Part 4: How to Become a Nonprofit Professional

Advancing your career.

Unfortunately in nonprofits, climbing the corporate ladder often means changing jobs.  According to the 2010 AFP Compensation and Benefits Study, the most frequently cited reasons that nonprofit employees wanted to change jobs was their hope to make more money (35 percent), frustration with the work environment (28 percent), a desire for more interesting work (24 percent), or a chance to advance in their careers (23 percent).  Often nonprofits are too small to offer upward mobility for employees to grow in the organization and ultimately make a lifelong career.

In your current position, ask yourself:

  • Is there an opportunity for growth?
  • Is there opportunity for upward mobility in your organization?
  • Are you in the position you want to be?
  • If not, what is that position?
  • Is that position obtainable at your current organization?

You may not be at your dream job right now, but your current job may get you to the next step or at the very least, pay the rent.  Ultimately, you have to decide if your current job is the right fit (even the right fit for right now).  And don’t worry about utilizing all your skills in your current position, as many times you will have the opportunity to use them through hobbies or volunteer work.  However, this does not speak to your quality of life on the job.  If you are not happy where you work, you may need to find another position.

A job in the nonprofit field can be very rewarding for you and the clients your nonprofit serves.  Gaining valuable experience and education can elevate you up the corporate ladder and provide you with a fulfilling lifelong nonprofit career.

Advanced education.

Job descriptions often require an applicant to have a bachelor’s degree but prefer a master’s degree.  Additional education can help you better understand nonprofit best practices and help you to advance your career. Luckily the academic world has started offering degrees and classes specific to the nonprofit world.

In a nonprofit management master’s program, many of the classes are project-based so there is an opportunity to work on a project (like developing a strategic, board development or fundraising plan) for the nonprofit you work for or another nonprofit.  This hands-on work allows you to gain real-life experience and provides a great resume builder.  A master’s program also provides invaluable networking experiences with your fellow classmates and the local nonprofit community.  The nonprofits you work with may be future employers.

Often nonprofit management programs offer discounted tuition to help more nonprofit employees gain a graduate degree.  While the results of a masters program are very valuable, be prepared to take on the extra work and time commitment.  University of San Diego (USD) has a wonderful Masters in Leadership and Nonprofit Management program that I can highly recommend.

If you are not ready to invest two or more years in a graduate level degree, you may want to pursue a certificate in nonprofit management or a specialized filed like marketing, human resources or fundraising and development.  Certificate programs cost a small fraction of the price of a graduate degree and can be completed in a year.  University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Extension offers a great Fundraising and Development certificate program.

Also, I would encourage you to take the upcoming Pursuing Major Gifts class I am teaching through UCSD’s program November 2-23, 6-9 p.m.

As a fundraiser, you can apply to become a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE).  In order to apply, a CFRE candidate must have 45 hours of continuing education, 30 months as a paid, professional fundraiser, over $1,000,000 in actual dollars raised (or completion of eight communication or management projects), and approximately 55 hours of volunteer service.  While a CFRE doesn’t make you a better fundraiser, it certifies you as a fundraiser and this can be attractive to your current and future employers.  Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) offers FREE review courses to prepare you for the exam. In fact, I am teaching the review course about capital campaigns on January 20, 2011 from 5-6:30 p.m. at the Neurosciences Institute.

Find a niche.

In addition to further education and certification, a key to advancing your career in the nonprofit world is to find a niche.  You want a specialty that you can excel at and develop as a marketable skill.  At your job, you have a daily opportunity to acquire and develop skills.  First you must decide what area of a nonprofit you would like to pursue. Are you most interested in:

  • Human resources
  • Database management
  • Fundraising
  • Accounting/bookkeeping
  • Direct services delivery
  • Program management
  • Marketing
  • Facility oversight
  • Volunteer coordination

Focus in on one area and work to build the different levels of skills that your niche requires.


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