How to dress for nonprofit success


suitLike other nonprofit leaders, every morning I wake up and immediately have to make an important decision: Should I play a round of Scramble with Friends on my phone, or sleep in for 15 more minutes? But after that, I have to decide what to wear for the rest of the day. Now, this does not sound like a very big decision, but I have learned in the last several years that how we dress in this field is critical to the work, determining how we and thus our organizations are perceived.

Overall, I look shabby. This is very strategic and not at all because I am generally a very lazy person with poor fashion sense and sometimes questionable hygiene. We are nonprofit workers who are on the ground, in the trenches, working alongside our clients to make the world better. Imagine how out of place it would be if we go around wearing a $2,000-suit. What sort of message would that send? It would say “My own appearance is more important than making a difference in the world.” Leave that for the corporate world and runway models. Let us be proud of our pants, stained by a finger painting accident at an early-learning program; or our shirt, with its ring on the collar, the result of endless days sweating over the fiscal year budget; or our shoes, worn and darkened by wine spilled from a dozen fundraising dinners.

Still, there are special occasions that call for sartorial savvy. When you wake up, look at your calendar to see if there are any important meetings and dress accordingly. Each article of clothing, its color and patterns, and even how it is worn must be deployed in service of particular objectives and our organizations’ mission.

Jeans or Slacks: Jeans send the message that “I’m one of you guys.” In Seattle, jeans are the default nonprofit pants, and as long as they are not too stained or holey, they are great for almost every occasion. Avoid skinny jeans though, especially if you are a guy, as they tend to send the message “please punch me in the face.”

When an occasion calls for something more formal, slacks are the way to go. Wear them with a tucked-in button-down shirt during a funder site visit to say “I am taking this site visit seriously, please give us money.” (Unless you run a multimillion-dollar organization, avoid super-formal outfits such as suits and ties during funder visits. Program officers may feel like your organization doesn’t need funding if you can afford a suit AND a tie).

Shirts: Polo shirts and sweaters are fine, but button-down shirts are always great. Strategic sleeve rollage is critical with these shirts. Roll up your sleeves to send the unconscious message that you are always ready to tackle problems head-on. Sleeves that are not rolled and thus cover your arms send the signal that you are guarded and less approachable, great for when you know people are going to ask you to join some sort of committee. Sometimes I roll up only one sleeve, thus saying “I’m unhinged today, don’t mess with me, muahaha! Mwuahahahahahaha!” a strategy you should use rarely, such as when your staff complain about their work loads.

Color: Pay attention to color, especially of shirts and ties. Cool colors convey calmness and harmony, while warm colors, especially bright red, convey power and action. Whenever I need to let people know that I am in charge, or when I know I’m having pasta with tomato sauce for lunch, I like to wear a bright red button-down shirt. It is great for presentations, speaking on a panel, lobbying politicians, testifying in front of the City Council, and telling my wife it is her turn to do the dishes. Cool colors, such as baby blue, calm people down and make the wearer seem more approachable, so blue shirts are great for mediating disagreements, visiting programs (especially ones that serve children, who may attack if they see red), and apologizing to a coworker for accidentally eating her yogurt.

Shoes: Wear plain black or brown shoes to send the message that you are a no-nonsense sort of leader who does not have time to worry about footwear. I myself have only one pair of shoes, black ones that I wear for hiking, fundraising dinners, and general work. They are scruffy and the sole is kind of peeling off, which indicates that I am on the ground and focused on the mission. Every two years, when my toes start peeking through, I buy a new pair of shoes that look exactly like the old ones.

Suits and ties: If you are the leader of a multi-million dollar nonprofit, you will probably have to wear them each day. Otherwise, wear a suit and tie for formal occasions such as fundraising events, accepting awards, and funerals. A suit without a tie is also usually appropriate, and conveys the message “I know this is a formal occasion, but I’m not stuffy like other people; where’s the alcohol?”

Accessories: Men, in general, just avoid them. That shark-tooth and hemp-rope necklace will not impress clients or funders. Unless you’re over 50, don’t wear hats. Unless it’s winter, don’t wear scarves. Looking too stylish will alienate people; never dress more stylishly than your boss, funders, or donors. Women, unique but tactful and clearly inexpensive jewelry is best, for it conveys “I may not be making a ton of money, but I’m enjoying my work and it shows in this cool necklace I bought from a farmer’s market.”

Special combinations: Some occasions call for special combos. For example, sometimes I wear blue jeans with a white button-down shirt that is tucked in and with both sleeves rolled up. White as a color conveys innocence and guiltlessness, the rolled up sleeves says I’m ready for action, the jeans means I’m down to earth and approachable, but the shirt is tucked in, meaning I am respecting the formalness of the occasion. This outfit is great for firing people.

Think about what sort of message you’re trying to convey as you choose your clothing each day. Do you want to say “I am a smart, successful, and assertive leader” or do you want to say, “I work for a nonprofit that could use more funding, please help”?