Furthering Your Nonprofit Career

Starting a career in the nonprofit sector is an admirable achievement. So often we hear people say that they want to “be the good” in the world, but have difficulty achieving that goal. Nonprofit professionals follow through with that commendable aspiration. 

“Being the good” doesn’t mean that you’re a perpetual volunteer stuck in the same position forever. As a professional in the nonprofit sector, you can absolutely still work to be the best you can be, developing your personal and professional skills and advancing your career along the way. In fact, many individuals just like yourself are actively looking for new opportunities to enhance their skills and become better versions of themselves. 

Here at the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance, we’ve dedicated ourselves to professional development in the nonprofit sector. We have helped over 11,000 people become Certified Nonprofit Professionals and more than 15,000 other leaders in the sector to advance specific skills with virtual training resources. With this experience, we’ve compiled a few key suggestions for nonprofit professionals looking to advance their careers in the sector: 

  • Actively look for new learning opportunities. 
  • Discuss on-the-job opportunities with managers.
  • Explore potential new responsibilities in the office. 

Ready to dive deeper into these three skills for furthering your nonprofit career? Let’s get started. 

1. Actively Look for New Learning Opportunities

If you’re waiting for a learning opportunity to jump out and hit you in the face, you’ll likely be waiting for a long time. Too many professionals express interest in learning new skills, but never take action to really find and embrace new training opportunities

This is a mistake! 

Investing in your own training not only helps your personal career, but it can also help advance the mission you’re so passionate about as well. When you invest in your own training, you may see benefits like: 

  • Higher job satisfaction. When you enjoy your job, you’ll be less likely to leave and find a new position somewhere else. This simple act saves your organization a lot of funds that would’ve otherwise been spent on replacing you. You hold a lot of value for the organization and they want to keep you around for the long haul. 
  • Stronger donor relationships. When you learn more about effective communication with your supporters, you’ll be the source of more effective and efficient relationship-building at the organization. This can help you steward supporters for larger contributions and a higher lifetime value for your mission. 
  • Better fundraising ROI. When you focus your attention on better fundraising, you’ll be able to lead the way in your organization raising more and using your funds more efficiently. This increases ROI, helping you accomplish your goals and get that much closer to achieving your mission. 

The benefits of learning more information specific to the nonprofit sector speak for themselves. But the question so many people ask is how to actually learn new skills so that those benefits become possible. 

It used to be that you needed to enroll at a local school or spend hours in the library to learn new skills. Now, however, in the age of the internet, we have new learning opportunities emerging everywhere we look! Instead of having to search for sparse sources of information, we’re now left with the opposite issue—sifting through ample resources to find the most trustworthy and impactful information. 

To start your search, you need to understand the different options available to you. Some of the best options at your fingertips include: 

  • Online courses. Online courses are professionally structured and guided opportunities that simultaneously provide flexibility and convenience for students. The Nonprofit Leadership Alliance guide on the subject explains that you have an option to choose between open-source and paid courses. While open-source can be tempting due to the inexpensive price, they often only offer a limited amount of information before requiring payment or they simply lack high-quality content. According to the guide, subscription-based course services often provide the most value for professionals. 
  • Books. You don’t need to spend hours searching the library for the best books to learn about specific topics anymore. Now, you can read reviews online, search library catalogs, and sometimes even have the book shipped directly to your home. Consider the skills you want to develop before searching for a new book because there are a seemingly infinite number of books available covering any number of topics. Narrowing your search from the beginning will help you pick the book that will most help you achieve your goals. 
  • Journals and blogs. If you’re looking for an opportunity to keep up with the newest trends, you might consider subscribing to various journals or blogs for reading material in the nonprofit sector. Be sure to check on the source to be sure it’s trusted or peer reviewed before you subscribe to these materials. 

The learning materials you choose has a lot to do with the learning style that most appeals to you. For instance, some people learn better when they have a guided and structured course. However, others prefer a more independent learning style such as those offered by a book or journal.

