One of the biggest mistakes that job seekers make is that they fall into the trap of only thinking about their next career move when they need a job. The fact is, it doesn’t matter if you’re working for a nonprofit organization that you love or are looking to find a new position in the sector. You should always be proactive in your career if you want to reach your greatest potential as a professional.
Your success is amplified when you develop your skills, gain relevant experiences in your field, and make intentional moves that bring you closer to your ultimate career aspiration. In order to move up the career ladder, the first step is to change your mindset.
Instead of thinking of your career as a closed book once you’ve landed a position, treat your career as an ongoing project. This will motivate you to actively seek out tasks and opportunities that take you from one end of the career spectrum to the next. Consider these tips for career advancement.
1. Achieve measurable impact in your current position.
If you aren’t already making strides in your current position, it will be hard to sell yourself as an attractive candidate in a talent pool for a future role. When your organization shines as a result of your efforts, keep track of it. Did you increase funding? Facilitate the successful completion of a project? Have you taken your organization to new pinnacles with community engagement?
Quantifiable accomplishments, along with relevant skills that you’ve brought to your role, substantiate your impact and the value that you’ve added to the organization. Such feats also demonstrate that you’re qualified for a position with more responsibilities.
2. Solicit feedback about your performance.
Sometimes professionals get helpful feedback about ways to improve their performances, but they end up taking it too personally. When you’re dismissive of constructive criticism, you are hurting your chances of success. While there is some feedback you’ll want to ignore, such as those that are vague or mean-spirited, it can be worth it to pay attention to suggestions about things you can actually change in order to be more effective in your role. It can be something as simple as making eye contact with your audience during presentations or learning how to delegate tasks so you aren’t overwhelmed with deadlines. The last thing you want to do is fail in your next position because of professional shortcomings that you could have rectified early on in your career.
3. Think two to three jobs ahead.
Are you currently fundraising for a small nonprofit, but aspire to be a Vice President of Development at a larger organization? Examine the gaps that exist in your current responsibilities and what you hope to accomplish in a future role. Make sure that you’re exercising your skills, gaining knowledge and developing a new level of expertise in each role you take on in every stage of your career. Thinking two or three jobs ahead of the one you’re in now doesn’t mean that you’re constantly looking for a new job. It is actually about crafting a vision for your career and ensures you’re not wandering the job market without a career compass or staying in a position that doesn’t offer any real growth.
4. Offer to manage people or projects.
If you’re interested in a leadership position, it’s best that you gain experience managing people sooner rather than later. However, it can be difficult to gain expertise in these skills. For example, entry-level professionals involved in fundraising often lack direct solicitation responsibilities, yet they need the experience to advance in their field. The opportunity to get exposure in external affairs or solicitation might be small, but don’t get discouraged. Figure out how you can get involved in donor relationships or stewardship internally.
If you don’t have direct responsibility for staff, offer to manage a project or coordinate a group of people on staff. Your organization may even have a matrix structure that might provide you with an opportunity to work on projects with people in different departments, but you won’t know unless you ask.
5. Find hacks that allow you to work smarter.
Working in a nonprofit organization might require that you wear many hats, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should be doing everything ( otherwise you may experience burnout). You may find that you’re investing too much time in tasks that are detracting from bigger responsibilities. Learn how to integrate your mission-driven work into your life and master the art of delegation. If possible, enlist the help of other staff members to get things done efficiently.
There are also countless hacks that allow you to work smarter and simplify the way you work from marketing automation to productivity apps. Working smarter is essential to manage the stress and increased responsibilities that tend to come with taking on a leadership role.
6. Diversify your network.
Professional associations and conferences help to facilitate positive networking by hosting events and activities that bring diverse groups of professionals together. Some associations offer formal and informal coaching as well as workshops geared at advancing the knowledge, skills, and experiences of their members.
For example, if you work in fundraising, you can join your area chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Many chapters have a young professionals’ network, or an affinity group for career changers. Passionate about the environmental sector in nonprofit? Join a meetup focused on environmental issues.
Try to connect with people working at all levels, from entry-level workers to managers and directors. You never know who is going to be helpful to you in the future (and vice-versa) so it’s important to treat everyone you meet with respect, no matter his or her title. Nonprofits are all about service and working together to make a difference so don’t isolate yourself. Take opportunities to make new friends, gain insights, and build connections with other professionals in the community.
7. Establish a professional identity.
Having an online presence makes it easier for recruiters to reach out to you with positions that might interest you. Some professionals have also increased their visibility in the sector through a personal blog about their experiences and expertise.
The goal is to build a personal brand that is a reflection of your passion, purpose, and knowledge. What do your social profiles say about you as a professional? You can still showcase your individuality and interests, but it’s important to ensure that your social media footprint won’t jeopardize your career in the long run. Ultimately, a successful professional identity starts with developing a strong work ethic and a reputation of excellence in the industry.
Career planning isn’t about chasing promotions or job titles. It’s really about knowing what you want out of your career, and developing a strategy to get it.
Whether you’re looking to advance at your current organization or another nonprofit, you won’t get there by sitting on the sidelines. Real career success is driven by action. Recognizing your career as an ongoing project ensures that you’re constantly working to better yourself in your field so that you are prepared when an opportunity for growth presents itself.
About the Author: Carmel Napolitano is a senior consultant at DRG, a national leader in nonprofit search. She has more than 10 years of experience in retained executive search. Prior to her work in recruitment , Carmel spent over 15 years in higher education fundraising.