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Building a Career in the Nonprofit Sector (Or Why I Stayed in Nonprofit Work for 44 years), Part 3

Building a Career in the Nonprofit Sector (Or Why I Stayed in Nonprofit Work for 44 years), Part 3

February 15, 2023
Pamela Barden

By the time you have been working in the nonprofit sector for 25 or 30 years, you are hopefully pleased with your career choices and proud of what you have accomplished over the years. But that’s no reason to coast through the rest of your work lifetime. For one thing, your colleagues deserve the best you can bring to the table. But more than that, you deserve to finish strong and have a lot of fun in the process.

My final years before retirement had some unexpected twists and turns but were, for the most part, an opportunity for me to do what I loved best. I was past worrying about my resume or my job title and I was secure in what I knew and could do. Most of all, I wasn’t afraid to say, “No, that’s not my skillset,” and worry it would be the career kiss of death. Instead, I embraced what is best expressed in this (attributed to just about everyone on social media) quote: “I love my age: old enough to know better; young enough not to care; experienced enough to do it right.”

Embrace your final decade or two. But make them count by giving your own spin to these three thoughts of mine.

  • Take bigger risks. My final career-third was totally not what anyone would have expected – least of all me. First, my husband and I decided to make a major move for my new job 1,500 miles away. The job ended up not being a good fit, but getting out of our comfort zone by moving was a great choice. So I then launched my own consulting firm, keeping it small because I loved building relationships with people who were doing work I believed in. 

    Out of that grew opportunities to teach fundraising and nonprofit leadership and governance at two universities. That led me to invest the time and money into earning a doctorate. I was given the privilege of editing the fourth edition of Stanley Weinstein’s pivotal book, “The Complete Guide to Fundraising Management.” Absolutely none of this was part of my career plan. I took big risks and invested some significant dollars. But it was an absolutely fabulous ride and I wouldn’t change a thing. Your “big risks” may look entirely different, but don’t hold back. You only have so many years to try something, so don’t let fear of the unknown paralyze you. 
  • Teach and encourage others. Let’s be honest – we all hope something we did leaves an impact after we retire. And you can take it from me – the programs and procedures we develop aren’t it. That’s where everyone wants to make a mark, so changing them is inevitable. So instead, make your mark by investing in people who respect you and genuinely want to learn from you.

    I can honestly say that I am proudest that I have had an impact on a few people’s lives. Yes, my plans and strategies helped raise billions of dollars for worthy causes. Yes, I had good job titles and even a corner office. But that is all a distant memory. What continues are the people who I invested a little time in and they went on to do more than I ever achieved. I am most proud that my legacy lives on in small ways through these amazing nonprofit workers.
  • Plan for life after work. Few of us want the challenges and the accomplishments of our career to grind to a halt the day after we collect that final paycheck. We may not want to think about work 24/7, but boredom isn’t our goal, either. Are you going to pursue volunteering, become proficient in a whole new area, learn a new language, craft or sport? 

    Even when retired, time goes by quickly. So, spend a little time when you are still working to consider what you need to make your retirement years the best years of your life. Yes, it’s corny. But planning isn’t just for our work lifetime; it is an indispensable part of our post-career years – those years when we can still have an impact and help make the world a better place.

As you finish well, I hope you can say, in the words of Mark Twain, “What work I have done I have done because it has been play. If it had been work I shouldn’t have done it.” Those of us working in the nonprofit sector have a noble calling. I can only hope that you find it as fulfilling as I have.

Next blog – Don’t just take my word for it…

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.


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.”