How to survive (and thrive!) in the first 100 days of your first nonprofit job

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Way back in 1933, US President Franklin Roosevelt coined the term “the first hundred days” as a time to measure the success of the important initial period on a job.

What does it take to be successful in your first 100 days of a nonprofit job, especially if it is your very first job in the sector? Read on for advice and insight from your fellow nonprofit professionals.

Day one

The first day on any new job is a bit like jumping into the deep end with logistical details to sort out (Where do you park? How do you set up voicemail? What does payroll need to know?), people to meet, information to learn, and more. All these tasks have to be accomplished while trying to make a great first impression, and probably with less sleep and more adrenaline than usual.

Kayla Latham recalls her first day on the job in a Hamilton, ON-based program for women struggling with addiction. “I was very nervous that first day. I was just out of school and I wondered if I’d really be able to do this. I was also nervous about whether the program participants or other staff would question my capabilities because I was so young.” Latham spent her first day reviewing notes and talking with her supervisor about program participants and their needs. She says, “In hindsight, I would have asked more questions, but I think stress is simply part of taking on a new job.”

Set your expectations

We all come into new situations with expectations about the environment we are entering and our own performance. It’s helpful to be aware of those expectations and to question whether they are realistic.

While most people enter the nonprofit sector hoping to make a difference, idealism can sometimes get in the way. One nonprofit employee cautions new professionals to the sector, “I think it’s important to take off the rose-coloured glasses from the beginning. It won’t always feel good in the NPO world.” And, as Ilona Dougherty, managing director of the Youth & Innovation Research Project observes, “Every job environment is different with differing levels of support.”

Elle Crevits, who just finished her first contract working in the nonprofit sector, says, “It’s made me tough as nails but also as soft as butter. I live for the impact of the work we’re doing but at the same time, everything in the nonprofit world — resources, time, money — is all limited so I’ve had to become tough to fight hard for that.”

Sometimes our expectations can be exceeded. Gaëlle Madevon, who recently began her first nonprofit job as communications manager for the Victoria Hospitals Foundation, says, “The variety of work I get to do and its impact is thrilling. The nonprofit sector has opened up the field in terms of my responsibilities and opportunities.”

Dougherty says it’s vital to remember that “it’s totally fine to ask questions and it’s important to realize what you don’t know. None of us at any stage of our careers know everything. An attitude of continual learning and willingness to improve and be self-reflective sets us up for success.” Dougherty also advises, “Be very clear about what you do know. Articulate the values you bring to the workplace, and look at all of the competencies and skills you have learned from all of your experiences, not just school.”

Figure out their expectations

Blessie Mathew, manager, career education at the University of Alberta Career Centre says, “Typically a new hire is officially oriented, but new professionals also need to pick up on unspoken hierarchies and practices.” Eileen Chadnick, principal and career coach, Big Cheese Coaching agrees. “A new professional needs to use a lot of listening and judgment in the first weeks, asking questions and learning.”

“Take initiative with your supervisor to find out how best to communicate with them,” says Mathew. “Different supervisors have different styles and preferred ways of communicating, and knowing this can make a crucial difference — when we dissect why new professionals succeed (or fail), a common thread is how well people communicate.”

Mathew also encourages new professionals to talk with their supervisors about what decisions they can make on their own, which need input, and which will be made by the supervisor. “This information is a key to avoiding either overstepping or not taking initiative.” It is also useful to pay attention to the usual writing style in the organization. “Often people who are used to writing either formal essays or informal texts need to adapt their writing style to their new workplace,” says Mathew.

Jump in or listen?

Chadnick offers this reminder: “New people come in with great ideas and refreshing thoughts, but it’s important to connect to the mission, understand the stakeholders, and get to know the organization’s culture.” One nonprofit staffer put it this way: “The most important thing for a new professional is to be an enthusiastic, thoughtful sponge”.

One manager suggested to a new hire that she document everything she’d like to change or where she saw opportunities for improvement, but not change anything in the adjustment period. She says, “You need to learn how and why it’s been done in the past. Often there are reasons things are a certain way, and these won’t be obvious to a newbie.”

At the same time, the first 100 days is not a time to hold back, especially if you were hired to make change. Dougherty recommends, “Take advantage of every opportunity. Show you are interested and willing to work hard. Don’t be afraid to suggest new ideas and to speak up.” In fact, Dougherty says the number one mistake among new employees is not taking advantage of opportunities to network, learn and grow beyond the basic parameters of the job.

In her role, Crevits did just that. Hired as an entrepreneurship coordinator for a social enterprise for teens, Crevits discovered the board had long been trying to figure out how to use their rental space in the off-season. She did an analysis of this underutilized asset, then encouraged the board to jump in. “I pointed out that we had nothing to lose and it would bring in lots of opportunities for the people we work with.” Crevits took the project from idea to action within weeks, raising revenue and building relationships within the community.

