Be a Generalist First!
Every week, several people ask me about the nonprofit world. Many of the older professionals in the corporate and government worlds want a job change, while younger professionals want direction with new careers. It's wonderful to see such a large number of people with giving and caring hearts. We all know you have to be mission-driven and people-focused to succeed long term in this business. When I'm asked about steps to take in a nonprofit career, I suggest that one be a generalist first.
I was fortunate to leave college and immediately begin a career in development. I was clueless about the term resource development, but I realized very quickly that the career included the acquisition of time, talent and treasure. What I didn't realize is how or where to begin. Working as associate director of development at the University of Louisville, I decided to do two things. First, I contacted 25 universities of similar size and asked them to send me everything they had regarding development. Second, I quickly found a 60-year-old mentor willing to take on a 22-year-old student. My boss allowed me to go on an immediate Eastern Kentucky road trip to see how the mentor generated major and planned gifts through a relationship approach.
Because of my shotgun method, I was quickly exposed to annual, major and planned gifts. In addition, my first real assignment from my boss was to create a development services manual. The manual assignment allowed me to learn about gift policies, data systems, recognition of donors and many other elements in the back office that affected the front office. I also had to create position descriptions and an organizational chart. As an added element, at that time my master's thesis was focused on the annual fund at the University of Louisville. I was responsible for many roles, including direct mail, telephone solicitation, planned giving, alumni relations and student relations. I totally enjoyed being exposed to so many areas of development.
As I analyzed my career, I found while I was doing many specific functions, I had become a super generalist. I could get answers to questions even if I didn't specifically know the questions. Generalists can adapt to a variety of development positions over time — which makes them more marketable. I also suggest, especially in the early part of your career, that you work in different development areas such as universities, health care, social services, etc. You may find the culture, history and traditions are different in each place, but the functions you bring to the table can still be applied with success anywhere. With time, you determine if you like to manage or generate time, talent or treasure. It's not easy to be charged with doing both, as many in our field can attest!
I am convinced that with experience, a "jack of all trades" can be a master of all. There is nothing wrong with being a generalist. Try it, and you may like it!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 317-224-1029.