Serving the community, one lightbulb at a time | Notes on Nonprofits

This week’s column is a look at the challenges of leading a nonprofit written by Kelly Otte who founded this column and has been working in the sector for 38 years.

The nonprofit sector is where I’ve spent my career. I like to think I chose it, but I know it chose me. I discovered my passion to change the world for women as a volunteer in a domestic violence center. The sector welcomed me with open arms, and I walked in wide open to finding my path.

During the past 38 years I’ve worked for, volunteered for, or served on the board of, nonprofits of all sizes and configurations. I was the board chair of an organization with a $50 million operating budget, have worked with nonprofits that had no revenue and were just getting started, and everything in between.

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My history includes working with standalone, grass roots organizations, to statewide associations to organizations under the control of a statewide and national “I’m your boss and because I said so” organizations. Each of the organizations had their own unique challenges and benefits and I loved and did not love some aspects of the work in each of them.

Small and challenging

Smaller nonprofits have been the most challenging but have also been the most rewarding. While the Executive Directors (ED) role isn’t the only position made more challenging when the nonprofit is small, it’s the perspective I’m speaking from.

Girls Can Do Anything Campers and City of Tallahassee staffers painted a mural over an often graffitied wall downtown, during a previous Oasis Center for Girls Camp.
Girls Can Do Anything Campers and City of Tallahassee staffers painted a mural over an often graffitied wall downtown, during a previous Oasis Center for Girls Camp.

During the past month I’ve had to be a human resources expert so I could choose and start new benefits for the team which involved an understanding of how benefits work on the back end and detailed administrative work to enter the information into a system.

I snapped at my broker 10 times, and was all whiny and said things like “I’m sorry but I’ve never done this before” and “I seriously do not have time for this.”

I also had to spend time this month as a grant writer, development director, accountant, maintenance repair expert, volunteer coordinator, computer repair person, social media and marketing expert, crisis manager, direct service worker and cook.

Learning to speak HVAC

And lest you think I’m trying to portray myself as being great at all those things, I’m about 1/8 of a real accountant, thought the HVAC repair man was speaking a foreign language, was two weeks late sending out thank you notes after a special event, and got told I wasn’t posting the right content on social media.

Even those things that drive me crazy, challenge and fascinate me.

I did learn what the HVAC guy said (after the 10th time he explained it) and was able to make an informed decision. I learned some new curse words while I fixed my printer, but I did it. We made it through that crisis, figured out how to change a very tall light bulb, and met with volunteers.

I loved answering the phones when we were down two direct service positions and talking to the women who were calling. It fired me up, infuriated me, reminded me why I do the work and why the nonprofit sector is my perfect fit. I am most definitely never bored because I never know what the day holds for me. Despite best made plans at the start of the day, it can be derailed and redirected in a split second.

Serving the community

I love the fact that small organizations can be nimbler. There aren’t layers of red tape to get decisions made. If a policy no longer fits the work, they can rewrite it faster. Small nonprofits can challenge themselves in a very direct and daily way to evaluate and shift so the operations are aligned with their mission.

And I love that in many small nonprofits the boards are wholly and fully engaged in what’s happening with the organization.

Larger nonprofits have different issues and it’s also hard, complicated work. They reach more people, provide bigger services, and can have a huge impact on the community wellbeing. Whether big or small, human service nonprofits are providing vitally needed services to the community.

I’m glad the sector is where I have been all these years and it’s without reservation that I recommend people make it their career home. You will work hard, but you get to make real change. There’s nothing better than going to bed at night knowing that your hard work makes a difference.

Kelly Otte
Kelly Otte

Kelly Otte, MPA, is the Founder and Executive Director of Oasis Center for Women & Girls. Notes on Nonprofits is produced by Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE, President of Stansbury Consulting. Send your comments and questions to

This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Nonprofits make real change, one grant, one lightbulb at a time