Consider how much structure you need in your own education before investing in various professional development resources. 

2. Discuss On-the-Job Opportunities with Managers

While it may seem like a paradox, when many people consider their professional development opportunities, they fail to consult the one place where the skills will be most applicable: work. 

If you have a manager at the nonprofit where you work, open a discussion about your opportunities for improvement and ask for any resources or recommendations the organization can offer. Often, if you’re finding that you have a weakness in a particular skill set, someone else has also encountered the same challenge, meaning someone else has probably already asked for help too. 

Your organization might have a learning resource system of its own that you can use to grow. The first step is simply to ask. Coaching, while often associated with a negative connotation, can actually be incredibly useful for nonprofit professionals who know what it is that they want to learn. 

The other advantage to asking for help within your organization is that you can see how the skills apply to your daily position right off the bat. 

While there are a whole host of skills out there that you might ask for coaching on from your own organization, some common options include: 

  • Public speaking. From cutting out filler words to maintaining eye contact, your manager can give specific tips after various presentations for a period of time. 
  • Communication. Ask for help when it comes to communicating with supporters or collaborating with coworkers, then get feedback about specifics to improve. 
  • Decision-making. Discuss the mindset behind various decisions made by the leaders at your organization so that you can emulate their process in your own choices. 

When you embark on a training relationship with someone else at your organization, it’s important to find a metric for tracking your progress moving forward. This will help you show that you’ve improved when it comes time for reviews, promotions, and raises. This Astron Solutions guide explains that a tool to track growth and progress is necessary for effective performance management systems. If you don’t have one of these tools built into a software solution at your organization, you can simply compile your own metric for tracking and share it with your manager. 

You might be saying, “This all sounds great, but I’m in charge at my organization, so I’m the most experienced and can’t grow like others.” That’s a dangerous mindset to fall in. We all have room to grow and there is always something more to learn. If you are the manager or executive member of your team, find someone else on the team who seems to have mastered the skill you’re working to develop. Then, humble yourself to ask them for tips, feedback, and accountability as you work to develop yourself. 

3. Explore Potential New Responsibilities in the Office

Tips and advice are a great place to start when it comes to learning specific skills and getting advice to improve within your current position. However, if you want to develop a certain skill, but can’t see how it applies to your current position, you might ask to explore different responsibilities as well. 

There’s nothing like hands-on learning to enhance your current skill sets! 

Nonprofits have many short-term initiatives that provide new opportunities that you can get your feet wet with. For instance, you might ask to help plan a virtual event, researching with guides like this one to learn more about the concepts behind effective planning strategies. Then, practice those concepts by working directly with your event planner to set up the technology, choose speakers, and strategize to raise funds. 

Short-term opportunities like these make for great ways to try something without making a full commitment to add onto your daily responsibilities. After all, you’d hate to be stuck doing something you don’t like if you just wanted to test it out to get some experience under your belt. Then, if you find you enjoy the opportunity, you can ask to continue your development by maintaining those responsibilities in the future. 

Furthering your nonprofit career with professional development requires you to learn new information and skills, then find a way to incorporate those skills at your organization. Your professional development doesn’t only help your personal ambitions, but also helps your organization become more efficient and effective in the long run. 

Don’t underestimate the power and importance of continuing education in the nonprofit sector! Use the tips in this guide to continue developing your skills as a nonprofit professional.

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Susan Tomlinson Schmidt
Susan Tomlinson Schmidt has dedicated her life to serving others through more than 25 years advancing the missions of social-impact organizations. Currently, Schmidt is the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance president, an organization that develops talent for the nonprofit workforce. She received her master’s in public administration from the University of Memphis and is a Certified Nonprofit Professional. Schmidt and her husband, David, a professional chef, have two sons, Patrick and Walker. They live in Leawood, Kansas.
Susan Tomlinson Schmidt

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