3 tips to consider when pursuing your first (or second, or third) nonprofit job #npcareers101

Photo credit: CollegeDegreed360, Creative Commons/Flickr

Photo credit: CollegeDegreed360, Creative Commons/Flickr

I sense a lot of panic when young people ask me questions about finding a nonprofit job. Yes, panic! Not just because they aren’t sure of what they want to do (and how to get there), but also because they aren’t sure what kind of organization to work for. I believe that the two are deeply connected: Our success depends on us having a good sense of what our skills are and being in an environment that nurtures us. When job hunting, examine an organization based on these three things you need in order to thrive.

You need to learn

This might seem obvious, but you need to learn more about your profession and your field; the skills required to excel and the gaps in your own understanding that you need to fill. And while you’ll likely change your job and focus in a few years, many of the skills common in entry-level nonprofit jobs—for example, writing, managing multiple projects, event planning, research—will help you in the long run.

  • What should you look for? A high-performing organization. We often consider an organization’s size when determining whether or not we’ll be able to get our hands dirty. Small organizations often allow you to try on different hats, while larger organizations might give you an opportunity to develop a speciality more quickly. However, I think the biggest difference is not the size but the culture. A high-performing organization has: strong leadership and vision, value placed on continuous feedback and measurement, emphasis on communication and team work, and keeping (and supporting) the best people.

These things are important because regardless of what your role is at the organization, you’ll have specific things you will be held accountable for, which will encourage you to think strategically while learning the nitty gritty of how to excel in your role. You’ll likely be surrounded by other high-performers and more easily see where your work fits into the larger picture. Both are great for motivation and inspiration.

  • How can you find a high-performing organization? To start, do some research on the organization (which you should be doing anyway!). Who works there, what are their backgrounds, and how long have they been there? What are people saying about the organization online and offline? What are some major accomplishments or milestones the organization has experienced recently? When interviewing, ask about the role and expectations. My favorite is: How will you know within a year that I was the right one to hire? (I’ve gotten some interesting responses to this one!) Alison Green of Ask A Manager has this magic question: “Thinking back to people who have been in this position previously, what differentiated the ones who were good from the ones who were really great?”

Honestly, I think a lot of the job-seeking advice out there can help you with this (in terms of doing research and asking thoughtful questions) but what will help you filter the information you receive is that you are looking for signs that an organization is high-performing.

You need to grow

Sure, in your first job you might become a better writer if you’re working in communications or become better at crafting lesson plans if you are working as a teacher or instructor. But are you picking up on soft skills? Can you understand and navigate an organization’s culture? Do you know how to speak with colleagues and constituents, how to manage expectations and manage up?

  • What should you look for? A good manager. All too often, I hear horror stories about an intern or young professional making a mistake at work, but little about what was done by the manager to show them why what they did was wrong and how they can improve. To a certain extent, this is understandable: it’s much easier to tell someone how to correct their spelling than how to dress or how to speak during a meeting. But as we move up and around in our careers, we learn that it’s these social, softer skills make a difference in how people perceive us and make it easier for us to shine in our roles. Having someone gently, yet honestly help us spot and fix our errors in this area is crucial.
  • How can you find a good manager? When interviewing, if you aren’t speaking with the person who will be managing you directly, ask if you can do so. Ask about that person’s management style, how they handle employees who aren’t doing well, how they mentor and support junior employees. You’re looking for someone who values on-going communication and who values being a manager (i.e. they realize they act as a coach/supporter and that employees are not just vessels for demands).

You need to connect

One of the things I benefited the most from during my first two jobs out of college was that I participated in fellowships. As a result, I had a built-in network of people to talk to, share ideas with, and learn from. Also, people to go out with and just have fun with as I tried to figure out what the hell I was doing with my life. When you’re just starting out, having a peer group provides support and insight.

  • What should you look for? A strong team or a great city. While I did participate in fellowships, my relationships often fell outside of my organization. This was because I was usually the first or only person who held that particular role, so I was never part of a team. That being said, working in Philadelphia and New York made it easy to find fellowships, meetups, conferences, and workshops where I could meet people.
  • How can you find a strong team or great city? Some time ago, I (half-jokingly) made a list of the best cities for nonprofit professionals. In it I outline some of the things that I value about NYC in particular in terms of it being a great place to launch a nonprofit career. Additionally, when researching and interviewing at organizations, try to speak with the other people you’ll be working with to get a sense of team-dynamics. Side note: I’ve learned that while some places might not have formal teams in my area, an organization that encourages collaboration will often always have people from various departments working together to solve problems. Ask about how the organization fosters community and if there are opportunities to work with people in different areas.

Bonus tip: You need to earn

This is deeply personal, but I always tell folks: you will resent your job if you aren’t making enough to take care of yourself. Additionally, don’t be afraid to ask about job benefits. For example, maybe salary isn’t as important as having adequate health care, or flexibility in scheduling.

Obviously, there is no such thing as the perfect organization or the perfect job. But by being clear about what you need and what kind of environment will help you succeed, you can make better decisions about where to work.

What do you look for in an organization?