How I became a nonprofit sector professional


Daniel King, Nottingham Trent University and NVSQ Author

Picture the scene. I am in my office at home surrounded by files, folders, spreadsheets, receipts, pieces of artwork and paint pots trying to write the final report for the funding body. For a small organization (which only had 5 part-time creative arts therapists and me managing the project for free), we seemed to have amassed a lot of paperwork and bureaucracy. This was not what I envisaged or set out to achieve when I entered the nonprofit sector. I never intended to be a nonprofit sector professional. But looking around my home office I am left wondering what it is that I have become?

In my recent paper in NVSQ, Becoming Business-like: Governing the Nonprofit Professional, I consider this question by examining the way I changed to see myself as a nonprofit professional. It tells the story of how I founded Creative Arts, a therapeutic arts charity, but also changed in the process of doing it. I narrate the process through which I slowly, and often without realising, over time changed from an idealistic dreamer, someone who thought he could change society, to being someone who saw myself as a nonprofit professional, interested largely in hitting targets. I show how this occurred, not through formal training courses or through active decision-making on my part, but through a series of everyday practices, which at the time felt quite normal.

I learnt to think of myself as a nonprofit professional through socialising practices such as attending networking events and through performance practice, particularly through applying for and then receiving funding. Through socialization processes, I learned to act in particular ways, such as the way of dressing, and the way I talked and thought about my emerging organization. For instance, practices like the 1-minute go-round, in which I had to describe my (at that stage non-existent organization) in particular terms, such as the funding we received, the client-group we served and what our project was about, in succinct and appealing ways, forced me to think about what became Creative Arts in pre-set categories. Similarly, conversations over the coffee break, with other nonprofit professionals, about the challenges they faced such as hitting targets and getting funding, subtly taught me a certain outlook. As I listened to these success stories I imagined Creative Arts undergoing the same successes and challenges, and was, without realizing it, drawn into wanting to face the same highs and lows.

The performance practices are what Mitchell Dean calls the technologies of performance. In particular they include the way in which applying for funding forced me to think about my project in ways that were measureable and controllable, and then after getting funding, simple everyday practices like evaluation and monitoring forms, changed the nature of what our program was meant to be. Creative Arts was meant to run therapeutic arts sessions, which emphasize the free-flowing and creative process. However applying for funding made me try to fit this into a more ridged framework, in order to fit into measureable sets of outcomes, driven by the need for SMART (specific, measureable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound) categories.

In the paper I argue that these two approaches, the technologies of agency (the techniques which made me a particular type of person) and performance subtly intertwine to teach people working (or even volunteering) in the nonprofit sector to see themselves as professionals. This has important consequences. The more that I saw myself as a nonprofit professional the more I became committed to the funders aims rather than the original ethos of Creative Arts. Because of this I was more concerned about the funders than the needs of the clients. In particular I did not question this shift, and the changes in what I thought my role was. I was more interested in service delivery than advocacy or democratic goals. These everyday management practices do not therefore reflect reality – they create it.

So, surrounded by all my paperwork and forms, I am left wondering what the impact of this professionalization process was? I certainly found positive things in being professionalized. I enjoyed hitting targets and receiving praise for running an effective organization. But there were negative repercussions, shifting my aims from the needs and interests of the participants of the course and the original ethos of Creative Arts to that of the funders and losing some of my original radical perspectives. As academics and practitioners we therefore should be concerned about everyday management practices and how they change how we behave. This is not to say all professionalization is bad, only that it changes our self-perception and that we need to be aware of how it happens and the consequences on our thought and action.

Featured article: King, D. (2016). Becoming Business-Like: Governing the Nonprofit Professional. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, doi: 10.1177/0899764016663321. 

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