25 Habits For Moving Up From Your Entry-Level Nonprofit Job

Whether you’ve been at your nonprofit 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 don’t we all want that big, shiny promotion?

So work with an eye towards the future!  When we have a vision of where we want to be in our careers, we become more deliberate in the steps we take to get there. 

And that vision doesn’t just live in the big conversations we have with our bosses. It manifests in the daily work habits we adopt. There are small, actionable things we can do each day to put our best foot forward and lend to that vision.

So. Let’s show these nonprofit people that when it comes to our career, we mean business. (Shameless sector pun).

25 Habits To Advance In Your Nonprofit Career

1. Get to work a few minutes early each day.

If you report to work at 9, get there by 8:45. It gives yourself time to settle in, make that cup of coffee, and be ready & refreshed for when you’re officially on the clock!

2. Read the entire staff manual.

As the first official intro to your organization, a review of its policies & procedures will help set your expectations on what’s acceptable. Plus, you might miss some helpful nuggets of information if you don’t do this – like things relating to professional development, paid time off, and more.

3. Learn your role inside and out.

For the first year that you’re in a job, be a sponge. Absorb everything you can about your responsibilities, your department and the organization.

*Tip*: 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.

Set expectations with your manager from the jump. How often will they check in with you on the status of your projects? How should you prioritize, and what are the indicators that you’re on the right track?

*Tip*: The Management Center is a great resource for nonprofit professionals who need to spruce up their skills. But it’s not just for managers – check out their Managing Up section for templates that you can try out with your boss!

5. Ask questions if you’re not sure 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 now!

And in general, if you’re ever unsure about a work task, ask then too. You know what they say about people who assume…

6. Ask questions when you’re curious about something.

If you notice anything that catches your interest but falls outside of your role/department, definitely ask about it! That’s part of learning what your organization is up to and how those other functional areas work.

Just be mindful of how and when you ask. You don’t want to hammer your team with questions in the middle of a crazy time, like events season.

7. Be on time for every meeting.

Assume you’re not allowed to be late to meetings in your first year on the job. Or the second. Maaaybe the 10th.

8. Bring a notebook to every meeting.

The first day of an internship, I went to meet my manager empty-handed. Having her ask me where my notebook was an embarrassing yet formative moment in my career. Learn this lesson the easy way; take my advice and 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 much more on your plate. Plan for it in advance! Organizing those tasks early on will make it easier to stay on track later.

*Tip*: If you want to explore the organizing tools 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 provide the necessary fodder for your annual review – where you often make the case for your value.

I use a spreadsheet & Salesforce to help me figure this out, but there are plenty of ways to start tracking your work accomplishments today.

*Tip*: Get in the habit of doing this as you complete projects. Don’t wait till the end of the year when you’re busy and likely to forget!

11. Figure out how your boss likes to operate.

Your success depends on figuring out your boss’s work style, whether they’re explicit about it or not. Does she prefer email updates or 1:1 meetings? What motivates her: is it the mission, doing things perfectly, or wanting to impress her manager? Unearthing those preferences and motivations can make you more effective at your job, since you can flex to meet those needs.

In my case, I had to learn how not to sweat the small stuff because my manager moved quickly on projects. Very different from my last boss, who preferred taking her time to nab those small details!

12. Then, find your work style.

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! But once you’ve got a sense of how your boss likes to work, let that information begin to inform your own work style.

In time, you may find that your approach to work is very different from your boss. As long as you’re both effective, that’s okay; you’re likely filling important gaps in the other person’s style!

13. Observe how your colleagues like to work.

If your role is going to interact with other people, then you should know how those teammates function too! Start learning about their work and how they get it done. These small nuances will help you in the future. (For example, if someone isn’t great at meeting deadlines, you now know to plan for that in advance!)

*Tip*: Everyone is different, but here are four different work styles to keep an eye out for – and how best to work with each.

