Whether you’ve been at your nonprofit job for 2 months or 2 years, it’s natural to wonder what the future holds. Sure this entry-level job will cut it for now, but what about next year? Don’t we all want that big, shiny promotion?
I sure do.
I’m 2 years into my current role, 4 years total in the workforce. While the path isn’t crystal clear at my organization, I’ve learned to work today with tomorrow in mind. For me, that means continuing to work super hard, but without losing sight of the future.
It’s taken me a while to get here. But regardless of how new you are to nonprofit work, I think this is an important mindset to practice. When you have a vision of where you want to be in your career, you naturally become more deliberate with the steps you take to get there.
To move up the ladder, of course there are things we have to develop first – lessons and skills that take time, but are essential for the ambitious nonprofit professional.
Still, the small things matter. Our work habits and the actions we take on a daily basis support that larger strategy – while also allowing us to portray ourselves in the best light. It shows our manager, and the people around us, that we mean business.
So for the folks who are still young in their nonprofit careers, but itching to move up – here are 25 things you can do today to get the ball rolling.
1. Get to work a few minutes early each day.
If you report to work at 9AM, get there by 8:45AM. This gives you time to settle in, make that cup of coffee, and be ready by the time you’re officially on the clock. Trust me, people notice the person who’s ready to go by 9AM versus the person racing to their desk at 9:03AM.
2. If you haven’t yet, read the entire staff manual.
Get this done ASAP. It’s your first intro to your organization, and a review of its policies & procedures will help set your expectations on what’s acceptable. As someone fresh to the working world, it’s also important to know what your rights are as an employee.
Plus, you might miss some helpful nuggets of information if you don’t do this carefully – things relating to professional development, vacation days, and more.
3. Learn your role inside and out.
For the first year that you’re in a job, you are a sponge. Focus on absorbing everything you can about your responsibilities, your department and the organization. You won’t know it all right away, but your goal should be to get as close to that point as possible!
Business Insider has some great tips to help you focus on what matters in those first 3 months on the job.
4. Get clear on your manager’s expectations.
Have an in-person conversation with your manager to set expectations from the start. How often will they check in with you on the status of your projects? How should you prioritize your tasks? What indicators will let the both of you know if your work is on the right track? Your tasks in the early days may not be complex enough to warrant this level of detail, but it’s a good practice to get into as your role evolves.
The Management Center is an invaluable resource for nonprofit professionals who need to spruce up their management skills. But it’s not limited to managers – check out their Managing Up section for templates that you can try out with your own boss!
5. Ask questions when you’re unsure about something.
The newer you are to a job, the more acceptable it is to ask tons of questions. So don’t be shy – if you don’t know something, or you’re at all confused, speak up.
But, don’t make the mistake of asking questions just to ask questions. Usually people can tell when this is happening, and it’s not appreciated!
6. Ask questions when you’re curious about something.
Ask questions to get a deeper understanding of your organization and your team. Some things won’t come to light just through your day to day tasks, so if something sparks your interest or curiosity, take the moment to ask someone about it. Just be mindful of when you ask – you certainly don’t want to hammer your team with questions in the middle of a crazy time!
7. Be on time for every meeting.
You’re only allowed to be late to meetings after your first year. And then, only 1x per year.
8. Bring a notebook to every meeting.
The first day of my internship, I went to meet with my manager empty-handed. Having her ask me where my notebook was, and sending me to get it, was one of the more embarrassing (but formative) moments of my career. Don’t make my mistake; bring a notebook & pen to your meetings. Always be prepared.
9. Find a system for organizing your work and stick with it.
Things may feel slow now, but soon you’ll have a lot more on your plate. That’s a given when you live the #nonprofitlife.
That’s why you gotta plan in advance! Organizing those simple tasks early on will make it easier to stay on track later, as more projects start to fall on your plate. It also makes it far less likely that things will slip through the cracks.
Anything works here: post-it notes, to-do lists, a physical planner or even your online calendar. What matters most is trying to find the right tool for your needs, and giving it time to work. (If you want to explore what else is out there, here are some great free project management tools to consider!)
10. Keep track of your accomplishments.
If you’re serious about getting ahead, get in the habit of tracking your results now. If not for your own personal growth, this will help you plan ahead for your annual review – the time when you sit with your manager to review the year’s progress (and truthfully, make the case for your value). I use a spreadsheet and Salesforce reporting to help me figure this out, but there are plenty of other ways to start tracking your work accomplishments.
