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Nonprofit Career Profile: Business Operations

By Dana Hagenbuch, Commongood Careers

Finance. Marketing. Facilities Management. These may not be the first words that come to mind when you think about nonprofits, but these are all crucial parts of most nonprofit organizations' abilities to succeed.

Similar to corporations and small businesses, nonprofits strive to operate with method and within budget. It is especially important for nonprofits to run efficient operations and demonstrate measurable outcomes, because they are accountable to funders, board members, and the government.

What to Expect: Sample Roles & Job Listings

In any industry, the operations team is the infrastructure of an organization that works behind the scenes to keep things running. This is especially true in the nonprofit sector, where operations staff support an overall organization in a number of functional areas, including accounting and finance, administration, human resources, information technology, marketing, and office management. Across all of these functional areas is one goal: to make sure an organization is operating efficiently and to its full potential.

Most roles in nonprofit business operations require individuals to work with systems. This could mean working to devise an accounting system that helps departments process their invoices more efficiently, or following existing protocols for ordering supplies or on-boarding new employees. While the specific functional area of a role will dictate what type of systems an individual will be involved with, the ability to quickly understand business challenges and address them systematically is an asset to all operations roles. Generally, individuals who are highly organized, analytical, and adaptive do well in nonprofit business operations roles.

Within business operations, roles vary by functional area. For example, in facilities management, a Facilities Coordinator might be responsible to managing sites where programs are delivered, including the layout, design, equipment, and furniture at the site. An understanding of how physical environment affects an organization's ability to deliver programs is essential to this type of work. Another example is that of Marketing or Communications Associate, a role that generally requires an individual to support an organization's fundraising and constituency building efforts.

Roles within nonprofit business operations not only vary by functional area, but also by level of experience. In general, job titles with "coordinator" or "associate" are entry-level, and typically entail supporting the back-office administration. "Manager" level positions focus on two areas: 1) developing solutions and systems in a given functional area, and 2) managing the staff that implement these systems. Typically, the most senior operations role is Chief Operations Officer (COO), who oversees all back-office functions for an organization and works closely with the CEO or Executive Director to provide strategic and organizational leadership.

A few examples of opportunities in business operations currently being managed by Commongood Careers include:

Human Resources Manager
Kiva, San Francisco, CA 

Director of School Operations,
New Schools for New Orleans, New Orleans, LA     

Director of Finance and Administration,
Root Cause, Boston, MA 

Director of Operations,
Teach For America, Philadelphia, PA      

Senior Marketing Manager,
TechSoup, San Francisco, CA 

Director of Marketing and Communications,
Year Up, Boston, MA           

Job Outlook

As more and more nonprofits adapt entrepreneurial philosophies of operating efficiently while scaling their programs, career opportunities in business operations are on the rise. Unlike nonprofit roles that typically require at least 3-5 years of experience to get in the door, such as development or program management, there are a number of entry-level opportunities in business operations.

Professional experience in operations is largely transferable across industries. Individuals with experience in nonprofit business operations can generally transition into similar roles in other sectors. Industries that are particularly operations-intensive include manufacturing, transportation, banking, financial services, retail, telecommunications, and health care. However, operations roles exist in almost all companies and organizations. For individuals with nonprofit business operations, their experience and skills are valued greatly by small businesses, start-ups, or other organizations that operate in resource-constrained environments.

For those seeking to transition from other industries into the nonprofit sector, opportunities in business operations often provide a bridge. The skills and experience gained in these roles can be some of the most transferable from the corporate to the nonprofit sector, and often prove to be exceptionally rewarding to sector-switchers looking to apply their operational skills in a socially driven setting.

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