Did you deliberately choose to work in the nonprofit sector? Or was it an accident/chance/last best hope/another unintentional move?
For me, it was totally unplanned. I graduated from college at the ripe old age of 20 at a time when inflation was in double digits and unemployment was high. Finding a job was difficult, so I swallowed my pride and took an entry-level job at a fairly large nonprofit organization. A few months later, my boss resigned and I picked up some of his work. About a year after that, I settled into what would become my “real” career – fundraising (and, later, management) for nonprofit organizations.
Forty-four years later, semi-retired and out of the day-to-day fray, I look back on what was a very satisfactory career. No, it wasn’t all big salaries and fancy offices. Yes, the politics were enough to drive me crazy. But because of some deliberate choices I made over the years, it was a good career – and a career that was good for me.
Today, I hear so much discouragement from nonprofit employees. Many tell me it’s become a place to collect a paycheck until a “real” job comes up. That makes me sad because I believe that a work-lifetime spent in the nonprofit sector can be amazingly rewarding and give you a sense of fulfillment that is hard to replicate elsewhere. Here’s what I learned in my early years that helped me – and may give you some guidance, too.
As a result, I had some amazing experiences that I had never even dreamed of having. Running corporate meetings, I set up a reception for then-President Reagan and learned a lot about the Secret Service. Writing direct mail taught me how to write compelling copy that moved people to give a donation. Digging into statistics through the spreadsheets I developed taught me more about what works and what doesn’t. I learned the various tools for a planned giving program and how to promote them. And above all, I learned that I loved (not liked, loved!) direct response – mail; telethons; TV, radio and print advertising; and now emails, social media, landing pages, etc.
Want to expand your role at a nonprofit? Try anything and everything. Figure out what you like and, yes, what you hate. You will increase your value to the company – and likely open yourself up to new opportunities.
I still have the first book I ever bought for fundraising: “The Art of Asking” by Paul Schneiter. Far more sophisticated books have come out since, but that book represents, to me, the first time I decided that my career-growth was my job, not my employer’s. I invested $6.95 – a fortune for me at that time – because I was serious about learning and growing career-wise. Since that time, I have invested in seminars, books, formal education, webinars and multi-day training opportunities. My employers have also invested in me, but I recognized early that I had to grab hold of my career and own it if I seriously wanted to grow.
Why did I love fundraising in my early years? I had a chance to learn a lot, try (almost) anything I wanted to try and build friendships that have stayed with me for life.
Coming soon: Part 2 of 4 – how to keep building your career in the middle of your work years.