And pro – tip: get in the habit of doing this as you complete projects. You risk forgetting things if you wait till the end of year to organize this info (and anyway, you never know when you’ll have to make the case for your work).
11. Figure out how your boss likes to operate.
You may have a boss who’s explicit about this from the beginning, or it may fall on you to observe and confirm over time. Either way, this is a big part of your future success: you’ve got to figure out your boss’s work style, and adjust accordingly.
How is this different from setting expectations? You’re not just confirming what your manager wants from you – you’re observing their preferences and motivations, and flexing yourself to meet those needs. Ask yourself: does your boss prefer email updates, or to chat in-person? Do they like to be cc’d on every email, or would they prefer fewer messages in their inbox?
This can come in many forms. In my case, I started out working for a boss who needed to iron out every detail before making a major change. My next boss was different: she needed to move quickly, even if it meant tweaking details along the way. Acknowledging those preferences really guided my interactions with both managers, and even helped me to prioritize during moments of uncertainty.
12. Then, find your work style.
Especially when you’re first starting out, your work style really needs to compliment your manager’s – otherwise, you’ll both have a hard time getting anything done! So once you’ve got a sense of how your boss likes to work, use that information to develop your own work style.
If you’ve already spent some time in the workforce, you may find that your approach to work is very different from your manager’s. That’s okay; if you’re both effective, then you’re probably filling important gaps in the other person’s work.
The caveat, however, is making sure that you’re not rigid in your own preferences – because too much resistance will just hold you back. And when it comes to your boss, you really do need to meet that person more than half-way.
13. Learn the way your colleagues like to work, too.
If success in your role depends on your colleagues, then you ought to know how those people function too. Start to learn about the work your peers do, and how they manage to get it done. You can ask , but even just observing them in action will shed light.
Why does it matter? Because knowing the nuances of how someone works can save you time when your project requires input from that person. For example, if you know that the marketing coordinator tends to miss deadlines, you could set yours 1 week earlier – to give you both enough wiggle room to get it done. Ideally no one misses deadlines, but that’s the reality of the working world – much like your group projects in school, you have to learn to meet some people where they’re at.
Everyone is different, but here are four different work styles to keep an eye out for – and how best to work with each.
14. Set time aside to get to know your teammates too.
You don’t have to be best friends, but positive working relationships are super important when you’re spending 8+ hours a day with the same group of people. So! Do what you can to understand the type of work your colleagues are responsible for and generally what motivates them. You want your teammates to be your allies, and vice versa. That’s how people get along and also get things done.
Here are some tips from Glassdoor on how to start building those connections.
15. Don’t sit alone for lunch every day.
Unless your entire office spends every day eating lunch at their desk (a phenomenon we used to call “sad desk lunch”), make sure to sit with people every so often when it’s time for lunch. This helps with that last ‘get to know your teammates’ suggestion.
And yes my fellow introverts, I’m looking at you.
16. Get familiar with your Executive Director.
Depending on the organization, you may interact with your ED on a regular basis. Or, you might be so far removed that every sighting of your ED is like catching a celebrity in the office. Either way, see what you can learn about your Executive Director – their background, goals and how they work their magic. Everyone ultimately reports into this one person, who guides the entire direction of your organization. Why not figure out who they are and what they’re all about?
Plus, who knows. If you play your cards right, you might report to that person one day.
17. Don’t try to make major changes during your first year.
Remember, your focus is on mastering your current role. If you find ways to perform tasks more efficiently, then that’s great! But if you’re making plans to revamp systems, or turn your department on its head….don’t. Spend time learning how things work and why they work that way first. Otherwise, your suggestions may come off as presumptuous and you won’t make the best impression.
This is an extreme case of what I’m talking about, but the premise is the same. Be ambitious. Take initiative. Just don’t overdo it.
18. Dress your best.
This tends to go well the first few days on the job, until it’s 6 months later and you’ve decided that the sweater with the hole isn’t so awful to wear. It is. You don’t have to look like a supermodel at work, but try to dress your best. When you have plans for moving up, looking the part is one piece of the equation. Plus, don’t we all feel good when we look good?
I’ll be honest – I was never much of a fashionista, and I’m still working on this. More on my journey here..
19 Put your phone away.
Obviously, you shouldn’t be the person who’s on their cell phone all day! But I’m actually going to suggest that you don’t get on the phone much at all when you’re in the office. You may not be slacking off, but it’s hard to tell what’s happening when you see someone staring at their cell (Especially if you’re younger, people will think you’re on social media.)
Better to just leave the thing in your desk drawer or somewhere out of sight.