Build relationships

Beyond what Chadnick calls our “functional abilities” — our university major or the project parameters for which we’ve been hired — she says, “It’s important to pay attention to emotional intelligence skills, how we connect with others within an organization. Your ability to succeed and be a valued contributor in an organization will not be measured exclusively by your functional skills, but also on how well you connect and contribute to the organizational culture. Everyone wants to jump into action to show they were a worthwhile hire, but the most important thing is to build relationship and the first days are the best time for this.”

Trina Isakson learned this the hard way. “My mistake in the first few days of my first nonprofit job was not walking around and introducing myself to everyone. I was 25, a first-time manager, and a little overwhelmed. I learned years later that at first they thought I was stuck up.”

By contrast, Madevon spent early days in her role meeting as many people as possible. “It’s crucial to understand the environment you are in and to understand how all the different roles work together.” Madevon’s conversations were not limited to her colleagues, either, but also to other constituents who offered different perspectives.

Dougherty says, “The network you develop at your first job will be crucial to where you go next. Research shows that networks are critical in today’s job market.” When it comes to finding mentors and future job references, Dougherty advises, “If you don’t love your boss, find someone at your organization you do like and develop a relationship with them.”

Don’t forget to seek out peers. One nonprofit professional says, “When you find people to meet with who do similar work to you, it’s powerful. You can learn and share and vent and grow with them. Find those peers, buy them a cup of coffee and make friends.”

Take care of yourself

Many new (and experienced) nonprofit staff take their work home with them. Latham says, “When things weren’t going well with our clients, I would worry about them at night.” This can lead to burnout. One veteran nonprofit professional says, “You will always be busy. There will always be Mondays. Work hard and then go home.”

In Latham’s case, her supervisor coached her to take time for herself, to take breaks during the day, and not to blame herself when their clients struggled. Not all supervisors, however, do this., “We have a major problem with martyrdom syndrome in the nonprofit sector,” Dougherty acknowledges. She adds, “Know that self-care is not always the norm in the nonprofit sector, and you may have to blaze a trail and fight for it.” She cautions, “Self-care is not excuse for not working hard but the research is clear that working more is not working better.” Dougherty advises new professionals to set healthy boundaries as habits but also to understand when work needs to be a priority. The University of Alberta encourages mindfulness training as a way of managing stress.

Tania Del Matto, director of social entrepreneurship incubator GreenHouse, whose program includes self-care workshops alongside business development skills, notes that 24/7 connectivity contributes to the need for self-care and encourages young professionals to figure out how to periodically disconnect.

Self-care is particularly important during the stressful first few weeks on a job, says Chadnick. “People who are used to succeeding can find the stress of a new job tough. Be careful how you calibrate success, and that you celebrate even small accomplishments as you reflect on your work.” Chadnick encourages new professionals to set goals beyond those specifically related to projects – ask yourself, “Who do I want to be and how do I want to be perceived in this role?”

What if it’s a nightmare?

On day 90 of Crevits’ job, her boss was arrested for a matter unrelated to work. Consequently, the board decided they didn’t have the funds to renew Crevits’ contract.

Even if the situation is not as extreme as this, sometimes within the first 100 days, a new professional (or their employer) may decide that the job is not right for them.

“Be careful not to make rash decisions,” advises Chadnick. “We often feel uncomfortable in a new situation, and often the first few months on a job are very different from what the job will be over the longer term. Prepare yourself that adjustment can be challenging.”

Mathew says, “Take time to observe what is actually going on, and do a reality check with others inside the organization. It’s really important to understand the history and context rather than relying solely on our own perceptions. For instance, if you enter an organization during a really busy time, people may work long hours and through lunch – but this may not be typical.”

Even if a situation is a disaster, Mathew suggests slowing down to figure out an exit strategy, where possible, rather than simply fleeing.

Acknowledging the reality that many first jobs are contract positions, Dougherty encourages young professionals to remember, “Whether or not your contract gets renewed, what you learn in a job can be applied elsewhere. Look for lessons you can apply in various environments.”

Crevits says, “You won’t always be happy with how everything in an organization shakes out, but you have to do what you know and feel to be right. That was my compass in this difficult situation.” She adds, “Now I’m looking more critically at future employers and thinking carefully about what I want and need in a position.”

For her part, Madevon was pleasantly surprised by her first 100 days in a nonprofit job. She says, “What has surprised me is that working for a good cause makes such a difference to my life. The work I do has meaning, and grounds me both personally and professionally.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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