Why a Non-profit CIO?

When some of my friends that run IT ships in large for-profits ask me why I work in the non-profit field, I usually take a quiet breath, meditate for a couple of seconds and then follow with a non-sequitur like “Do you like being a Cowboy?” After the quizzical look on their face dissolves I follow up with the standard “Why do you ask?”

Normally when I get this question from friends they are usually thinking from the salary perspective. Often they ask “Why do the work in a non-profit setting if the salary isn’t what the market will bear for your talent?” For many, that is a strong dis-incentive for working in the non-profit field. But that position is built on a number of assumptions. It assumes that the salary at your 9-5 has to be your only source of income. But that doesn’t  have to be. It also assumes that a high salary is going give you satisfaction in life. But how many Hollywood self-destructions do you have to witness before the fallacy of that thinking sets in?  So if you’ve ever wondered why your friend works in non-profit, let me give you a few reasons.

#1. You get to be a Cowboy/ Cowgirl (–See, I’m being PC again!)

When I go into the office in the morning, I feel like James West riding into town. Each one of the departments/ businesses in my company are the innocent farmers that need protection from cattle rustlers. Every request is likened to “Marshall West, please save us from the evil FERPA rustlers! They’re coming to take our data!” And with a tip of my hat I reassuringly say, “Ma’am you what we’re gonna do? We’re gonna build us a good ole Governance fence. And darlin’, when that fence is up, ain’t no rustlers gonna get at your data.”  In many of the organizations I’ve worked in or with, many of the traditional tenets of IS management either don’t exist or are as such a low maturity level, that it can feel like the Wild Wild West. Whereas when I worked in banking and insurance, so much of my time was maintaining systems and operating within the current boundaries it felt like being a NASCAR driver forced to use cruise control. With my crew chief knowing as much IT as a kid working at Best Buy. In addition, in many of the smaller organizations, the IS culture and infrastructure you develop will directly reflect your personality and work style; versus getting an email from a Spreadsheet CIO who just read about the cloud in a US Air magazine on  a flight, asking you did you know about this thing?

#2. You get to contribute

In most of the non-profit organizations, you usually find a cadre of passionate individuals motivated by a particular cause or social motive. You get to work beside people who want to make an impact, and not necessarily another buck. I’ve worked in organizations where the brass ring is hung out for everyone to see and stab each other in the back for. I’m all for a little competitive spirit now and then; and love to trash talk with the best of them. But if your motivation is solely profit based, then what are you going to do when the Zombie Apocalypse happens and money doesn’t matter anymore?

#3. You’ll be a better CIO for it

Working in a non-profit environment, especially one where you aren’t sitting on a ton of cash; is going to stretch you and push you in ways you will never imagine. You’ll always have to be at the top of your game. You will become friends with Open Source, you will learn every possible way to wring utility and longevity out of your systems. You will be Han Solo tweaking the Millennium Falcon before every engagement with the Empire. You will know your systems and processes like the back of your hand. Your tight knit IS crew, will be the embodiment of the A-Team. And you get to be Hannibal!

So if any of these sound interesting, then “saddle up partner and let’s ride.”


About The Warrior

The Warrior spends time as the Chief Information Officer at a Philadelphia non-profit, the father of 2, an amateur astronomer, a coffee aficionado, as a home theatre enthusiast, and a science fiction author.
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1 Response to Why a Non-profit CIO?

  1. When you’re not driven by a bottom-line of profit, you do get more of a open field to play. I work in public sector as well and thoroughly enjoy the freedom to lead and contribute.

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