Keys to a Career in the Nonprofit Sector

I was taken aback recently when a smart, young leader of a nonprofit organization referred to me as a “senior leader” in the sector. I suddenly realized that, without even noticing, I had transitioned from being the upstart pushing for new ways of thinking and doing to the more seasoned professional valued more for my experience and wisdom than new ideas. Of course, these are not mutually exclusive, but for the moment I’ve decided to own my “senior” status and provide some reflections for people wanting to break into, or grow within, the nonprofit sector.

I’ve often been asked by friends and colleagues to speak with people in their networks who are interested in entering or advancing in the nonprofit or philanthropy world. While each conversation is unique based on the questions and situations of the people I’m speaking with, here are a few standard pieces of “advice” that I offer.

Rather than “success,” strive for happiness

We live in such a status-focused society, where one of the first questions we are asked when we meet someone is, “What do you do?” The answer that follows is usually about our employment, a place of work and a job title. The nonprofit sector is a great place to work and build a career, providing employment for more than 12 million people in the U.S., making it the third largest workforce of any industry. However, most people get into the sector not primarily for financial gain but rather out of a sense of purpose and social good, and in my experience it is these that provide true happiness. Like any industry and career, the sector provides opportunity for advancement and leadership, but beware of focusing too much on those measures of success. Remember what got you into the sector in the first place — whether it be improving access to health, advancing arts and culture, or simply helping people and society — and strive for happiness rather than status.

Build and maintain your network

One of my earliest full time jobs in the sector was working as a community organizer, helping residents advocate for their hopes for their neighborhoods. The method of organizing is all about relationships, getting to know “what makes people tick” and building a network of people who act on their common interests. I’m reminded again and again how those skills have served me in my career. A group of strong professional relationships helps in good times — working together toward a common cause — but also in the not-so-good times — when you’re having challenges and need help looking for new opportunities. More than the superficial relationships of “networking,” look to build strong connections based on mutual respect, trust and common interests. You never know when you may need to call on them.

Let your work speak for itself

Unfortunately, the nonprofit sectors is not immune to workplace politics, as we live in a society and time when self-promotion seems a necessary ingredient to maintaining and advancing in a career. Because resources and positions are usually finite, there is often a “survival of the fittest” mentality in organizations. There is nothing wrong with putting your best foot forward and making people aware of your skills and accomplishments; but when that leads to putting down others or backstabbing, you risk putting your success above happiness. Your integrity is something no one can take from you, so don’t give it away. Rather than scheming how to get leadership to think highly of you, do good work and let that speak for itself.

These are just a few things that I’ve found help people be fulfilled in their work in the nonprofit sector. There are certainly many more, but these are a few key ones that I personally hold at the top. I’d love to hear what you think and if there are other lessons you’ve learned or advice you would give.

Note: The article is also posted in LinkedIn

Social justice advocate and collaborative leader who has worked in the nonprofit sector in Los Angeles for more than 25 years. https://billpitkin.net

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