10 Lessons From My 40-Year Nonprofit Career
It is hard for me to believe, but on Feb. 16, 1976, I stepped into the nonprofit world. I left my home in West Virginia for the University of Louisville, which paid me the dynamic sum of $10,500 to be assistant director of development for the university. I was hired in the pre-computerization of records. I recall the development staff was painting in the basement when I made my grand entrance into the nonprofit world by falling down the steps while carrying paint. It was a total mess.
My first day on the job, I attended an alumni event and was introduced to speak. That is the good news. The bad news is no one told me that I would be speaking, and I was totally scared and unprepared. Public speaking was bad enough at that stage for me. I just wanted to leave the podium and throw up. It was an interesting first experience in development.
I was so green and raw, but wanted to learn. I had to represent every college and function from annual giving to planned giving. I loved the university environment, especially the students and academic setting. I can still smell the pipe smoke in the faculty offices.
Through the years I worked in an array of locales. These included four universities, two health care systems, an international organization, a national organization and a state-wide organization. I served as a consultant for three companies. I also taught as an adjunct professor in several settings. I guess you could say I have been around the sun several times. I enjoyed the exposure to many diverse environments and people.
I watched excellent management at work, plus terrible management in play. I worked for organizations that were very honest and ethical, plus one particular organization that promoted unethical practices. I enjoyed directing programs, like annual-fund mailings, special events, planned-giving seminars and major-gift clubs.
My particular joy was directing a variety of successful capital campaigns for programs, endowments and buildings. I enjoyed receiving gifts of $1 from the poor to several million dollars from the rich. I have been in countless homes meeting wonderful people who want to make a difference.
If I am to give advice from my four-decade nonprofit career, I would like to point out certain attributes you should have to survive and thrive in a variety of roles.
- Be honest and truthful. I can sleep at night because I always have tried to be honest in all dealings with others. At times this is not the easy way out, but if you respect others, they will respect you.
- Give 100 percent each day. Try your best to work hard and set an example for others. People are watching you all of the time. Let them watch and learn. You will make many mistakes, but learn from them.
- Respect authority. You always should respect authority and have self-discipline toward others.
- Be institutionally based. You work for the benefit of the institution. Represent each organization well and understand your relationships between prospects and donors are not personal but professional.
- Have a positive attitude. You will succeed and, at times, you will fail. Regardless, be positive and focus on short- and long-term results.
- Make career adjustments. If you stay in the nonprofit field for a career, make adjustments. Understand your strengths and weaknesses, and find jobs you enjoy doing.
- Promote the profession. Be a mentor, and speak at job fairs and career days. Get involved in the Association of Fundraising Professionals and consider obtaining a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE) certificate.
- Learn to speak and write. In this profession, speaking and writing are musts. Learn to look forward to making your next speech.
- Don’t burn bridges. I never have tried to burn a bridge, although I’ve felt like doing so. Life goes on and so do you. You never know if you will need a recommendation for others. Do not promote conflict.
- Grow with the best of class. You don’t know everything. Seek to learn from the best, and do this often.
Some days on the job, time moves slowly. Other days, time zips by too fast. Try to enjoy your career’s ride. Don’t get too high or low, and just do your job. Take responsibility for your actions and decisions. Pay it forward, and one day when your career is over, smile and say you tried to help others. You made a difference whether you realize it or not.
Duke has extensive experience as a nonprofit practitioner, author, lecturer and consultant. He has been a contributing author to NonProfit PRO for the last 11 years. He has been a long-standing member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals where he was previously named the AFP Indiana Chapter Fundraising Executive of the Year and has held the CFRE designation for many years.
He received his doctorate degree from West Virginia University with an emphasis in education administration, master's degree from Marshall University with an emphasis in public administration and a bachelor's degree from West Virginia University with an emphasis in marketing/management. He has also completed post graduate work at the University of Louisville.
He is currently executive director of development for The Salvation Army Indiana Division in Indianapolis, Indiana. Contact Duke at email@example.com or 317-224-1029.