Career Q&A: I want a higher level nonprofit job

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I am feeling the need to progress in my career – to go from being in charge of implementing projects to more program development and management. What is the fastest way to make this happen?

How fast you will be able to make the transition depends greatly on the kinds of skills and experience you are bringing to the table in addition to the health of the job market where you are looking. The key to making any career transition is to be clear on what you want to do, your rationale for making the change and investing in the necessary preparations to start marketing yourself as a viable candidate these types of positions. To get yourself ready, we suggest you:

Test-drive your thinking about why you want to make this move: Reflect on what you think this new type of position will bring to both your professional and personal life. Is it more money? Greater job satisfaction? A chance to deepen skill sets that you enjoy or ones that would challenge you? Once you have done this, test your thinking with some trusted colleagues, mentors and friends to see if your reasons resonate with what they know about you and your goals.

Make a decision to move up within your current organization or find a new one: The biggest decision you will have to make in this process is whether to make a move within the organization you are at or look elsewhere. Performance reviews are a good time to get some feedback from your current employer on how (or if) they see you progressing at the organization and what support can be offered to you to help you develop any missing skills sets.

Get a “reality check” test on your potential in this area: Almost all organizations have (or should have) some type of performance review process where you can receive some constructive feedback on your performance. If there is not a system in place, don’t hesitate to ask for one so that you can have a clear read on your strengths and weaknesses vis-à-vis the kind of roles you want to be in. This is also a good time to do information interviews with people who have similar jobs to the ones you are aspiring to in order to find out if the reality of what the job is matches your assumptions of what it would be. We have encountered several clients who, in the attempt to move their career forward, defaulted to a linear, upward career progression and were disappointed to find out that much of program management is at least a step or two removed from the beneficiaries of the program – an important connection that directly fed their passion for their work. Be wary of falling prey to old adage of the “grass is always greener next door”.

Fill any gaps between the skills and experience you have and what is needed to be competitive: Start looking at job ads for positions that are similar to what you want. Do a brutally honest assessment of your skills and experience compared with the job posting criteria. You will start to see a pattern in both what you are attracted to and any gaps you have in meeting the qualifications. From there, you can make a plan to fill these gaps through negotiating new responsibilities with your current employer, doing some strategic volunteering or getting some additional education.

Activate your network in supporting your transition: Once you are clear on all of the above, we strongly suggest you enlist everyone in your network in keeping their eyes open for job postings, relevant networking and volunteering opportunities – every little bit helps!

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 www.footinthedoorconsulting.com.

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