14. Also, get to know them.

You don’t have to be best friends. In fact, don’t be. But positive working relationships are critical when you spend 8+ hrs a day with the same group of people. So be friendly, polite and start learning what generally motivates your peers. That’s how colleagues get along and get things done.

*Tip*: 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 each day eating lunch at their desk (a phenomenon I’ve always known to be called “sad desk lunch”), make sure to sit with people when it’s time to eat. This helps with that last ‘get to know your teammates’ suggestion.

Yes introverts, I’m looking at you.

16. Get familiar with your Executive Director.

Depending on the org, you may interact with your ED on a regular basis…or hardly at all. Either way, see what you can learn about them. After all, this is the person that guides the direction of the entire org…and keeping you employed!

AND at the very least, know their name. Don’t be the person who asks “who is that” when someone from your nonprofit mentions them. It only gets awkward from there.

17. Don’t try making big changes during your first year.

Focus on mastering your current role. If you find ways to do things more efficiently, that’s great! But trying to revamp systems or turn your department on it’s head…well, that’s taking it too far. Spend time learning how things work and why they work that way, or you’ll risk coming across as out of touch (at best. You don’t want to know the other part.)

This is an extreme case of what I’m talking about, from one of my favorite career advice blogs. 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 week, until it’s 6 months later and you’ve decided that the sweater with the hole isn’t that awful. You don’t have to look like a supermodel at work, but do 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?

19. Put your phone away.

Yes, you shouldn’t be the person on their phone all day. But I’m going to suggest you don’t get on it at all! Even if you’re not slacking off, it’s hard to tell what’s happening when you see someone staring at their screen. And if you’re younger, folks will assume the worst.

20. Say hi to everyone.

This one took me a while too (#introvertproblems). 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”.

21. Take advantage of every professional development opportunity offered by your organization.

I am amazed when nonprofits offer optional growth opportunities for staff, but employees refuse to take part! Unless you need to physically be working on something else, make sure you participate. PD ain’t cheap, so if your org is spending the time and money to make it happen, that’s a perk not to take for granted! 

22. Seek out your own PD, too.

If your organization can’t bring the learning to you, then strike out on your own. You can ask your manager or colleagues for suggestions, but a quick web search should help you find webinars, books, or events to help you develop in your role. If you can, consider a conference too!

*Tip*: For opportunities with a heftier price tag, your org may have a policy to cover those costs. Check the staff manual and be sure to ask your boss!

23. Get in the habit of absorbing career advice.

Career learning happens on the job. Career honing happens through research. Subscribe to career blogs, do online searches for time management and managing up (important skills for new professionals) and consider listening to a career podcast during your morning commute!

*Tip*: My favorite resource is Ask A Manager – a site where people submit questions about every possible workplace situation, from the mundane to the completely bizarre. Reading Allison’s blog has made me such a better manager, and I don’t even manage anyone.

24. Follow resources that are relevant to both your industry and function.

Your ‘industry’ is 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..).

Find thought leaders, news outlets and other resources for building your knowledge in both areas. You want to keep abreast of best practices relevant to your team, while having an eye towards factors that can impact your org’s mission – like policy changes or world events.

Some Professional Resources: There are too many for me to list here. But some of the biggies that come to mind:

1. 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.

2. Association for Fundraising Professionals – the go-to spot for anyone working in fundraising & development. The Foundation Center is another great place for finding fundraising events/workshops (and if you’re in the NYC area, they host a free workshop on how to use their library!)

3. The Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) – for the IT and nonprofit technologists out there, a great resource for finding trends and tools related the sector. But they also cover a wide range of areas, including program and fundraising.

25. Work 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 event weeks. Coordinating a fundraiser isn’t easy). I sometimes wonder what my job would’ve looked like if the new overtime laws were put into place back then!

Working hard helps us grow. But burn out is one of the biggest challenges faced by nonprofit career professionals, so balance is important. Go home when you’re supposed to, disconnect when you’re not at the office, and make time for the people you love.

Oh, and always use your vacation time.

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