12 pieces of advice for folks graduating from school and entering the nonprofit sector


Hi everyone. First off, last week’s post—“When you don’t disclose salary range on a job posting, a unicorn loses its wings”—resonated with lots of people, and was shared nearly 7,000 times on social media [Update: It’s now been shared over 40,000 times]. Let’s put an end to this horrible practice, because our professionals deserve fair, competitive compensation. And if that’s not available, they deserve at least transparency at the onset so that job applicants can start planning their budget and look out for sales on spaghetti and canned beans.

To that end, I am encouraging all of us to disclose salary ranges on all new postings moving forward, and all job posting services to recommend, nay, require, disclosure. And all of us need to give feedback to our peers who ask for our help spreading the word on their new positions.

Second off, I just watched Game of Thrones and am upset and annoyed by what happened in the latest episode, so this post will likely be poorly edited.

All right, on to today’s topic. Lots of young professionals are graduating this month and starting to enter into our illustrious field. Congratulations, and welcome to a rewarding and, uh, lucrative career! I received requests to provide advice for our potential new colleagues. You know you’re getting old when people start asking you for advice on stuff. Sigh. To be young and full of hopes and acne again.

Anyway, I asked the NWB Facebook community for suggestions, and have synthesized them into a few pieces of advice that I wished someone had told me when I first started out on the path to make the world better. Here they are, in no particular order, and definitely not comprehensive, and some are pretty obvious, and there are more than 12 (it’s not marketable to list more than 12 of anything in the title). Please add your own advice for our new colleagues in the comment section:

