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Nonprofits

Four Ways to Create a Successful Nonprofit Career Path

A few ideas to consider if you’re trying to figure out how to create your own path.

In most industries, there’s a clear path to leadership positions in your organization. In many companies, you might start out as an assistant, then get promoted to manager, then director, then VP, then senior VP, then hopefully one day the President if you have the ambition to be so. We love to read stories like that of Ursula Burns, the new CEO of Xerox who first came to the company as a summer intern. In 1980. It wasn’t until thirty years later that she came to hold the incredible title of being the first African American woman to lead a major U.S. corporation.

30 years is a long time. Too long if you ask me. So the great thing about working in the nonprofit sector is that you don’t have to wait that long to become the head of an organization, if that’s what you want to do. Because in nonprofits, there is no linear career map. Which means that if you innovate your nonprofit career, you can lead whenever you’re ready to. The slate is blank for you to get in where you fit in, wherever you think you can do some good. Here are just a few ideas to consider if you’re trying to figure out how to create your own path.

Do Your Job Really Well
The first few years of your nonprofit career are critical. Don’t be a slacker just because you can or because you don’t get paid that much. Come in to work on time and do an excellent job within the position you were hired for. If you are in charge of a program or project, make sure it doesn’t just get done, but do it in a remarkable way, on time and within budget. Instead of coming to work just to “do your job,” try to exceed the goals that the organization has for you or your department. If you need to raise $100,000, raise $150,000. If you’re tasked with recruiting 20 mentors, go out and find 40. While you’ll still get a paycheck, doing the bare minimum is not going to be enough to get you promoted to a job with more responsibility. And it’s damn sure not gonna get you a glowing recommendation when you’re ready to take the next step in your career.

Become a Rainmaker
A rainmaker is someone who has a knack for using their connections to benefit their company with new clients, customers, or investors.  When you come into a new nonprofit job, don’t be afraid to use your personal networks to connect you to opportunities that will benefit the organization. If you belong to an alumni association, ask your fellow classmates to volunteer or donate to your cause. Put messages out on your Facebook and Twitter profiles to increase attendance at your nonprofit’s events. Help garner press for your agency by calling in a favor from your friend who works at a local newspaper. If you can bring in new assets that the nonprofit didn’t have before they hired you, your name will be at the top of the list when an internal leadership position opens up, and you’ll have some great results to brag about in the interview for your next job.

Don’t Be Afraid to Job Hop
Nonprofit jobs, especially entry-level ones, can involve quite a bit of grunt work that doesn’t fully leverage your skills or education. So if you get hired as a program assistant, you’ll likely learn your job within a year and be ready to move on up to something more challenging. And if there’s nowhere “up” to go in your particular organization, your best bet may be to move on to the next one so you can continue to learn and grow. Job-hopping used to get a bad rap, but the times have changed. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that “today’s learner will have 10-14 different jobs by the age of 38,” so you shouldn’t be biting your nails about leaving a nonprofit job after just a year.

Introduce Yourself to a Search Firm
I’ve been told by my search consultant friends that about 15 percent of nonprofit positions are placed by a search firm. If you have the kind of talent that is in demand by nonprofit organizations, they would love to hear from you. If you don’t already have a connection to a nonprofit search firm, it may be time for you to introduce yourself and let them know you’d like to be included in their network of candidates.  Browse the search firm’s website and check out the searches they currently have open. Look up the name of the person at the firm who is leading the search and send them your resume and a brief cover letter, being very specific about why you’re interested in the position. Then follow-up with a phone call. If you don’t yet have a connection to a recruiting firm in your area, here are a few that work locally and nationally:

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