20. Say hi to everyone.
This one took me a while, thanks to shyness & general introverted-ness. But, say good morning to everyone you pass on the way to your desk. Even if people don’t know you just yet, they’ll at least know you as “that friendly new face from x department”. Plus, it’s the polite thing to do!
21. Take advantage of every professional development opportunity offered by your organization.
I am amazed when nonprofits offer optional learning and growth opportunities for their staff, but employees refuse to attend! Unless you need to physically be working on something else, make sure you go. PD ain’t cheap, so if your organization is spending the time and money to bring someone in, that’s a major perk. It’d be a waste not to attend.
22. Seek out your own professional development opportunities, too.
If your organization can’t bring the learning to you, then you’ll need to strike out on your own. Seek out learning opportunities that will help you to develop in your role. You should ask your manager or colleagues for suggestions, but a quick web search will also help you find webinars, books, or in-person events to attend. If you can swing it, consider a conference too!
Some opportunities may have a hefty price tag attached. If your organization has a policy around this (which you’ll know if you’ve read the user manual!), then they may help cover those costs. If not, you’ll have to decide if you want to foot the bill. Personally, I think it’s more important to get work experience than it is to spend hundreds of dollars on a class or conference. Plus, there’s so much on the internet these days, that you’re bound to find free resources that are just as helpful.
Which brings me to the next point.
23. Get in the habit of reading (or listening to) career advice.
While much of your career learning happens on the job, your career honing happens through research and learning. To move ahead tomorrow, start understanding how to become a better professional today.
Consider this a lifelong career tip. Even when you’re just starting out, there are basic skills that you need to start developing – like time management, managing up, maybe even public speaking – and tons of articles out there on how to do it well. A quick Google search will unearth some of these resources, but your favorite job site probably has a blog section with general career advice. You can also incorporate a career podcast into your morning commute; that’s another great way to squeeze in some learning time!
My personal favorite resource of all time is Ask A Manager – where people submit questions about every workplace situation imaginable, from the relatively mundane to the completely bizarre. Reading Allison Greene’s responses has made me a far better manager than I ever was…and I don’t even manage anyone yet. (Plus, Allison hails from the nonprofit world. She gets it.)
24. Follow resources that are relevant to both your industry and function.
Think of your industry as the line of work your organization does (education, human services, etc), whereas your function is the role that you play at your organization (fundraising, human resources, operations, etc..).
You want to find thought leaders, news outlets and other resources for building your knowledge in both areas. Nonprofit functions are constantly in flux, and it’s in your best interest to stay on top of best practices that are relevant to your department. Similarly, external factors can influence the way your organization acts on its mission – like legislation, demographic shifts relating to your constituents, or anything really. These are the types of trends that leaders stay on top of, so if your goal is to lead, start learning now.
There are too many resources here to list, and I can’t cover everything. But some of the biggies that come to mind:
- Young Nonprofit Professionals (YNPN) – a national membership organization with chapters in every major city. They cover everything and are known to host mixers, professional development seminars and more. Check out your local chapter and see what they’ve got going on.
- Association for Fundraising Professionals – the go-to spot for anyone working in fundraising & development. I don’t have as much experience with them, but I have found The Foundation Center to be another great place for finding fundraising events/workshops.
- The Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) – for the IT and nonprofit technologists out there, a great resource for finding trends and tools related the sector.
25. Work really hard. But find the balance.
In my first job, there would be weeks where I put in over 60 hours at work. (Spoiler: those were usually our event weeks. Coordinating a fundraiser isn’t easy). And on a normal week, I was definitely doing more than 8 hours per day. I sometimes wonder what my job would’ve looked like if the new overtime laws were put into place back then.
So yeah, I worked hard. And it was worth it; that’s how I managed to grow my role.
Still you’ve got to find balance, because burn out is one of the biggest challenges faced by nonprofit career professionals. I was excited as I got through the end of my first year of work, but I wasn’t rested. And I was lucky to have a great manager who told me that I needed to take vacation, because we were approaching my anniversary and my days were about to expire. I didn’t even notice.
Let me just say, nothing has changed. Just this week, I had to spend an hour figuring out how to use 14 days of vacation time in under next 5 weeks. And of course a lot is happening, so this isn’t a “good time” to be out! But I know that balance is important, and I earned that vacation time. I’m not losing it.
Make sure you do the same. Work hard, but make time for non-work things too. Find a balance. Really disconnect when you’re away from the office. And always take the vacation.
What are you doing at work to set yourself up for that next promotion?