Midcareer and going nowhere: Finding meaning and challenge in the nonprofit sector

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No one expects to step out of school and straight into an ED position. There are many uncertainties in the nonprofit sector, but everyone would agree that you have to pay your dues, learn the ropes and put in your time.

But what if you’ve done that?

What if you have worked for your nonprofit organization for a few years — or maybe even more than a few years — and your executive director shows no sign of retiring or moving on? While some people might move on to another organization or start something entrepreneurial, many others are committed to their organization's cause and would like to stay, while still finding fresh opportunities for challenge, learning and meaning.

Is it even possible to do so?

Toronto-based Barbara Gilbert has a Masters degree, years of experience in the cultural wing of the nonprofit sector, and is fluently bilingual. Midcareer, she has struggled to move ahead. She enjoyed her work at an art association and working with her director, but the director had no plans to leave or retire. An opportunity came up for Gilbert to be the ED of an arts centre, which she accepted, but the pay was low so she took a contract position elsewhere. Today she works on a limited contract for an arts organization and is looking for other opportunities.

Gilbert says, “I feel I have just as much to contribute as the previous generation, but that my generation has not had the same opportunities. It feels a bit hopeless.” She adds, “If I was in a position that I enjoyed, I wouldn't want to leave. In fact, that is exactly what I am looking for at this stage in my life: a position where I can contribute over the long term and affect deeper change. But I find that there is a significant lack of opportunities out there.”

Here’s the math

For years, demographics have indicated that the baby boomers, who make up the vast majority of nonprofit management roles in Canada, will be retiring, leaving a leadership vacuum. But that is not always happening. The last three editions of the Nonprofit Times and Bluewater Solutions’ annual Nonprofit Organizations Salary and Benefits report have shown that, following the 2008 economic crisis,“employees of nonprofits backed off participating in retirement plans because they simply needed the money to pay their bills.” Further, an increasing number of potential retirees are enjoying good health and choose to keep working instead of retiring, especially when their work is meaningful.

Retaining a good leader is beneficial to an organization. The problem is that well over half of nonprofit employers have fewer than five employees and three-quarters of them have fewer than ten employees. Kathline Holmes, founder of Gailforce Resources, notes this flat organizational structure frequently results in limited opportunities for promotion.

Natasha Golisky of Next Level Nonprofits and her colleague Vanessa Chase recently surveyed Vancouver nonprofit professionals about their needs: the clear priority was the issue of career development, especially in midcareer. This priority was also reflected by Vantage Point research.

[Editor's Note: Interested in participating in Next Level Nonprofits survey of midcareer professionals about needs? Click here.]

A lack of opportunities for professional development and career advancement are among the key factors reported as making a difference in whether a nonprofit employee describes him/herself as very satisfied or less than satisfied. Diane Allain of New Brunswick-based Evolution Consulting Group sees this regularly: “In nonprofits, many people are so committed to the cause that their own careers take a backseat to the cause. Until they get bitter.”

Bitterness, dissatisfaction and waiting around, however, are not the only choices. Allain says it is vital to manage your own career and not expect someone else to take it on for you.

Top 10 tips for meaningful midcareer work in the nonprofit sector

1. Look before you leap. Allain advises using the recruitment process to assess an organization and whether it matches your needs and desires. If being in leadership is important to you, an organization with a flat structure may not be the best place for you.

2. Do good work. “The best way of being recognized or getting promoted is to do good work,” says Allain, while Holmes adds that it is vital to “maintain quality of work in your current role while volunteering for additional projects.” If you want to become a leader within your organization, act like a leader by showing initiative and making suggestions.

3. Talk with your boss about your career goals and how you might meet them in your organization. Gilbert says, “One of the best bosses I ever had took a personal interest in my career goals. She met with me and asked where I wanted to be in five, ten years and saw what we could do within confines of role to move toward that.” Holmes suggests that talking openly about your professional goals with your ED is important. “Let them know what your hopes are and what your desired timelines are for moving ahead. Ask specifically if they see opportunity for you and what that opportunity might look like. Ask what additional training you would need to develop your abilities to move forward in the organization.”

This could be an opportunity for you and your ED to discuss the organization’s succession plan. Allain notes, “If you don’t know you’re being thought of or groomed for a role in leadership succession, it can be quite a surprise.” On the other hand, if your ED indicates that there are no opportunities and that they don’t see any for you in the future, Holmes says, “you have good information for recreating your professional plan.”

4. Identify ways to be an asset. This is a key factor for Holmes who advises clients to “pay close attention to new projects or pilot projects being undertaken by the organization, identify the key players and determine how you might be useful. Demonstrate your knowledge and strengths and your ability to contribute.” If a new project does not have a lead, request to be the lead (providing there is no conflict of interest with your current role). If you can’t be a lead on a new project, determine what else you may be able to do to support its. Showing initiative can lead to further leadership opportunities within the organization. One caveat, Holmes notes, is that you should practice awareness and ensure that your eagerness to help isn’t becoming a nuisance to others.

5. Create a position for yourself. Gilbert’s interest was in her organization’s programming. As she gained more experience, her ED gave her increasing input into programs they developed and promoted, and Gilbert coordinated a mentorship course. She says, “Feeling intellectually stimulated and that I could contribute in a meaningful way and was valued kept me motivated and coming back for more.” Whether you create a new position or ask for more responsibility in areas that interest you and that meet the needs of your organization and its constituency, it is important to take initiative.

6. Play nicely with others. You may not be alone in your desire to move ahead in the organization. Holmes cautions that office politics can be a messy swamp to wade through when your initiatives are recognized but not appreciated by coworkers. She advises paying close attention to the impact of your behaviour on others and noting any changes in behaviour of your coworkers towards you, and advocates open discussions and being prepared to work through road blocks as they arise.

7. Look for professional development opportunities. Professional development does not always require an extensive budget and is possible even within small organizations with a flat organizational structure. It can mean attending board meetings with the ED, job shadowing in your own or another organization. Allain says that “Volunteerism is a great way to get experience in developing your career path.” She adds, “Having opportunities to learn and develop is consistently one of the top contributors to engagement and people staying committed to organization.”

8. Seek mentors. Finding a mentor offers another opportunity for professional development that positions you well for leadership. Allain says, “We often struggle to think of someone we want to be mentored by, but you might think about skills or experiences you want to gain and potentially have four different mentors for different aspects of your career.” She also notes that “Taking your career into your own hands means using your own time to meet with your mentor(s) – on a Saturday morning, Thursday for drinks, etc.”

9. Ask yourself whether management is for you. Sometimes management is seen as the pinnacle of success in an organization, but a managerial role is not for everyone. Allain observes, “Some people would much rather be a specialist in a certain area and let someone else deal with the political aspects, the board, etc. Depending on what drives you, there might even be better opportunities for you.”

10. Make tradeoffs. Even if you work for a nonprofit, your contributions to the world can happen outside of your work. Negotiating a four-day workweek, for instance, could allow you to sit on the board of another organization, meet with or seek out a mentor, take a course, volunteer, etc. If you are unemployed or underemployed, Gilbert emphasizes the importance of remaining active in order to keep your mind sharp and meet new people in a professional capacity.

While it may seem that the wait for leadership opportunities is unending, recent studies have shown that the long-predicted sea change is beginning to happen. The Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations2013 Turning Point report noted that 27% of organizations surveyed had had leadership turnover in the last two years, with another 50% expecting their leaders to retire within the next five years. Taking charge of your career now will mean you are prepared to ride this wave of change to future success.

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

Photos (from top) via iStock.com. All photos used with permission.

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