motivational tool they use to attract talent and keep their employees working hard, and what happens behind the scenes, in the board room where millions of dollars are at stake isn't quite as friendly, it's much more like the ruthless capitalism we all know and love.
posted by AlsoMike at 5:01 PM on April 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

In my experience the non-profit environment that most resembles a technology startup is the political campaign. You get to work grueling hours on a shared undertaking with a combination of very smart and not-so-smart people. There's sophisticated use of technology, including some of the most advanced uses of social networking technology. You develop, deploy, and refine in a vary rapid cycle, learning throughout the course of the campaign. There are many operational functions, each of which requires its own blend of creativity and hard work; these operational functions need to be coordinated by people who understand the overall goals and missions.

Political campaigns and high-tech startups are exhilarating and exhausting. They will leave you pumped up or devastated, depending on how things work out. You'll be working seven days a week for eighteen hours a day. You'll get to know what your coworkers smell like when they haven't showered or brushed their teeth, and what they look like when they have shaved or maybe changed their clothes in the last 24 hours. You'll eat too much pizza and drink too much coke.

If you work at a startup there's a minuscule chance you'll end up wealthy and/or able to say you've changed the world. Chances are you won't do either, but you'll have some fun (hopefully) and educational (hopefully) experiences along the way. If you work on a political campaign, you won't make much money at all and will likely end up poorer than when you started, but you'll have a reasonable chance of changing the world, at least in a small localized way.
posted by alms at 5:46 PM on April 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

What's your skillset? The company that I work for is hiring, and is one of those great places where there's both a crazy startup mentality (creativity, long hours, tons of progress), and an emphasis on doing good (used to be a nonprofit, nobody's working for the paycheck, we only work for world-saving organizations). There are some other cool companies like this on the west coast, like meedan.
posted by tmcw at 7:33 PM on April 12, 2010

individual creativity is valued above raw need to raise the dollars and cents

The vast majority of workplaces (perhaps all?) adhere to this in only the following sense: individual creativity is valued above raw need to raise the dollars and cents for those being paid a lot and/or in leadership positions.

If you're not in one of those positions, it doesn't matter if you're working for Timothy Leary's Electric Kool-Aid Explosionganza. You will be doing gruntwork.

Also, having a blast at work does not necessarily equally skadilly-dat workplace creativity etc. Creative workplaces are typically under intense pressure to perform and deliver; the results of failing to can be immense, personally, and for the company. In addition they can be very competitive _internally_ (i.e. with your team-mates) as well as externally, which can be really unpleasant, especially when the creative ideas that get valued and rewarded may not be the ones with the most merit.

I'm not saying what you're looking for doesn't exist, but I would be wary about rules and generalisations about fun and creativity in the workplace.

FYI, more concretely. Some of the NGO's I've worked with have been very cutting edge and creative, because of said competition. Others have been like relics from the fifties. Try to look for NGO's that are realtively new, and have newish, youngish, dynamic leaders.
posted by smoke at 7:43 PM on April 12, 2010

I've never, never heard someone who works for a non-profit describe their work environment as "a blast to work for." Ever. Political campaigns (at least as far as my volunteer experience with them) come the closest to the environment you're describing, especially because a lot of times you end up with a lot of responsibility dropped into your lap very quickly.

However, in my career, I've always looked for organizations where I am performing the core duty of the organization. You say you want to help people, right? Can you actually help people, or are you looking for an administrative position within an organization that has staff that helps people? I mean, those jobs are important, too, but if your motivation is that you want a job where you're helping people, you may want to consider acquiring that specific helping-people skillset in the field you're interested in: in a "support" position, you may find yourself brimming with enthusiasm and ideas only to be told, "that's nice and all, but the need of our core staff are the most important here."
posted by deanc at 10:02 AM on April 13, 2010

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