12+ Pieces of Advice for Professionals Entering the Nonprofit Sector

  1. Get several mentors. Mentors are totally awesome. But some people freak out under the pressure of being called a mentor. So what you do is find someone you admire, take them out for coffee, ask for their advice, then say, “I really appreciate your advice. Would you mind if we meet up once a while?” Bam! They’re a mentor, and they might not even know it. Suckas. (Note: Do not call your mentors suckas.)
  2. Learn one thing from everything: You will attend so many things that suck: trainings, meetings, annual dinners, webinars, etc. It’s easy to whine and dismiss them, but things that suck yield valuable lessons about not sucking. My rule is that if I can learn just one thing from anything, it’s not a waste of time.
  3. Tune out those who are judging you based on your generation: Millennials are tech-and-social-media-obsessed, fickle and narcissistic. Gen-X people are smart, good-looking, and extremely talented etc. Don’t let people box you in, no matter how accurate they are about Gen-X.
  4. Don’t underestimate anything, even simple start-up positions or assignments. You landed a job as an Executive Assistant to an ED? That may seem like a not-so-prestigious position, but let me tell you, assistants are some of the most influential people in the field. Keep learning, and you can launch into a variety of opportunities. Or you are assigned to take notes for all the board meetings? You could be bitter, or you can use it as an opportunity to strengthen skills in board development. There have been so many times when a good note-taker ended up saving everyone’s hides.
  5. Crappy stuff might be happening for a reason, so don’t freak out too much: I was so depressed when I didn’t land a job I thought I wanted after bombing an interview. Months later, after being unemployed for a while, I got a position that paid way, way less (*cough* Americorps). And it set me up on this path. If I had gotten that other job, let’s just say that my current organization might not exist, this blog might not exist, and the landscape of couples/marriage counseling may be completely different.
  6. Have fun, but pay attention. Someone told me—and it’s been one of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten—“If you’re not having fun, you’re not in the right position; but if you’re not scared sh**less, you’re not paying attention.” The right job for you will likely be simultaneously fun and terrifying.
  7. If you want to change the world, stick around. You can’t do much if you jump all over the place like a possum in a spittoon. Equity, social justice, community building, all that good stuff takes time. I’ve seen too many professionals leave just as they start to gain the trust of the community they’re working in. Think of it like making lacto-fermented sauerkraut: It takes time for the bacteria to devour the salt and produce the right amount of lactic acid, you know what I mean?
  8. Save for retirement. If you have no plan in place, ask your org to open a 403b account and start squirreling money away automatically from your paycheck. Look into IRA accounts too. At first, you may not be able to save much, but you’ll be surprised how it can add up. Even $20 per month, with compound interest, in 50 years, will be…I don’t know, but enough to buy a hover board and a cruise to Mars.
  9. Understand your role and the role your nonprofit plays: As a colleague puts it, “If your nonprofit serves a constituency that you are not a part of, remember at all times that they [the people you serve] are the experts, and you are their staff.” Also, don’t be an askhole.
  10. Network all the time. But do it right. Genuinely get to know people, and not just to fulfill whatever agenda you have. Always think of ways you could be helpful to the other person, and not just them helping you with stuff. I think the best networking is when no one has an agenda and people can just get a beer and discuss themes and symbolisms from Game of Thrones and why some characters have to die needlessly and cruelly when it’s not even in the freaking books! 
  11. Write thankyou emails after every meeting and any time someone does something nice for you. Handwritten notes are much appreciated for big things (or small things, if you have a lot of time), but for everything else, send an email right away. They don’t need to be long or time-consuming, just genuine. This is one of the most important habits you can develop, and I’m still surprised that so many people don’t do it.
  12. Shut up and listen. People can distinguish between a youthful, fresh perspective, and an inexperienced know-it-all. Feel free to provide suggestions and ideas, but come from a place of humility and respect. You will more likely endear yourself to the veterans, and everyone, in the field.
  13. Start everything and every day with gratitude and appreciation. You will be much happier if you stop at the beginning of everything and think of a couple of things you appreciate. For example, a colleague is giving you feedback on something you could improve on? You could be defensive, or you could be grateful that they care enough to do that for you and that you get a chance to be even more awesome.
  14. Do your job, and do it well. If you don’t do a good job, with limited whining, it doesn’t matter how liked or well-connected you are. Word will get around, and you won’t go far. Follow through with everything you promise to do, even boring, seemingly meaningless stuff. This, above everything else, is how you will build a solid reputation.
  15. Do not talk bad about anyone. Ever. Not to de-stress, not to bond with your coworkers. If you must talk about someone because of some area they could improve on, be solution-oriented, and provide them with feedback directly. Gossiping about people will only lead to no good, very bad things. Like characters dying horrible deaths, and for what? To boost ratings?
  16. Dress professionally. This depends on what state you are, and in general, the nonprofit sector is more relaxed than our corporate cousins. At least in Seattle, a none-holey pair of jeans with a button-down shirt or polo shirt or blouse is fine. (For important meetings, I tuck my shirt into my jeans). However, I’ve seen way too many people of all sexes dressed like crap, wearing extremely short shorts or trashy t-shirts. And for the love of hummus, please avoid heavy cologne and perfume. No one will pay attention to you when they’re choking on the vapors you radiate.
  17. Take time for the people you love. Do not think you are indispensable. Work will always be there, but the people around you may not. Especially if you are a character on Game of Thrones. Take Family Game Night seriously. Even when it’s a torturous game of Monopoly.
  18. Learn all aspects of the field. You can’t afford to be good at just fundraising, or program coordination, or whatever your job is. Take opportunities to learn everything: Finance, strategic planning, grantwriting, board development, evaluation, volunteer management, HR, event planning, etc. Volunteer on different committees at your org, as well as other orgs. Volunteer on stuff you know nothing about.
  19. Be generous with giving credit to others. A wise mentor once told me, “You can get a lot of stuff done, if you don’t care who gets the credit.” Yes, that mentor was quoting Harry S. Truman. People are generally pretty smart, and can figure out that you did a lot of the work. Genuine appreciation of others and recognition of their contributions is a great way to build relationships and community.
  20. Be gracious in both success and failure. I once pursued a sponsor for an event, hoping the corporation would come in at 5K. They came at 1K, and I couldn’t help but be disappointed. But I started by thinking of what I appreciated, and wrote a gracious thank-you note as if I had received 5K. The contact for the company called me up, and we had a meeting. She said, “I was sorry we could only give you 1K, and knew you’d be disappointed, but your note was so sweet. I read it to the whole team.” That immediately got us in the door, and they were donors for a long time. Be gracious when you receive a rejection notice for jobs, grants, or whatever, as well as when good things happen. You never know where graciousness and appreciation will lead.
  21. Take it easy on yourself. Strive to constantly improve, but realize you can’t be good at everything all the time. Have the courage to be mediocre at some stuff. (See “The Courage for Mediocrity: We Nonprofit Professionals Need to Give Ourselves a Break.”)
  22. Think very carefully before you start a nonprofit. Seriously, this could be its own blog post, but please do careful research before starting a nonprofit. Most likely, another organization is doing something that aligns with your idea. Some nonprofits should be started, but more often than not, I see orgs that are duplicating other services, or are well-intentioned but don’t consider the consequences (e.g., “Let’s collect and send sewing machines to Africa!”)
  23. Develop a good sense of humor. The work is pretty serious. But it’s also hilarious and full of funny people. Here, check out these nonprofit jokes. We all need to see the joy and beauty and humor in this work, because it is awesome work.

Finally, realize your worth and how awesome you are. Our profession cannot advance without the infusion of new leaders and new ideas. Be proud of your role, of who you are, and of the choice you made to help make the world better. You are a unicorn.


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