Seven things I wish I knew when I started my nonprofit career

While I got into the nonprofit sector through my passion for education equality, I have to admit that my understanding of the sector was clouded by warm and fuzzy thoughts. Nonprofits are nice! We love each other! Things are easy! Where are my birkenstocks?!

This narrow silly attitude affected how I envisioned my career. It wasn’t until I started blogging, working more, and having conversations with people in the sector that the myth of the sugary-sweet nonprofit fell apart. Here are some things I wished I had known before starting:

1. The sector is huge: Not just in terms of absolute size (there are over 1 million nonprofits in the US), but also in terms of access to various causes and professions. Maybe you want to be an accountant for a mid size environmental non-profit on the west coast. Maybe you want to teach in a rural community in the south. Maybe you want to the president of a university. In other words the breadth of the nonprofit sector is so large you can truly pursue your passion.

2. You create your own path: Some professions, like being a doctor or lawyer or teacher have clear set steps to obtaining those positions. Most positions in the nonprofit sector may require experience, but there is no one set path to becoming an executive director. As Rosetta Thurman wrote recently, you have to make your own map.

3. Entry level positions are crucial: Let’s be honest–entry level positions are not the most glamourous. But entry level positions give you a bird’s eye view of the organization and if used properly can help you decide what steps to take to further your career. Think in terms of shadowing higher level professionals at your org and using time to explore professional development opportunities.

4. Networking is important for personal and professional growth: This may sound silly, but toiling away at your cause and going home to relax or rest doesn’t help you professionally or personally. It is easy to get sucked into your work and put being social on the back burner. However I find that being surrounded by people who share my love for social justice invigorates me and makes me work harder, not to mention being able to share resources, concerns, and best practices. So go out.

5. Passion is not enough: First of all let me clarify: I don’t think we understad what passion is. Passion is not “I love this so much!” It’s understanding your issue, paying attention to trends and challenges in your field, and formulating your own opinions, without always being asked to do so. However, to move from research and understanding to implementation and action requires skills.

6. People won’t take me seriously or worse, they’ll hate me: Oh, what have I heard…we’re enablers, we’re lazy, we’re professional beggars, we’re users, we’re a drain. And if you are part of certain organizations/causes (animal rights and charter schools come to mind) you may found yourself in hostile territory.

When confronted with nonsense I usually refer to lesson #1 and encourage people to think about a day without hospitals, churches, libraries, universities, scholarships, think tanks, watchdog organizations, even certain internet tools like wikipedia and firefox…. on and on and on. We’re not talking about fuzzy feelings anymore. We’re talking about developing the human, economic, and social capital that has and will continue to propel our nation forward.

7. It’s powerful: In line with #6, but watch this:

Enough said.

I LOVE hearing people’s experiences so please share your own lessons in the comments. To make it interesting I’m tagging Elizabeth of Will Work for Free and Kristen of Waxing Philosophical.

What are some insights you wish you had when you started your nonprofit career?