Dear Nonprofiteer, How do I find out the color of my parachute?

Dear Nonprofiteer,

Do you know of any quality books or websites for those in the first or second phase of their non-profit career? I’m specifically interested in fundraising. Thanks!

Signed, Still Wet Behind the Ears

Dear Wet:

There’s less than one might like, probably because the notion of a nonprofit "career" is such a recent one.  Many members of the current generation of nonprofit leaders fell into the work, through their volunteer activities or some other life event, and often as a second career.  Indeed, the idea of charitable work as something you do after (rather than as) your career continues today, in breathless media speculation over how Baby Boomers will reshape nonprofits as they retire into them.

And indeed those old concepts–that you don’t choose charitable work, it chooses you; or that the charitable environment is too other-worldly to require or sustain career planning–continue to affect the way the sector operates.  The recent report "Ready to Lead" notes the extent to which charities are in danger of losing their young employees because of poor pay and lack of opportunities for career development.

So if you can’t see how to move forward in a nonprofit career, Wet, the problem isn’t your vision–it’s the lack of a path.  Still, it’s possible to bushwhack your way to a satisfying career.  Start with the Idealist e-guide to careers in the sector, and then consider some thoughts the Nonprofiteer would include in a Guide to Nonprofit Careers, should she ever write one:

  • Ask yourself first what you mean by "nonprofit."  I presume you actually mean charity (rather than membership association, say, or think tank) but even among charities there are important distinctions.  The hospitals and universities are more like businesses than any of the others; they offer more comfort but make up for it in more red tape.  The biggest social service agencies and arts organizations similarly operate in a "corporate" fashion, which is to say, you can expect and receive a reasonable salary and health insurance, possibly even retirement benefits, and you can be sure that when the money is withheld from your paycheck every two weeks it’s actually going to the IRS and not being used on the q.t. to pay the light bill, as sometimes happens with smaller organizations.  The trade-off is that working in any of these larger agencies takes you (as a fundraiser) further from the mission of service of the organization, and it can be hard to maintain enthusiasm for something you’re only exposed to in passing.  The smaller groups–in social services, in the arts, in advocacy and environmental causes–will put their fundraisers closer to the front-line, but will be less likely to offer you either a living wage or an opportunity to ever be anything but a fundraiser.  If there are only two of you in an agency, and one of them is the founding Executive Director, you’re going to have a hard time moving up. 
  • Beyond the question of big or small (because here, as elsewhere, size matters!), there’s the question of substance: what do you have a true passion for?  This turns out to be a question with a remarkably narrow set of answers.  The Nonprofiteer herself thought she wanted to work in "the arts" until she worked for a music group, whereupon she discovered what she really believed: that music only matters when it occurs in the context of her true passions, dance and theater.  It’s more pleasant to make this discovery before you accept a job.  Don’t go to work for a museum if the visual arts make you yawn.  Don’t go to work for a private school if the notion of private pre-university education inspires you to rants about privileged preppies.  Don’t go to work for a group promoting "fathers’ rights" if you’re a feminist.  (Can you tell these are all things the Nonprofiteer has done?)  Nowhere in the world of work is the concept of "fit" between employer and employee more important than among nonprofits.  Find a subject that arouses your passion, and go work for people who feel the same.
  • Being "particularly interested in fundraising" will make you a bonus baby in the nonprofit world, where (as everywhere else) the thought of asking others for money makes most people cringe.  The Nonprofiteer suggests–with blithe disregard for her original suggestion that the choice of agency size come first–that everyone who intends to raise money for a living work for a big agency, preferably a hospital or university, for at least a couple of years.  Why?  Because in those environments they’ll be exposed in short order to all of the different things "fundraising" can mean, and will find out which they’re best at and which they want to do.  If you start at a small nonprofit, by contrast, you’re likely to think that fundraising=grant-writing, and if you hate that you’ll change your career ambition and become a taxi-dancer or a vet.  The Nonprofiteer herself refused to join a university fundraising office when the opportunity offered itself because she’d been accustomed to being in a position of authority and didn’t want to be "second assistant fundraiser from the left."  (Her exact words.)  What she didn’t realize is how quickly people can rise within university development offices; how readily you can get the chance to do special events for 8 months and annual giving for 8 more and then a stint in the research department before winding up in major gifts, and meanwhile learn the ropes from senior professionals in each of these areas.
  • If and when you’re ready to be out on your own, you leave the hospital or university and go to a small agency–whereupon you discover that small-agency fundraising involves begging for pencils where you’ve been used to plotting strategy for $1 million gifts.  To reduce this inevitable culture shock, ask a lot of questions before you sign up, about the job rather than your salary.  That is, "How much am I expected to raise?  What resources do I have with which to do it?  Do I have a secretary or am I the secretary?  Are you planning any new fundraising initiatives on the Web, and do you expect me to know how to create a Website?" and the like.  Again, here’s where you get the benefit of having worked at a big shop: you know how many things can be compassed by the term "fundraising," and you can be clear with your prospective employer about which of them you can do and which of them you can’t, which of them require volunteer support and which don’t, which of them will take the combined efforts of staff and Board and which don’t, ad infinitum.
  • Bear in mind as you job-hunt that 5 years is a long time in the contemporary work economy, and especially at a nonprofit.  Much of the press coverage of "Ready to Lead" styles as a "crisis" the reported intention of most Executive Directors to move on in 5 years.  (Probably if they didn’t tell themselves it would be over soon, they couldn’t do it at all.)  To which the Nonprofiteer’s response is: them and who else?  So don’t be concerned about finding an agency that will keep you happy indefinitely: pick one that will teach you what you need to know at this point in your career.  As a different sort of guide to the future might also tell you, in these early days you’re not looking for Mr. Right–you’re looking for Mr. Right Now.
  • It’s easier to get decent money on the way in than once you’ve already been hired, so negotiate  hard for your salary up front.  Call other agencies and ask what they’re paying; check on-line for the same information.  Don’t let the agency you want to work for get away with, "But we’re a nonprofit!"–just say, as the Nonprofiteer does to prospective clients, "Everyone I’m dealing with is a nonprofit.  This is what I charge."  There’s no need to be belligerent but don’t take less than will enable you to pay your rent and your student loans (and see whether working at the agency will get the latter forgiven, by the way); if you do, you’ll just be job-hunting again in a year, or you’ll be stuck where you are and bitter before your time.

Good luck, and let us know where you land. 



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