How to Get the Most Out of Working in a Nonprofit
A recent opinion piece by Frank Bruni in The New York Times, "How to Get the Most Out of College," really resonated with me. And not just because I have a stepdaughter—just packed off to her brand new dorm room, filled with a mixture of trepidation and exhilaration.
The article offers these great pieces of wisdom:
- Socialize broadly; don’t cling to old cliques.
- Embrace diversity; don’t just hang with people like you.
- Seek mentors; identify professors worth knowing and attend “office hours.”
- Take on a sustained academic project.
- Play a significant part in a campus organization.
- Introduce yourself to potential new passions; don’t get so stuck on picking a major you neglect opportunities to explore new things.
- Strive for a balance of subject matter; open your mind to new experiences and disciplines because… you never know.
- Do something open-ended where you don’t quite know where it’s going; it’s okay to fail and learn from your mistakes
- Insist on acquiring skills essential in most careers (e.g. communication; storytelling).
- Figure out what lights your emotional and intellectual fires, not necessarily for the purpose of a job but for the purpose of reflections and pastimes that fill in all those hours away from work.
- Regulate time on social media.
- Get enough sleep.
What struck me was how similar this advice was, at heart, to advice I was given when my husband died eight years ago:
- “Don’t say ‘no’; accept all invitations.”
- Open yourself to new experiences.
- Welcome new ideas and perspectives.
- Embrace opportunities; join things.
- Don’t isolate yourself.
- Don’t just be who you were in your former life; you can be another part of yourself as you move forward into a new chapter.
- Help others help you.
What if we never stopped being a student and took this advice in our professional lives?
How to Get the Most Out of Working in a Nonprofit
Let’s look at ways to prioritize the things that most matter, so you navigate your career with care. And let’s begin with one additional piece of wisdom from Frank Bruni:
“Another of those skills, frequently overlooked, is storytelling. It’s different from communication: a next step. Every successful pitch for a new policy, new product or new company is essentially a story, with a shape and logic intended to stir its audience. So is every successful job interview. The best moment in a workplace meeting belongs to the colleague who tells the best story. So take a course in Greek mythology, British literature, political rhetoric or anything else that exposes you to the structure of narrative and the art of persuasion.”
What if you placed yourself smack dab at the center of your work’s unfolding stories?
- Took time to connect to stories by getting out into the field rather than staying behind your desk.
- Asked program staff to tell you stories of those with whom they work on a daily basis.
- Considered ways you might give more stories happy endings by consulting with program staff as to unmet needs.
- Developed story collection opportunities and maintained a “Story Bank” archive.
- Asked board and volunteers to tell you personal stories of how they got connected to your organization and why they remain engaged.
- Developed opportunities to share stories in staff, committee and board meetings.
- Always included a “mission moment” where stories are told at meetings and events.
What if you did the following as a nonprofit leader and manager?
- Offered regular socialization opportunities, so staff widens the circle of who (staff and volunteers) they know become connected and engaged.
- Offered generous staff development opportunities, so staff and volunteers are engaged in continuous learning that keeps them interested, broadens their horizons and boosts their self-confidence and skills.
- Offered a structured leadership development program, so staff and volunteers can be groomed for new roles, thereby reducing costly turnover and promoting greater productivity.
- Offered open “office hours” available to any staff member and/or volunteer who wished to avail themselves of one-to-one time, to expose more folks to your big picture vision and begin to instill a culture of philanthropy.
- Offered planned opportunities for cross-pollination, so staff can learn what other staff do (e.g. encourage staff to occasionally attend each other’s department meetings).
- Incorporated a purposeful balance of duties in job descriptions, so folks are introduced to different skillsets and aspects of your mission.
- Encouraged calculated risk-taking and made failure a real option.
- Developed an intentional storytelling culture by telling stories regularly at all staff and board meetings and collecting those stories in some sort of “storytelling bank.”
- Sometimes held impromptu walking meetings or offered scheduled on-site yoga, so employees could stretch and relax a bit during the day.
- Insisted staff take vacation and go home at close of business, so they don’t burn out and have sufficient time and space to refuel and re-energize.
What if you did the following as a nonprofit staffer or volunteer?
- Took advantage of socialization opportunities rather than blowing them off and isolating yourself from colleagues.
- Made time for staff development opportunities rather than saying to yourself: I don’t have time for this.
- Advocated for a leadership development program and agreed to participate by leading one of more sessions.
- Sought out regular meetings with your boss and other staff to get to know them, their jobs and their perspectives better.
- Sought leadership opportunities such as joining a staff personnel or event planning committee.
- Suggested additions to your job description that play to your strengths and ignite your intellectual fires and personal passions.
- Opened yourself to taking informed, calculated risks.
- Looked for stories you can tell that demonstrate the impact of your organization’s work.
- Regularly asked colleagues, “How can I help?”
- Took breaks and sometimes went out for a walk or exercise class.
- Stopped patting yourself on the back for working late and went home to enjoy family, friends and, yes, sleep.
In giving the advice to college students, Bruni notes:
“What all of these reflect are engagement and commitment, which I’ve come to think of as overlapping muscles that college can and must be used to build. They’re part of an assertive rather than a passive disposition, and they’re key to professional success.”
Wouldn’t it be great if we continued to build and use these muscles?
Wouldn’t it be great if we were assertive about helping our colleagues build and use these muscles?
What other behaviors would you suggest for folks to engage in?
Please let me know your thoughts!
If you like craft fairs, baseball games, art openings, vocal and guitar, and political conversation, you’ll like to hang out with Claire Axelrad. Claire, J.D., CFRE, will inspire you through her philosophy of philanthropy, not fundraising. After a 30-year development career that earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award, Claire left the trenches to begin her coaching/teaching practice, Clairification. Claire is also a featured expert and chief fundraising coach for Bloomerang, She’ll be your guide, so you can be your donor’s guide on their philanthropic journey. A member of the California State Bar and graduate of Princeton University, Claire currently resides in San Francisco.