*This post is the first in a two-part series on how to advance from your entry-level nonprofit role into the next phase of your career.*
When you’re just starting out in the nonprofit sector – or your career – it’s easy to start imagining how your role might evolve. You may be a coordinator or associate now (common terms for the most entry-level roles in nonprofit), but you’ve got great ideas. And you’ve got dreams of moving up the ladder.
As you should.
Organizations benefit from ambitious employees, particularly if they’re jazzed about both the mission and their future at an organization. Your head is in the right space.
But before you run off to plot your first big promotion, some advice: slow down.
From one millennial to (likely) another, I get it. You didn’t put yourself through thousands of dollars of school debt to sit around stuffing appeal envelopes all day, or to serve as your nonprofit’s data entry robot. You’re smart, talented, and truly care about making the world better. That’s why you chose a relevant major in college, or spent that semester abroad helping people do xyz. You’ve probably even toyed with the idea of starting your own nonprofit.
That’s all pretty amazing. Don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.
But after years of working for different nonprofits, as an intern and then a coordinator and then a manager, I’ve figured out one of the secrets to achieving those goals: time.
Seriously! To reach the next rank in your career, you’ve got to give yourself and your organization time to get there. Nonprofit career paths don’t move as linearly, or quickly, as other industries. It may even take a few years to get to that next level, so you ought to be prepared for that to happen.
But why does it have to be this way?
Because you’re young in this space, and nonprofits are unique. It’s okay though, because there is a strategy to getting ahead – 7 important things we have to do if we hope to advance in the sector.
And guess what? Each one takes time.
1. Learn about your organization.
By now, you probably know your organization’s mission and values like the back of your hand. (You should’ve figured this out in the interview process, but if not, get on your organization’s website. Right. Now.) Still, you’ll be surprised how much you learn just by going through the daily motions of your job.
So, take the first year to immerse yourself in your organization’s work. This will come organically, but if you want cues, ask yourself:
- What does your nonprofit’s impact actually look like? How is it assessed?
- What are the barriers to delivering on your mission?
- In what ways does your nonprofit aid existing efforts?
- What makes your nonprofit different from the rest?
Here’s why this matters. If you’re just starting out, you’re likely working on tasks that feel a bit mundane. What you want is to work on the bigger picture stuff, the strategic work typically reserved for your manager or director.
To get there, you have to get good at learning the in’s and out’s of your nonprofit first. This is true regardless of whether you stay at, or leave, your organization.
2. Learn about your department.
Maybe you love the department that you’re working in, because the responsibilities are a perfect match for your skills. Or, maybe you’ve learned that this type of work isn’t right for you and you want to explore something else.
Either way, take time to learn the in’s and out’s of your department, too.
Whether you work in development, human resources, program services or operations, your team’s function is bound to exist at your next organization. Any knowledge you can get will carry over into the next role, which can even translate to your own productivity.
In my case, I spent 2 years supporting a team of fundraisers as their coordinator. Not only did I learn invaluable operational skills in that time, but I also left with a greater appreciation for development work (something that was largely a mystery to me before I started that job).
Plus, I still use about 80% of what I learned in that job today. Just saying.
3. Learn about your sector.
This sets apart stellar nonprofit professionals from the rest. If you have big dreams of getting ahead, start reading up on the nonprofit sector and your specific line of work. If you’re employed by an education organization, how does public ed work at the municipal or state level? What about nationally? Are there lots of nonprofits in the area doing similar work to yours?
This is really useful if your organization’s mission fits your personal interests. But either way, you only become a more competent professional by choosing to understand how the larger system behind your organization works. There is not a single nonprofit that works in a silo, separate from the rest of the world. So to understand your nonprofit’s place in the world, you really have to know what external factors come into play.
And what might those factors be? It depends on your focus area, but think legislation, competition (I use that word lightly, because nonprofits should really build on each other), shifts in your constituent population, and even funding. For example, if your nonprofit is government-funded, knowing how that particular grant works will add another layer of insight about your organization.
If any of that sounded boring, welp, that’s par for the course if you want to be a nonprofit leader. Whether you become an executive director one day or start your own charity, begin this learning now so that you can stay relevant throughout the progression of your career.
