What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?
What do you want to be when you grow up? A career in the nonprofit world was not one that, early on, I knew existed — let alone one that I thought I would be interested in pursuing. There were no college degrees or people I knew then to even ask. I just knew I wanted to wake up everyday and make a difference when I went to work. That was important to me in whatever I chose to do.
Early in my career, I received the most valuable piece of advice from a good friend. She said, "Reverse engineer your career path." Too often, we search for the next job, opportunity or employer. What we do not do is consider how that next move will impact long-term career plans. So instead of looking at the next move, I was challenged to look three or four moves down the line.
At that time, I was in volunteer administration. As I looked up the path in volunteer management, I knew looking four or five positions ahead was not going to get me to where I wanted to be. I wanted to have an impact leading a development team to change communities. And so I found that opportunity on the career ladder as a chief development officer.
I looked at my resume, my skill set, my education and found the gaps I needed to fill. I set out on a path to not just fill those gaps, but when the time came for the interview for that perfect role, I would be ready. I went back to school and completed an MBA in management at the University of Miami. I added major giving to my resume. I led a team of major gift officers in a capital campaign. I was not only ready; I was qualified to make that next move.
When the call came from the Parkinson’s Foundation for the opportunity to become the chief development officer and lead a national team, I made sure I was the right candidate walking into the interview. Confident in my skills and background, everything I had done had prepared me for that moment.
In my two years as senior VP and chief development officer, we have worked to transform the organization through both its philanthropic and programmatic efforts. We have increased giving by 60% in two years. We have increased our programmatic reach and impact through investments in research and genetics. Our team continues to both impress and amaze me. We have had a focus on retention, and the results are paying off. Maintaining a talented team in place is allowing us to hold onto these fantastic employees and attract additional talent to the team.
The question turns to "now what?" Personally, I am far from done on our march to move the Parkinson’s Foundation into a $100 million+ organization, so I find myself staring down an eventual crossroad as many in our field do — making the next step into advanced senior leadership roles.
In development, we understand the pitfalls of losing talented fundraisers. The opportunity cost of losing these professionals to other organizations is immense. It can often take an organization 18 to 24 months to recover from the turnover of one staff member. Between recruitment, hiring, training and developing relationships with donors, organizations which do not develop a career path for their team risk flat and stagnant fundraising efforts.
Herein lies the dilemma in this day and age with the Millennial generation interested in moving quickly after showing success: Can we provide a pathway to keep these employees engaged? Can we show them not just their next promotion, but three or four opportunities up the organizational chart?
The next dilemma we have yet to face and perhaps slightly more controversial in nature stems from the ultimate goal of who leads these organizations in the CEO role. Too often, we see nonprofit organizations being led by well-intentioned business professionals who look at these roles as their last stop in a long career. They led successful for-profit companies and now look to slow down or finally time to give back to their community.
As an industry, we must face the fact that this rationale does incredible harm to the talented individuals who have spent entire careers working in the nonprofit space. Bringing in executives with limited knowledge of both industry and culture can have equal negative impact on the long-term growth and strategic plan for these organizations. This is especially true for development professionals who often look at these positions as the ultimate career goal and are often stymied by well-intentioned board members seeking to bring in professionals from the corporate world, thinking this is the way to grow their organizations. When, in fact, it simply places a career limiting factor on the committed and dedicated professionals in development who understand all the aspects necessary for senior leadership.
I am fortunate that the Parkinson’s Foundation saw fit to bring in a leader with tremendous nonprofit and development experience. It is his leadership under which the organization is flourishing. I attribute our growth to a focus on his experience not only leading teams, but as a major gift officer himself who understands the ins and outs of the day-to-day work of driving revenue into our organization while focusing on the effects that has on our mission.
In closing, I would ask all recruiters and boards looking for leadership to search internally first, within the nonprofit world second and the corporate world last. If we truly are here to impact the causes in which we care so deeply about, we should embrace those who have made careers toward that end.
If you're interested in learning more from Sean, he will be speaking at Peer to Peer Advanced in Philly on November 4-5. You can learn more about the conference here.
Sean Kramer is the chief development officer at the Parkinson's Foundation. For over 20 years, Sean has led capital and leadership fundraising initiatives for numerous organizations, including the Miami Cancer Institute, Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute, American Cancer Society, Florida International University and Barry University.