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

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 RSVP’s to an event more than 2 days out, logging donor calls in our database, stuffing thank you letters logo-side up…things other devo folks can understand, but must sound utterly mundane to the rest.

And wouldn’t you know, two years of being surrounded by charismatic fundraisers managed to spark my curiosity. Could I be external-facing and like it?

The ‘I’ in INFP might as well be bolded and 50pt font, because I am a HUGE introvert. But even more, I was public-speaking averse. That’s why I closed the door on certain opportunities, like development and sales…and it would irk me to no end to know that I let that discomfort drive my decision-making.

Lesson #1: If you’re not making a switch because you’re afraid to branch out of your comfort zone, then decide if that’s something you can live with. 

Enter part II of this happy accident.

Finally, I was external facing.

In relocating back home, I got an account management role at a great organization. The gig required some work experience, but still entry-level enough that my operations background didn’t completely disqualify me.

The rest, as they say is history.

The nonprofit fairies have really looked out for me over the years, because I’ve only ever worked with awesome, supportive managers! And in the past 4 years, they’d 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 stepmom of your career.

In time, being external facing began to feel less like a marathon and more like an instinct. I wouldn’t say I was great – 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, it’d been 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.

But 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 it came as a surprise that my org wanted to try implementing Salesforce. And they’d need a lot of help getting it set up.

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. To free up some of his time, our developer began showing me how to run my own SQL queries. Recognizing that I knew my way around a spreadsheet, people also began asking me to help with their email lists or excel analyses.

I’m not sure what took so long, but 8 months later, I would find my sweet spot at work: data, systems-y stuff. Lucky for me, that fit 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. The seeds to that conviction were planted in my first job, and came full circle in my last. It’s the reason why this new role became available to me at all.

Lesson #4: Figure out your values and bring those to your 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 hey. Now I know, 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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