The importance of being flexible

By Michael Prideaux, Nonprofit Outreach Specialist, Nonprofits Assistance Fund

For many, the combination of graduate school deadlines, year-end reports, finals, and more brings about a feeling of being simultaneously forward and backward looking. And with this comes the need to be flexible when outcomes are not as planned. 

I remember in high school we had to attend a “career day” with a person from a temp firm telling us how to get entry level positions. While none of the actual content of the workshop was impactful, one thing the presenter said definitely resonates with me. She had mentioned how she has worked at least six other jobs in her relatively young adulthood and said she foresaw many more. This uncertainty in the eyes of a high school senior is terrifying, but I am learning more and more that to stay together mentally, emotionally, and even in your career, you have to embrace unpredictability. 

Chances are at least one grant you expect to come won’t, a long term client mysteriously ceases communication, or you do not get into any program or school. Being flexible means more than just saying “O.K” to these and moving on with your life, but rather being responsive and strategic saying “O.K, what’s next?”.  

When my graduate school plans fizzled last year I was not flexible. I fell apart and my academics, work performance, everything suffered as I scrambled to figure out what was next. I interviewed for multiple jobs such as an admin assistant, recruitment for temp firms, even a position with the attorney general, not realizing that my skill set was a terrible match for all these positions. As someone who isn’t profit, but rather mission-minded yet also is a pretty big introvert who does not enjoy direct service I would have been awful for all of these positions. 

VISTA, with its emphasis on capacity building, and my particular cohort’s mission of building the capacity of nonprofits serving communities of color, was a perfect match for my skill set but was something I was completely unaware of until April of 2015, five months after I applied for graduate school. 

If in December of 2014 you were to say I would be working at a place like the Nonprofits Assistance Fund (NAF) I wouldn’t believe you. Besides some abstract discussions about organization budget for student groups, and working with no budget in some committees, I had very little practical experience in financial management and no formal educational training in it. 

Yet this background isn’t uncommon even at NAF. Many of our staff did not start as finance people but rather became them through experience and willingness to be flexible. This perspective, rather than weakening NAF, makes its connections with clients more authentic as they can understand the frustrations many of our clients face daily and can communicate with them in ways that many traditional finance oriented people struggle with. My experience at NAF has taught me to be more flexible even in a program with rigid numerical outputs like VISTA by remaining strategic and responsive instead of obsessing over outputs. This perspective is not only useful in my work but was also a vital tool for self-care and survival.  

For all my discussion of being flexible my future plans might seem the definition of rigidity. I am applying to graduate school again but not in my undergraduate field. Rather I am pursuing either my MBA or MPP in management and hope to use the financial and cultural competency skills I’ve learned at NAF to support and build the capacity of nonprofits serving the Minnesota community. If that fizzles again I now know rather than fall apart I have to use the opportunity to ask “what next”?