10 ways to boost your nonprofit career

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By Patrick M. Rooney, associate dean, Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy

With the myriad demands nonprofit professionals face for their time and attention, it can be tough to make professional growth and career advancement a priority. Here are some steps you can weave into your schedule that will help you in your current position and prepare you for your next opportunity where you are now or elsewhere.

  • Become an issue expert and share what you know. Research and educate yourself on a key topic, and then develop original podcasts, blog posts, and opinion articles. ““Blogging makes you a go-to person,” Joe Waters, a cause marketing speaker and coach, wrote in an article for HubSpot, noting that becoming an expert lets you become “the person in your organization that people seek out to understand an issue.” Waters says that the experience “prepares you for your next big thing,” whether that’s being noticed by recruiters, writing a book, starting your own nonprofit or becoming a consultant.
  • Volunteer at your organization and beyond. “Volunteering to help with an event or a special project at your nonprofit — particularly those that cut across functional boundaries — can help provide the sort of well-rounded experience that leadership roles require,” according to an article by Bridgespan Group. Volunteering elsewhere lets you observe which roles are of interest or a good fit for your next career step, and serving on a nonprofit board helps you gain skills including decision-making, fundraising and program direction.
  • Step up for a stretch opportunity. Accepting assignments that stretch your limits helps you grow and enables managers to identify whether you are likely to succeed with more responsibility, The Chronicle of Philanthropy
  • Job shadow and do informational interviews. Not just for first-time job seekers, observing and talking with people who hold the type of position to which you aspire can help you determine what that type of role entails and whether it is really for you. It can also show you what additional knowledge, training, and skills you’ll need if you pursue it.
  • Select an effective mentor. People with mentorsearn higher salaries, are promoted more frequently, and report higher job satisfaction than those without mentors, according to research by Audrey J. Murrell, Ph.D., of the University of Pittsburgh.
  • Form or join a peer-to-peer leadership group. Also called leadership circles, these small groups are made up of nonprofit professionals that meet periodically to listen to and coach each other. As the Center for Nonprofit Excellence says, “These circles provide a confidential setting in which peers can discuss and solve real-time problems with real-world experience.” For more information, see the March 14 issue of Indianapolis Not-for-Profit News.
  • Stay on top of developments in the field and in your issue area. Not sure which podcasts or newsletters are most helpful? Ask your peers, mentor, or other, more experienced professionals what they read, listen to, and follow.
  • Join a professional association and take advantage of the member benefits. Membership in professional associations offers numerous career-boosting advantages, including access to the latest information and best practices, professional development and training, conferences and networking.
  • Make time to participate regularly in professional development. Be intentional about blocking out and adhering to time on your schedule for professional development. Stick to the commitment as you would any other appointment. It’s easy to let the challenges of the day-to-day workload and over-the-transom projects derail your plans.
  • Earn a graduate degree. Increasingly, most of the people that Bridgespan Group spoke with agreed, formal degrees provide a distinct advantage for those aspiring to leadership roles. Article on developing oneself as a nonprofit leader. “I can think of several great nonprofit leaders who don’t have advanced degrees, but it’s an increasingly indispensable attribute,” said Stephen Pratt, CEO of MY TURN, Inc., a Brockton, MA-based youth development agency.

That thought was echoed by Sandra Gutierrez, COO at Latin American Youth Center, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that serves youth and their families. She said, “the rigor and discipline required to complete a master’s degree program give nonprofit professionals a big edge. . . . You see a really big difference in people who come into a program manager role with a master’s degree compared to an undergraduate degree,” said Gutierrez, who also noted that most of the people she hires complete their master’s while working.”


patrick-rooneyPatrick M. Rooney, Ph.D., is associate dean for academic affairs and research at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

The Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy recently announced that its master’s degree program can now be completed entirely online, offering working professionals more flexibility and convenience. Learn more.

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