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Building a Career in the Nonprofit Sector (Or Why I Stayed in Nonprofit Work for 44 years), Part 2

Building a Career in the Nonprofit Sector (Or Why I Stayed in Nonprofit Work for 44 years), Part 2

January 27, 2023
Pamela Barden

Looking back over a 44-year career in and/or for the nonprofit sector, I am amazed at some of the things that worked out perfectly – and admit that there were other things that could have taken me screaming and running away from the sector.

For this second article, I considered primarily what helped me grow and thrive mid-career. While our experiences depend on many factors, certain things can make a big difference at different stages of your work-lifetime. 

As a refresher, if you are in the first 10 to 15 years of your career, you can’t count on your employer to help you grow; you need to invest in your own career. You do this by gaining education, tryinganything and everything to figure out what you like and don’t like, and in the process increase your value to your current and future employers. 

Once you have that first decade or so behind you, you are ready to take on your middle work years. This is when you know enough to know what you do best and enjoy most, and when you have confidence in your abilities. This is also when you set aside what you dislike or just aren’t good at. Yes, this means closing some doors, but it also frees you to expand the opportunities available to you when you are doing your best work and enjoying the experience.

Reflecting back on my own career, my advice to readers who are heading toward or in this mid-career is summed up in these three recommendations:

  • Network with a small group of people who can (and are willing to) help you grow. Yes, it’s great to go to conferences and seminars and connect with dozens, even hundreds of people. But you will be best served by cultivating relationships with a smaller number who know your skills and interests. These are the people you call upon when you have a question – for example, “Is the current economy impacting your major gifts?” – and know they will give you an honest reply. You also know that if they recommend training or tell you about a job that they think you will be perfect for, they most likely are spot on in that recommendation. They know you well enough to see your strengths and weaknesses and to give you career advice that is based on that knowledge.
  • Build your leadership and management skills. By now, you have worked for some great managers and seen some great leaders at work. You have also seen the absolute worst – the leader who can’t make a decision, the manager who resorts to bullying, the supervisor who takes all the credit, and so much more. Now is your chance to take all the input – good and bad – and figure out what kind of leader and manager you will be. If you aren’t managing anyone, offer to take on a challenging area. (I first managed the mailroom, which had little to do with my job but it helped me learn and made higher management notice me.) Offer to lead a committee or a team and do it better than it has ever been done before. If there simply aren’t any opportunities with your current employer, volunteer elsewhere where you can develop these skills. Don’t wait to be identified as the next great leader or manager; get out of your cubicle and just do it.
  • Know when to stay and when to go. This was probably the hardest thing for me. I was tremendously loyal. I liked being needed. But through a vendor I networked with (see the first point), I was challenged that it was time to move on. Being told straight out that I had become bored of my job was not welcomed at first – I had a million arguments why this was not true. But after a lot of thought, I realized he was totally right. In hindsight, leaving that job for another was the best career move I made; if I had stayed, my career would have been much less fulfilling.

The middle years of your career should be filled with exciting new opportunities to grow and stretch your management chops. If you find yourself bored and ready to leave the nonprofit sector in this period, ask yourself if you need to quit the sector or find a different job in the sector that rekindles your excitement. Oftentimes it’s not the nonprofit sector that you want no part of, it’s the specific job you are in. Invest in finding the opportunity that will allow you to flourish.

Next blog – finish strong as you keep building your career in your final work years.

Read Part 1 here.


Pamela Barden

Pamela has amassed more than 40 years of non-profit experience. As president of PJ Barden Inc., she counsels non-profits, helping them develop their fundraising strategies and writing copy to achieve their goals. She previously taught fundraising courses in the Master of Public Administration program at the University of La Verne in La Verne, California, and the Fundraising Certification Program at UCLA Extension. Pamela is a former vice president at Russ Reid. Before that, she led fundraising efforts for non-profit organizations such as World Relief and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, getting hands-on experience in everything from direct mail to DRTV, from major gift solicitation to event management. Pamela is the recipient of a Silver ECHO Award from the Direct Marketing Association, winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and a Distinguished Instruction’s Award from UCLA Extension. She is also the coauthor of “The Complete Guide to Fundraising Management” (John Wiley & Sons), and author or hundreds of articles for fundraising publications. A Certified Fund Raising Executive, Pamela is a graduate of Wheaton College (B.A), Dominican University (M.B.A.), and California Southern University (Doctorate in Business Administration). Her hobbies include travel, hiking and reading. The most-frequently heard quote by and from Pamela is what she has told clients and students alike for many years because, as a fundraiser, she knows it’s true: "I am not the target audience.”