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Advice for a Nonprofit Organizer: Work Smart, Not Hard

Work Smarter, Not Harder“Work Smart, Not Hard.” That’s what Greencorps: School for Environmental Organizers told me when I first began my professional career as an organizer in 1996. Seems easy enough… just be strategic about how you spend your time, right?

This simple tip has evolved into my overarching work principle throughout my 18-year career serving nonprofits. Working smart, not hard, is not a statement about how many hours you should work, but rather how to get the best impact from your most important resource - your time.

I can’t think of one nonprofit who has the time and staff to achieve their mission. Time, for many groups, is actually more scarce than funding and must be used with the greatest respect.

Sustain Yourself

Understanding that more work doesn’t equal better results is key for sustaining yourself as an organizer and nonprofit professional.

There is a time and place for working those 70 hour weeks, but too many of those can quickly lead to burnout. Trust me, I speak from experience.

Early on in my career as a forest organizer, I was guilty of working long hours with few vacations and for little pay. And all those who gave me the "work smart" advice were right: after ten years at that pace, I couldn’t sustain the “frontlines” and went into nonprofit tech.

It’s been a fantastic journey, but I regret pushing myself quite so hard so early on. Everyone needs and deserves a balanced and healthy lifestyle. If nothing else, do it for your cause! It needs you!

Think Strategically

At the heart of working smart is a dynamic plan for making the most of every hour, every effort, every campaign.

This should be shared often with your staff and clearly outline the steps it will take to achieve your goals, whether it’s the stages of a campaign, a communication effort or whatever you’re working on.

Evaluate Often and Fail Faster

The only way to know if your theory of change is working is to define what success looks like before you start the project, including metrics, tools, process and evaluation frequency.

You need to know this info so you can decide what projects are worth putting in your limited staff time and thus work smart.

Getting buy-in for regular evaluations is not only a way to discourage ineffective projects, but to promote a culture of evaluation which rewards success and gets you on the right track more quickly.

Respect. Empower. Include.

Skip this point if you have enough staff to achieve your mission.

Otherwise, your plans, tools, culture, etc. need to be able to scale to effectively empower people to advocate on your behalf.

The idea of working smart taps into a core organizing principle of giving others the tools to help achieve your mission. A good organizer only does what no one else can and trains others to do the rest.

For example, the Young Democrats of America, have 200,000 supporters, 1500 chapters and (drum roll), 1 paid staff. It can be done!

If you find yourself often frantic, doing what seems like all the work, you may need to take a look at systems, technology and plans that place more emphasis on a greater involvement from your community.

Put Tech to Work

The whole point of nonprofit technology is to free up resources to allow you to put more energy into your mission. I personally love tech because there are so many new power tools to help you take greater steps towards achieving your mission. The downside is that with so many choices, it can be a bit confusing.

Remember, tech should enhance, rather than deplete resources; empower, rather than impair.


There are something things worth putting in the extra hours to perfect. However, unless you know the perfection will get you the desired outcome, there’s a lot of tasks you don’t have to perfect and least can get 80% right.

Working smart means not worrying about absolute perfection and getting the project out of the gate, test the initial results (i.e. did you actually drive traffic to that new site), THEN put in the hours to make it 100%.
Topics: Strategy