4. Learn about yourself.
If you’ve spent more than 3 months in your role and learned nothing new about yourself, then you’re doing it wrong! Whether you love your entry-level job or hate it with a passion, use this time to take stock of where you are both personally and professionally. Your first nonprofit job is a great time to do an audit of your skills – because more than likely, you’re doing doing things now that are completely new to you. And you’re either struggling with them, or knocking it out of the park.
By the way, this type of learning happens throughout your career. Better to get used to it now.
My first year as a coordinator taught me a lot about what I was and wasn’t great at. It also helped me figure out which tasks captured my attention, and which areas of nonprofit work sparked my interest.
Here are some questions to ask yourself after 1 year on the job:
- Which aspects of my duties do I enjoy, or “get lost” in?
- Which aspects of my duties do I dislike? Why might that be?
- Which areas of work do I find most interesting, within or beyond my own department? Might I want to pursue those in the future?
- How does my current job play to my strengths? My weaknesses?
- What are my growth areas in this role and how can I continue to develop them?
5. Build relationships with your co-workers.
By far, this was the biggest regret of my first year as a coordinator. I spent so much time focusing on my actual work that I didn’t prioritize getting to know my teammates all that well. This is all too easy to do when you are an introvert, and despite having good working relationships, I often felt left out as I observed their deeper connections with one another.
That’s why in my second year, I made it a point to actually socialize with my team. And what a difference that made.
It’s just like your Career Services counselor told you: networks make the world go around, and the people you know are critical to your career. When I left my organization to return home to NYC, my teammates were a huge source of support – so much that one even tried to help me land my next job! There may be thousands of nonprofits in the country, but this world is small enough that you never know whose path you will cross again in the future.
Not to mention, I adored my team by the time I had to leave . They ended up being one of the biggest highlights of my experience, and I almost missed out because of my shy, workaholic tendencies!
6. Prove your worth.
You may know that you’re brilliant and capable, but don’t expect your organization to see that right away. It’s taken time for your manager and colleagues to find their groove at work, so it should come as no surprise that the same holds true for you.
Even if the work is as simple as stuffing appeal envelopes.
So, how do you prove yourself if your tasks don’t really provide an opening? You re-shift your mentality – because when you’re just starting out, those simple tasks are the way to prove yourself. In other words, you become the best darn envelope stuffer they’ve ever seen. We only gain more responsibility – and trust – by excelling at our current duties, not just completing them.
But also, take pride in whatever task you do! Whether you see it or not, your role is an import cog in the larger machine that is your nonprofit. You’re doing work that’s going to matter to someone else, even if it doesn’t seem all that glamorous. (Plus your boss, and even your boss’s boss, probably had to do this at one point in their careers too.)
7. Practice humility.
You may very well have the ideas and skills to catapult your organization to the next level. Again, we won’t really know that until you’ve done step #6.
So continue to show that you’re the bees knees. Just be humble & open at the same time.
Millennials, hear me out. We get a bad rap for being overconfident and entitled. If we prove that to be the case, then we are not going to be received very well. Even if it comes from a sincere or genuine place, no one likes to work with someone who acts like they know it all (and let’s be honest here: we really don’t).
Humility is showing that your own knowledge or importance doesn’t trump that of those around you. Not only is that endearing to the people we work with, but for our own personal development, it allows us to grow in ways that we can’t see coming. When we’re open to the idea that there is something to learn from every person or experience, that’s often what ends up happening.
Humility is also a key element of compassion – and that’s a must if we hope to work at a nonprofit and really do some good there. The worst thing to become is a nonprofit leader who is so convinced of their own knowledge that they’re closed off to learning from anyone else.
p.s. You may feel like you work for a leader who is just that; unflinching and closed off. Remember that you can probably learn something valuable from that person, and approach them in that way. They’ll perceive you better and quite possibly prove you wrong.
And if not, that’s okay too. The point is that you shouldn’t become that person – whether you’re right or wrong.
Regardless of where you are in your career, you always want to keep an eye towards the future. But particularly if you’re just starting out, focus on your role now and all the things you can do to really excel at this job.
What are some lessons you’ve learned (or that you’re currently learning) about advancing in your nonprofit career? Any tips or surprises?