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Building a Career in the Nonprofit Sector (Or Why I Stayed in Nonprofit Work for 44 years), Part 1

Building a Career in the Nonprofit Sector (Or Why I Stayed in Nonprofit Work for 44 years), Part 1

January 12, 2023
Pamela Barden

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.

  1. Try anything and everything. Starting my career, I was cocky. Admitting I didn’t know how to do something was impossible. So, I faked it. If someone asked me if I knew how to do something, I told them, “Let me get back to you tomorrow.” Then I rushed to the library (there was no such thing as Google back then) and read everything I could on how to do what they were asking me about.

    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.

  2. Invest in your own education. Waiting for your employer to pay for seminars, classes, books or other educational opportunities is career-growth suicide. If you are determined to grow your skills and improve your marketability, you have to take that responsibility.

  3. 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.

  4. Don’t let loyalty stand in the way of opportunity. Resigning from my first “real” job was hard. I had been there nine years. I loved the work, and the employer loved me (I think). As a result, I missed opportunities. When I finally chose to leave for a better job, my career (and paycheck) took off. It’s easy to think your resignation will be devastating. It’s like author Evan Thomas wrote: “Take a bucket, fill it with water, Put your hand in — clear up to the wrist. Now pull it out; the hole that remains as a measure of how you’ll be missed…” Depressing but true — none of us is truly indispensable in the workplace. If you want to build an amazing career in the nonprofit sector, own it — and sometimes that means taking hard steps away from one job to into another.

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.


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.”