Tag Archives: services

Where I fail: Balancing between billable hours and volunteerism

Balancing Stones

Inspired by Beth Kanter, I have been reading and reflecting intensively about how we cope with failure in the nonprofit/philanthropic sector.  Today, I’ve been asking myself what my biggest failure is as an nptech professional.

No contest:  it’s my failure to balance the work I do on a volunteer basis with the work I do for which I am paid.

It’s tough to say no to anyone in our sector who needs help and can’t afford a consultant.  Fortunately, I have a much-loved client, the Data Collaborative, that underwrites my time to provide strategic assistance for a selected group of nonprofits that would not otherwise be able to receive help.  Unfortunately, the number of hours of my time that they can underwrite is limited.

In fact, I hate to say no, and in a typical week I often put in twenty or thirty hours of unremunerated service.

The truth is that, if I didn’t have to charge anyone, I could put in sixty hours of work a week throughout the year with mission-based organizations, and still have a waiting list. 

The demand for my services is that high – even if the availability of funding to pay me is somewhat lower.

So the big fail is that in the last month or two I have neglected to balance all the work I do without charge with the proper number of billable hours.  This is a bad idea, and works against everyone’s interests.

Here’s why everyone loses if I don’t achieve more balance in my consulting practice:

  • If I don’t charge for my work, then I cannot pay for food, for rent, or for health insurance.
  • If I don’t have these basics, then I will die of starvation, exposure, or chronic illness.
  • If I die, my services will not be available to mission-based organizations who need me, for either love or money.

So here I am, acknowledging my failure to bear these basic economic realities in mind.

Now I’ll go a step further, and ask for help.  You can help keep me doing useful work, by referring potential clients to me who are both willing and able to pay for my services.

Thank you!

The agony of choice

I recently had both the pleasure and the pain of sitting in with a much-loved nonprofit, as its staff members interviewed several nonprofit technology assistance firms regarding a contract for services.  It was certainly a pleasure to find that my esteemed client organization had more than a few really strong options.

Here are a few thoughts that I took away from that series of interviews:

  • Local is good.  The client organization is all about social responsibility, and it would be good to know that the dollars that they spend on this contract – which is pretty big, by their standards – will go back into the local economy.  On the other hand, there’s always the risk that a great local business can be bought and swallowed up by a faceless mega-corporation.
  • Small is good.  I’d feel much better knowing that the staff of my client organization will be talking to the same small group of specialists at the NTAP’s help desk over time.  It’s not just about the relationships, but also about the intimate knowledge of the client’s infrastructure that the technology assistance firm’s team has in their heads when the phone rings.  A small firm with low turnover can offer that.  On the other hand, there’s always the risk that the small firm will be bought out by a much larger, much more impersonal one.
  • The “soft” stuff is good.  It’s not just about technical prowess.  A good personality, an ability to build relationships, and an eagerness to communicate are all crucial in a technology firm that will be successful in serving my client.
  • Strategic is good.  This wonderful nonprofit really needs it’s nonprofit technology vendors to help it stay aware of important new opportunities and challenges, and to think ahead about the best way to support the mission.  I don’t mean up-selling; I mean actively working in the interests of the client.

(God knows that as a consultant I try to embody these positive qualities myself. If you want to know whether I’m succeeding, don’t ask me.  Ask my clients, or if you are one my clients, please feel free to tell me how I can improve.)

For the client in question, it’s not a matter of desperation stemming from scarcity of available services, but a tough choice.  No matter which firm the nonprofit organization chooses, it will involve risk, and they’ll never know for sure whether they would have been much happier with another choice.

Given the difficulties, the good news is that with the strong options before them, it’s extremely unlikely that they’ll make a disastrous choice.  But that also means that some extremely nice and extremely well-qualified people will be disappointed, because they are all really eager to get the contract, and only one will be selected.  That really hurts.

Fortunately, I’m in a good position as a yenta to nonprofits and foundations; as I learn more about each of these technology support firms, I will keep them in mind, and recommend them when I am asked for referrals.  In the best of all possible worlds, both the beloved clients and the esteemed vendors find the perfect matches; since we haven’t quite arrived there yet, people like me should do our best to help the process whenever we can.

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