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7 Nonprofit Management Tips to Develop Your Career


By Meredith Kavanagh

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There are few structured career paths in the nonprofit industry. In fact, 67 percent of nonprofits have no talent acquisition strategy and 56 percent say they have no plan to change how they source for talent. But as the sector grows there are more and more opportunities to contribute to social impact in your nine to five, so where do you start?

This alone is a complicated question since there’s a myriad of paths that can lead to a career in the nonprofit sector. Of course, you can affect societal change at a traditional 501(c)3, but with the onset of social enterprises and for-profit companies with stellar corporate social responsibility programs, you aren’t limited to conventional nonprofit organizations. Maybe your path to social change takes you to a B corp, a social enterprise, or even causes you to remain at your current company and spearhead a corporate sponsorship program.

Whether you’re looking to start a career in nonprofit management or advance to a leadership role in the sector, use these seven tips to develop your career.

1. Earn a Nonprofit Management Degree

Over the last 10 years the nonprofit sector saw 20 percent growth, while the for-profit sector saw just 2 to 3 percent. While this amazing progress demonstrates an incredible trend for the future of our world, it also means that competition for available jobs is fierce.

For students going off to college, the best way to get ahead in the industry is to major in an applicable field of study. This could be a tangential field like business management, communications, or social work, or it could be directly related to nonprofits.

Today, many major universities offer both undergrad and post-grad social impact programs. These range from general areas of study such as nonprofit management and social entrepreneurship to specific topics like the Urban Poverty and Economic Development course offered at Yale.

Explore the possibilities in current social impact programs in the following post:

If you’re not 100 percent sure about your career goals, stick to a general area of study that’s related to a cause you’re passionate about. Once you have a few years of work experience under your belt you can reassess how directly you want to be immersed in the industry.

2. Do Some Research … Then Some More

There are more than 1.5 million tax-exempt organizations in the U.S. so it can be tough to narrow down where, when, how, and why you want to dedicate your life to a mission.

There are so many causes, sectors, and opinions that you’ve likely faced bouts of analysis paralysis. If that sounds familiar—or if your browser is freezing because you’re adding too many bookmarks—you aren’t alone.

The abundance of information in our pockets is the very reason why blogs post curated lists of information. Here’s a list of resources that are each a list of resources:

Start with these blogs, podcasts, and Facebook groups and see where your curiosity takes you.

3. Set Your Expectations

If you’re already employed but thinking about a move to the nonprofit sector, start by furthering your knowledge of what a job in the industry entails. Being passionate about a cause is a huge part of a career in the nonprofit industry, but you have to understand any potential changes to your career trajectory before making any decisions.

Sample questions to ask yourself include: Are you okay with working long hours? Are you open to potentially wearing more than one hat in your role? How well do you adapt and overcome obstacles?

Dispel any myths about nonprofit professionals you may believe, but also expect there to be some changes as you move industries. Take a moment to reflect and prepare for that career change.

4. Attend a Social Impact Incubator

An incubator offers a structured program to provide social impact entrepreneurs with the knowledge, skills, and tools necessary to take their idea and turn it into a sound business plan.

Check out this in-depth post to learn more about social impact incubators and decide if one is right for you:

If you aren’t ready to dive head-first into an incubator, check out a few of our top nonprofit management and leadership posts to start compiling expert advice and a plan of action.

5. Develop a Relationship With a Mentor

Speaking to and learning from someone with real-life experience can make all the difference in your career success. A mentor can answer questions you didn’t know you had and teach you skills you didn’t know were necessary.

There are many well-known mentors who can demonstrate the general skills and philosophies that can apply to nonprofits, but we recently compiled 10 that are specific to the sector.

Here’s a few to get you started:

  1. Know what you want: Have clearly defined goals for how they can help you and what you want to achieve.
  2. Perfect your pitch: Learn about your mentor and figure out why they would be the best fit for you. Then reach out to them.
  3. Seek out experience: Even if you aren’t a newbie in the sector, there is always someone you can learn from. Look for individuals who have experience you don’t or are in positions you hope to be—then ask them how they got there.
  4. Attend networking events: See below.

6. Network

Surround yourself with like-minded leaders from whom to draw inspiration, encouragement, and support. Not only does networking help you gauge whether the sector is right for you, but it also gives you the chance to meet potential mentors, and learn about new opportunities from the source rather than an online job posting.

Here are a few ways to start networking whether you have no ties to the nonprofit industry or are a seasoned professional:

7. Get Involved Any Way You Can

Until recent years when nonprofit management became a concentration for universities, many nonprofit leaders arrived at their position by starting from the ground and working their way up.

If you’re drowning in the decision process, take a note from Joe Musselman (The Honor Foundation), Celeste Mergens (Days for Girls), and Scott Harrison (charity: water) and create your own way to contribute, first to an existing cause and organization. That could be starting a volunteer group in your community, educating your network on a cause, or even just engaging in thoughtful conversation.

Maybe you won’t start out, or seemingly end up, at your nonprofit dream job—but maybe you will. Tap into the optimism and faith that compels you to tackle seemingly unsolvable challenges and just start somewhere. Whether you are volunteering on the weekends or the executive director of a global organization, you are making an impact. And for that, we thank you.

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