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Ten ways to grow as a nonprofit professional

nonprofit professional growth



 By Tom Peterson

Working as a nonprofit professional and wondering, What can I do to grow? Here are some ideas created by a couple dozen nonprofit folks in a twenty-minute exercise called “25/10 Crowd Sourcing.” (My changes were minimal.) They emerged from a workshop on Liberating Structures at the national conference of the YNPN, Young Nonprofit Professionals Network this month in Little Rock.

  • Change jobs. If where you are isn’t providing growth, switch to a different field within the nonprofit sector. Research career opportunities that would be a step up and use your current skill set.
  • Craft your own position. Take full responsibility for your own growth trajectory. Be honest with yourself and your supervisor. Rewrite your job description and propose a new role to your boss. Or try this variation: ask how to get your dream job. Find the person who has your dream job now and find a way to ask them “How can I be in a position to steal your job in X years?” Of course you’ll need to be able to actually identify your dream job.
  • nonprofit professionalStep up to a challenge for your group. If despite being a great place to work, your team has experienced a lot of turnover, approach leadership and volunteer to develop a committee, a plan, for better engagement and fun.
  • Find a mentor. Acknowledge what you’re not an expert at but would like to be. Ask for advice, put yourself out there to find a mentor. Seek mentorship from someone you greatly admire but are afraid to approach (your governor, a famous person in your field). Identify who and why.
  • Volunteer for a project to build a skill. Gain experience in an area you have none in to broaden understanding of overall strategy/operations/frameworks. Pick a cross functional project that allows you to collaborate across teams over a period of time—and make sure to ask questions and dig into all sides. Volunteer for a team within the organization that specializes in one of your weakest skills. Or join a nonprofit board in an area you’re not familiar with but would like to learn more about and become more engaged. Identify an organization that matches those needs and interview to find the one you want.
  • Design a great program. For example, too frequently organizations chase donor money and build projects around their funding terms. Reject that approach and design an ideal program first. Trust that the rest will fall into place. And turn it into a Wow! project.
  • Do more self-reflection. Start with a work journal. And here’s a writing prompt: Describe your ideal day, from start to finish, without thought for money—what would you do? Use your imagination.
  • nonprofit professional2Better understand the big picture. If you work in the program area, learn more about fundraising. Take classes or talk to a peer about fundraising to understand what they help programs do. (If you’re in fund raising, do the opposite.) Feeling especially ambitious? Spread this idea by convincing senior management to change roles for a day with personnel at all levels. Get engaged within your community. Talk directly to people affected by your organization’s work.
  • Train others. Sometimes the best way to learn is teach. Train other nonprofit professionals in your current area of expertise. Step one: commit yourself by getting the first training on a public calendar.
  • Be the change you want to see. Yes, you’ve heard this quote from Gandhi many times. But it’s easy for a nonprofit professional to get caught up in the daily demands. There’s real power in trying to live your ideals more fully. Identify the changes you’d like to see in the world and lean into them. Pick one to start on first. Change isn’t easy but the results can transform your life.

Bonus thoughts to help nonprofit professionals stay grounded:

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. —Howard Thurman

The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it. — Barbara Kingsolver

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. —Steve Jobs

Nonprofit Professional, here’s the Link to the Liberating Structures website.

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