An Introvert’s Nonprofit Career Story: 5 Lessons from My Switch to External Facing Work

I’m an introvert with a background in operations. Here’s what happened when I decided to try out external facing work for the first time.

Work trip turned mini vacation

INFP. The Myers Briggs test didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know. But it gave me a way to fit my skills, professional experience and personal interests into a neat little framework. Nearly 10 years later, I don’t think much has changed.

On this blog, you know me as Dee. In the real world, I’m a business systems manager for a nonprofit organization. It’s a catch-all title, meaning I manage our Salesforce database…but also, any other systems we might adopt. Because #multiplehats.

Getting here —in my career and this blog— hasn’t been a total accident! So I thought I’d share a bit about what that path has looked like for me.

It all started in development (ops).

I didn’t know what I wanted my career to look like. But one thing I did know: I never wanted to be the one asking people for money.

So naturally, my first job was on a development team.

I never had to ask for donations. But I did ask people to do other crazy things: like submitting their event RSVP on time, logging donor calls in our database, stuffing thank you letters logo-side up…the mundane stuff that other devo folks can understand.

But two years of working with 6 fundraisers made me curious. Could I be external-facing like my colleagues, and actually like it?

I have always been a HUGE introvert. At that time, I was also public-speaking averse. So I was quick to close the door on certain paths, like development and sales.

But watching those fundraisers do their work, it bothered me that I might be in the wrong line of work. I didn’t want to let my discomfort drive my career decisions.

Lesson #1: If you’re not going to pursue something because it’s outside your comfort zone, that’s your call. But decide if that’s something you can truly live with.

Finally, I was external facing.

When I decided to move back home, I got an account management role with a great organization. Even though I didn’t have relationship management experience, my data background was enough for my boss to give me a shot.

The rest, as they say is history.

The nonprofit fairies have really looked out for me over the years, because I’ve mostly only worked with supportive managers. And in the past 4 years, my both of my bosses had given me tons of opportunity to flex my schmoozing and public speaking skills.

Lesson #2: Look for the right boss when you’re interviewing. This person can easily become the fairy godmother or wicked stepparent of your career.

It took practice. But after a while, being public-facing started to get more comfortable. I wouldn’t say I was great at it – there’s a healthy dose of awkward that I’m typically working with! – but it didn’t feel like this pit in my stomach anymore. It was a fear I’d conquered, and now I could see with clear eyes if I loved doing this kind of work.

And I might have stuck with it, had it not been for Salesforce.

My true love was systems.

My development days instilled a bizarre sense of discipline in how I tracked my efforts. I put everything in Salesforce. If you’ve heard the saying “if it’s not in the database, it didn’t happen”….I lived that.

But I was the only one. So I was surprised when my org announced that they wanted to implement Salesforce. But I was eager to help.

At the time, all I knew for sure was how to run reports (a duty from my last job I remember dreading the first time I ever laid eyes on a Salesforce report). But over time I let myself experiment with the functionality, started to read up on the ecosystem, attended some user group meetings…

Fast forward 12 months, and I’d go from sharing input on our implementation to guiding it completely.

Lesson #3: Each job can be an opportunity to figure out which tasks you like to do, and which you’d rather do without. 

And while all that was happening, I was unconsciously carving out a little niche for myself. Not only was I learning Salesforce, but I was also learning how to run a few SQL queries. Staff recognized that I knew my way around a spreadsheet, so I started to get requests for list and data support.

I’m not sure what took so long, but 8 months later, I would find my sweet spot at work: data, systems & tech. Lucky for me, that fit in perfectly with my org’s needs.

And now, the next challenge.

I’m the first person to hold this type of role at my org, and while that’s exciting, I do feel the weight of that responsibility. The volume of work that needs to be done is daunting, not to mention navigating a new, different kind of leadership: one that isn’t top-down, but has influence in all directions.

It is hard getting people on the same page for anything, let alone new tech & systems of operating!

But I thoroughly believe in its importance. Nonprofits need to be efficient to be effective, and how an org relates to data is one piece of that riddle.

Lesson #4: Figure out your values and bring those to work. People notice, and it gives you a different sense of purpose.

My interest in the work that I do now – like my Myers Briggs results – isn’t anything I didn’t already know. But trying something else, and going outside my comfort zone, was ultimately how I found my way back to it.

And it helps that I can do the external facing stuff too.

Lesson #5: Stay true to yourself, and give yourself time to figure it all out. 

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