By Pamela Clark, director of student services and admissions, Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IUPUI

Maybe it’s a faint but persistent thought that you’re ready for a new challenge. Maybe it’s the not-so-faint feeling that you want to give more of yourself to help others make meaningful change in their lives, or maybe it’s the conviction that you want to help the nonprofit where you already work have greater impact.

Julia Kathary, executive director of Coburn Place, and Kathi Badertscher, director of master’s degree programs and lecturer in philanthropic studies at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IUPUI, recognize firsthand those symptoms of the desire to change or advance your career path.

Since she was a child, Kathary has been helping people. “I really enjoyed giving back and making the community better.” She worked in an Evansville domestic violence and sexual assault shelter for nearly a decade. When she moved to Indianapolis in 2004, she faced a crossroads: Should she continue working in nonprofits?

“I decided to stay in the sector,” she says. “I had noticed, though, what difficult work it is to make a nonprofit sustainable over time.”

While working in a domestic violence shelter in Indianapolis, Kathary learned about the executive option in the master’s degree program at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, which allowed her to work fulltime while attending online and in-person classes part-time.

“It just clicked in my soul; I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” she says. “I wanted to have that skillset and that education on how to build sustainability.”

Toward the end of the program, Kathary started her own consulting business, working on capacity building and a range of issues, from deepening the impact of an organization’s mission, to addressing organizational sustainability, to program effectiveness and strategic planning. When the executive director position at Coburn Place came open, it was the merging of her passion, experience and education, and she was prepared to step confidently into leadership.

Kathary was a seasoned nonprofit professional before assuming the top role at Coburn Place.  Badertscher, on the other hand, while philanthropically involved throughout her life, worked as a broker in corporate insurance for 26 years before making the leap into full-time philanthropy as her profession. “It was really good for a long time; I traveled, met people, and learned a lot,” she says.

About 12 years ago, Badertscher began re-thinking what she wanted to do. After serving on several nonprofit boards, volunteering in the community, and reaching a turning point in her insurance career, she realized it was time for a change. She found the Center on Philanthropy (now the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy) in a Google search and thought, “I can take a few classes and become a better board member, a more intentional donor, and overall be more systematic in how I approach volunteering and giving,” she says.

Those few classes rolled into a dual master’s degree and then a doctoral degree. Six months after she finished her Ph.D., the school had an opening for a director of master’s programs, and Badertscher was the perfect fit. She loves her new career, and encourages anyone who is thinking of a career change to follow through with it.

Think you’re ready to embark on a philanthropy career of your own? Here are some thoughts to consider:

  • Wondering if the philanthropic sector or a specific cause or issue area is right for you? Badertscher recommends activating your network from all parts of your life who are engaged with nonprofits. Ask about their experiences and conduct some informational interviews. She notes that you are “interviewing for a new field” as much as you are looking for a job.
  • “Do direct service and learn how the sector impacts the community,” Kathary says. Gain practical experience in philanthropy, whether through volunteering, interning or serving on an advisory or governing board.
  • Make a small donation to a nonprofit you may be interested in working with and see how they respond, Badertscher suggests. The thank-you and follow-up communication tell you a lot about the organization and its culture.
  • “Selling a product for a company is different than selling a mission,” Kathary says. “You’re developing a mission that matters and has impact, telling the story of that mission, and getting people to engage with their time, talent, and treasure.
  • “There are opportunities in the sector to utilize many different skill sets and turn them into something within civil society that gives back,” she adds. “So bring that skill set and then get innovative with it. The value of what you can do in the nonprofit sector is just as important to our economy” as what you may be doing in business or government.
  • Assess what knowledge you will need to acquire and explore educational, professional development and peer-learning groups.

Ready to advance? Consider these opportunities:

  • If you’re trying to advance within a nonprofit, it’s likely that you may be managing people in your next position, Badertscher says. “Look for ways to help other people grow” in their own roles and share your expertise, demonstrating your leadership qualities.
  • The nonprofit environment is highly collaborative. Identify and volunteer to work on projects in which you can collaborate successfully with others across your organization.
  • Many nonprofits don’t have time or capacity to revisit their policies on a regular basis. “Rules, systems and processes exist for a reason and have value, but it’s also good to question whether they are out of date or need to change,” Badertscher says. Raising questions and proposing appropriate solutions can show that you understand the bigger picture and have ideas that can help the organization move forward.
  • Evaluate the information and skills you will need at the next level and determine how you will develop the competencies you don’t yet have. Do you need different — or more — formal education? Can you learn what you need to know through professional development, training or workshops? Is there a professional certification that would strengthen both your knowledge and your credentials?
  • Consider membership in a professional organization or peer-learning group that can help you hone your abilities and bring new ideas to your organization.

Whether you want to embark on a brand new career in philanthropy or want to help yourself and your current organization advance, Badertscher advises, “Life is short, and if you have a chance and the desire to change something in your life, do it and you won’t regret it.” 

Pamela Clark is director of student services and admissions at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IUPUI. Clark, in the role since 2013, has worked at IUPUI for 19 years in various roles. While working at University College she developed the first online learning communities designed for freshmen students and specifically for adult learners. She enjoys working with students and supporting them in achieving their academic goals.

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