Career Q&A: Help! I feel like my career path is stagnating

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I have been working for the same nonprofit for almost seven years. For the most part it has been a great work opportunity but it is a very small organization with very little room for career advancement and I am starting to feel like my career path is stagnating. I know jobs are scarce and that I should feel grateful to have a job at an organization who actually does some public good but I am finding myself frustrated and increasingly resenting things that never used to bother me – like working overtime, the management style of my boss, the work culture of socializing on unpaid time, etc. What should I do?

This is a difficult – but common – dilemma many mid-career nonprofit professionals face. When starting out, your only goal is to get a job for an organization whose mission excites you and whose work you believe in. Once you get your foot in the door to that first job and are able to make a substantive impact, positions are often found to keep you at the organization and maximize the use of your talents. If you are lucky and the fit is good, one year can quickly become several years when working for mission-driven organizations and this is often the position we find our mid-career clients are in when they start to wonder if their career paths have stagnated or, worse, if they are starting to suffer from burnout.

When those moments of panic and doubt begin, there are a few steps you should take before you decide to pull the plug:

If at possible, take some time and space away from work to rest, rejuvenate and get some perspective on what this issue really is. Is it really burnout and do you need medical support? Do you need to make for adjustments to your current work arrangement or is it simply time for a new challenge? Use any unused vacation or overtime to buy yourself some of this space. If that is not possible, consider negotiating a short leave of absence with your employer or a reduced work week for a finite period of time – clients have found that even a 4-day work week for a few months provided enough of a breather to help them figure out what was really going on and what their next steps should be.

Once you have determined the root cause of the issue, make a plan and proactively taking action to move yourself out of this lull. If the issue is medical burnout, the actions you need to take are clearly proscribed from your health practitioner and your human resource policies. However, if that is not the case, we suggest having a frank talk with your employer about what you are experiencing and what you think you might need to remain productive and engaged with your work. This could be the negotiation of some new responsibilities, a more formalized opportunity for mentorship from a leader in the field, additional professional development opportunities or a new job title. You might not get some or all of what you ask for, but if you initiate the dialogue in a way that is truthful but respectful of the organization’s constraints, you may be presented with options that you had not thought about before. At minimum, you will clearly know what the bottom lines are for your organization, if you can manage within it or it is truly time to move on.

If you do find yourself in the position of needing to move on, do it professionally and respectfully in a way that preserves your relationship and reputation. Once you have decided to move on, whether you have the finances to leave immediately or not, it is important to respect your obligation to give notice as outlined in your contract. The nonprofit community in Canada is its own small world and, chances are, you are attracted to a particular issue area or sector that you will remain engaged in – so you want to keep the word of mouth about you positive. Get your files in order, do an orientation list for your replacement and, if possible, offer to be available for questions they may have.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help with your transition from your current employer. If you have been gainfully employed at the same small organization for several years, chances are they value you and your work. If you are transparent with what you are going through and professional in how you are handling your obligations in the meantime, it is likely your organization would be open to discussing how to support you during this transition. There may be formal policies and mechanisms in your human resource policies for transitioning out of a job but there are also informal things employers can do such as: giving you time off for job interviews; providing you with some career coaching; introducing and promoting you to their professional networks, etc.

Keep in mind that in most organizations – especially smaller ones – if things are not working for you, they are likely not working for your employer either. So don’t be afraid to proactively raise and manage these issues – it is the professional thing to do for your organization and will help you resume control of your career path.

Nancy Ingram is a co-founder and Principal Consultant at Foot in the Door Consulting, which specializes in helping nonprofit professionals build sustainable, satisfying and values-driven careers. Nancy and Foot in the Door Consulting’s team of expert associates have over 45 years of collective experience on both sides of the hiring and management process in the nonprofit sector in variety of sectors including human rights, social justice, environmental justice and animal rights. They can be reached through

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