Not Enough Administrative Support: A Nonprofit Weakness

Most work has two parts. The first part is the professional stuff, which sometimes (oftentimes, truthfully) we think is the most important. The second part is administrative support.

Professional work is comprised of using knowledge and research, applying regularly changing best practices, and leveraging other resources to create and execute strategy. Administrative work comprises supporting and building infrastructure for the professional work. Different, yet equally important.

A successful organization makes sure its professional staff receives sufficient administrative support. This is often a moving target. Hence, it’s natural to experience growing pains when scaling these levels of work together.

Nonprofits, unfortunately, tend to do a particularly poor job at it. And they suffer for it.

The importance of administrative support to nonprofits

I worked my way through college as an office assistant at a church. Mary was the parish secretary.

Mary wrote the newsletter. She also worked with the pastor, parishioners, and the board. I typed some stuff, did the mimeographing, and folded and stuffed envelopes. (If you don’t know what a mimeograph is, look it up. Ah, the olden days.)

Mary was the professional, I was the support. The parish needed us both. What I did allowed Mary to do the more strategic work. Without me, the newsletter wouldn’t have gone out, nor the weekly church bulletin or the mailings.

How this applies to your nonprofit

Imagine hiring the best fundraiser you’ve ever seen. Within a year, you see double, triple, or maybe even greater returns from your fundraising campaigns.

The next year, you see giving level off—or maybe even drop—despite all of your new donors and leads. What happened?

If you failed to give or plan administrative support for your rock star of a fundraiser, then the drop-off was inevitable. Your fundraising guru went from developing and engaging your donor base (professional strategy work) to managing it through spreadsheets and emails (administrative support work).

This is an all-too-common scenario in the nonprofit world. It happens for a number of reasons, but one stands out in particular: ill-defined job roles.

The importance of defining the job(s)

Too often, nonprofits don’t hire the support staff they need because they don’t define how each role fits into the organization’s mission and strategic plan. Without that definition, duties blur together.

You hire a development officer, after all, for her professional knowledge. She must stay on top of the latest research and synthesize into her existing knowledge. She must read the top authors and bloggers in order to stay current and advance her expertise.

Your development officer’s work is undeniably professional. She designs, manages, and executes strategies and plans. She knows how to define and measure effectiveness. And she knows how to engage board members in the fund development process. And so much more.

So what about the administrative support work?

If your development officer focuses on professional strategy work, then who does the production work? Who maintains the donor database and sends out thank you letters within 48 hours? Who manages the solicitation mailings and prepares the attachments for grant applications?

This is the work—or should be—of your administrative support staff.

There’s nothing quite so wonderful as a great administrative support person. He maintains the donor database and ensures the best possible donor analyses for your leaders’ strategic decision-making. He sets up donor meetings and prepares materials. And more.

But there’s not much worse for your nonprofit than misusing the time of your development officer to carry out administrative work. Waste of money. Reduced return on investment.

More reasons the drive the misuse of staff

Beyond poorly defined roles, how else does this misuse of staff happen? The most prevalent excuse I hear as a consultant is, “We don’t have enough money to hire more staff.”

Yes, there is some truth here since nonprofits are reluctant to spend money on themselves. But here are three things I think often happen:

  • Even when organizations define job roles, they often don’t truly understand the distinction between the scope of professional work and the scope of support work.
  • No analysis of workload time happens to determine staffing needs.
  • Too many organizations don’t understand the nature of their fundraising operation, and so cannot design the necessary support systems and positions.

Realize that staff quality = Mission quality

You know what really annoys me as a nonprofit consultant? No organization would say, “We don’t have enough money to hire the staff to do our mission well.”

And yet, too many organizations don’t extend this quality commitment to other areas of their operation, such as fundraising, governance, and other support mechanisms required to build a strong nonprofit.

Realize that your commitment to quality service (that is, the quality of executing your mission) is a moral, ethical, and legal commitment. Organizations that can’t finance sufficient competent staff to carry out mission typically choose to close. The risk is just too great at too many levels!

RELATED: Managing Tensions Between Board Members and Staff

What can nonprofits do to ensure sufficient administrative support?

What you can do as a nonprofit professional

Constantly learn. Study. Read. Join a professional association. Set up a study group. Attend conferences. Connect with other nonprofits and professionals to learn how they staff the development operation.

Why you? Because you’re supposed to be a leader, and how can you lead without knowledge, expertise, and experience?

What you can do for your boss, colleagues, and board

Help them learn. Facilitate change well. Take a look at my concept of enabling, described in my book “Strategic Fund Development” (and summarized in a handout in my free download library).


Yes, this all takes time.

Even after analyzing your organization’s workload time, and after doing research on staff and organizational structure and systems, still your organization might not have enough money to implement the changes it needs.

And that’s okay. Focus on what you have and what you can do with it. You might have to recruit and train a volunteer to provide some administrative support. You might have to share a staff person with another professional colleague. Whatever.

But at least plot and plan. Figure out what needs to happen and how to get there. Then build understanding and ownership within the organization to begin building the right level of administrative support for your professional staff.

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