Ten New Year’s resolutions for your nonprofit career

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It’s been just over three years since Michel Dubois graduated with a degree in social work from the University of Ottawa, and the Gatineau native is anxious to finally begin what he hopes will be a “long career in Canada’s nonprofit sector.”

The only hiccup: he hasn’t been able to find what he calls “meaningful full-time work.”

Dubois has a resume that most likely resembles those held by many (relatively) recent university graduates looking to get into Canada’s nonprofit sector: it’s peppered with work experience from a few short-term internships, a four-month work-term completed during university, countless volunteer hours with a various nonprofits, and a smattering of jobs in the service and hospitality sectors.

Dubois – an aspiring program manager, ideally for a charity that advocates for children’s rights – feels as though his patchwork of experience could pave the way for entry into the sector, but he has had little luck finding full-time work based on the way he has advertised himself. Whether his self-described “slow start” is due to the job market being too tough, or the result of being too selective with potential workplaces, Dubois admits, “it’s time for a change.”

As a result, with the New Year around the corner, he’s willing to listen to any advice he’s given as a means of helping his chances of breaking into the sector.

“Let’s put the obvious aside,” says Dubois. “Yes, I will eat better, and yes, I will exercise more, but this year, I’m looking for a new set of New Year’s resolutions – ones that will help me land a long-term job with a nonprofit.”

Along with the changing of his calendar, Dubois is also vowing to change his approach to nonprofit jobseeking.

Based on the advice of four Canadian nonprofit sector experts, Dubois, and all nonprofit jobseekers, can find a foundation of New Year’s guidance to help kickstart a complete nonprofit application transformation.

Get out there! New Year’s parties and networking events are NOT a waste of time!

Just when you thought that the glut of networking events ended with your office-wide December holiday party, guess again. Your reprieve from networking events will likely come just a little bit later in the season.

Whether you’re employed or not employed, chances are you will have networking events in the New Year that you either want to go to, or you feel you have to go to. While these events may come in the form of conferences, fundraisers, or annual kickoff functions, don’t just roll your eyes and think, “not another one of these.” Embrace the opportunity these events offer.

“Usually there’s a participant list circulated before or at the event to identify somebody that you should be meeting, or somebody you want to learn more about,” says Nancy Ingram, co-founder and partner at Foot in the Door Consulting, an organization that specializes in helping nonprofit professionals build sustainable careers. “These individual relationships you cultivate, and the word-of-mouth associations that these relationships bring, can count for a lot down the line.”

Instead of just standing around, checking your watch, or blindly scrolling through your phone, use these networking events as a way to meet new people within the nonprofit sector.

“To be less passive at networking opportunities, and be more active, even if it means just cultivating one contact, or learning about one particular issue, can be beneficial to your career,” Ingram adds. “It will give you the sense that you’re moving forward, so that when you are ready to get out there and take your next career step, you have people to bounce ideas off of.”

“Keep learning”

What can often be a tough pill for nonprofit professionals to swallow is the realization that they have become too comfy within a particular job, and as a result, may have hindered their own career development.

Ingram says she finds that many of her clients who are holding a job that they love often struggle to start thinking about taking the next step in their careers. However, in order to help break the status quo, she advises them to “keep learning.”

“As often as you can, whether it’s once a quarter, once a month, or once every six months, peruse the jobs that are out there, and compare your own work experience and skills with the criteria listed in jobs that attract you,” she says.

This period of reflection and self-education can be an effective way of rounding out a professional development plan that looks at filling in any gaps that may be on your resume. Ask yourself questions, like “if I were going to apply to this job, where are my strengths?” Just as importantly, don’t be afraid to ask yourself, “where are my gaps?”

“A commitment to keep learning each year helps fill a gap,” Ingram adds. “It also builds your path forward to what might be the next type of job or the next level of job for you, in terms of strengthening your resume for when you’re finally ready to make your move.”

When establishing contact, reach for the top

You’ve already been told of the benefits that come from networking with fellow nonprofit professionals. However, at least one industry professional is calling for you to aim for the top of the staff chart when reaching out to organizations, insisting that your main focus should be establishing a relationship with the executive director of the organization you’d like to work for.

“In my experience, another effective way to get into a nonprofit goes beyond scanning job boards, because the job you want may not be exist yet,” says Greg Gardner, an employment consultant with Opportunities for Employment, a not-for-profit corporation providing employment assistance services in Winnipeg.

In addition to scanning job boards, and in particular, paying attention to 'niche' or sector-focused job boards such as CharityVillage, it is in a jobseeker's best interest to concurrently look for ways to access the hidden job market.

But what is this hidden market, and how do you access it? According to Gardner, it starts by establishing a connection with the executive director of your preferred organization.

“Executive directors keep people on their radar that are keeping in contact with them – that’s how nonprofits work,” he says.

By setting this foundation, a connection can act as a springboard for more opportunities to prove you’re a worthy candidate for a position that likely hasn’t been posted to the public.

“You can start this connection by actions as simple as sending emails every month or so,” Gardner adds. “Along with being clear in your ambitions, you should also send meaningful content related to the position you want – blog posts, an article that you’ve written, or a news link that might affect their organization – and just keep that contact up. You’d be surprised how much traction this gets.”

Forget “traditional”

When looking for a position with a nonprofit organization in the New Year, multiple career consultants recommend that in order to set yourself apart from other jobseekers, you need to put a little more effort into your application process than the bare minimum; emailing a basic resume and cover letter won’t cut it anymore.

One way to ensure your resume gets a second glace? Look for ways to find entrance points within your desired nonprofit organization that may not be traditional.

“Look for ways to volunteer, or look to present ideas that could be innovative in their own way, as these are attention-grabbing methods of introduction that can show courage and discipline in risk-taking, which are very sought-after qualities in the nonprofit sector,” says Alan Kearns, founder of career coaching and counselling service CareerJoy. “Chances are you’re already networking and meeting with people in the industry, and these people should serve as your new access points, where you can show off your skillset.”

“These days, sending applications to email addresses of people you haven’t established contact with won’t do much to help your cause,” he adds.

Gardner suggests taking this step further: when introducing yourself to a nonprofit organization you would like to work for, start by treating yourself as an independent consultant, and approach the nonprofit with strategies for improvement.

“Don’t be afraid to tell an executive director what you’re capable of doing for their organization, strategically speaking,” he says. “Come at them with flexible ideas that will meet their budget, and will also meet their service needs. Coming in with a plan will definitely help to set you apart from other interviewees, and should leave them wanting to hear more of your ideas.”

Contract positions

As we move into 2014, those working in the nonprofit sector are finding more instances of contact positions arising on the roadway to full-time, salaried employment.

Trina Isakson, founder of 27 Shift Consulting, a group that conducts research and strategy in social innovation and community engagement, says that anecdotally speaking, she has seen an increase in contract positions being made available throughout the nonprofit sector in the past year.

“For many employers who have really specific outcomes that they want to achieve, and they don’t require someone to work full-time, contract work makes sense,” she says. “Especially with nonprofit organizations, when long-term funding is not always stable, many organizations are not able to sustain a full-time position over the long term, and they use contract positions to get around this.”

If you happen to be part of the growing group of nonprofit professionals who have landed a contract position, this shouldn’t be considered a career setback, according to Kearns. Instead, it should be treated as an audition.

“Contract positions often lead to full-time employment,” says Kearns. “In many cases, the nonprofit has to wait until new funding becomes available before it can make a full-time hire. Once the funds are in place – assuming the contract employee has been an exemplary employee – they are typically the logical choice to step into a full-time role.”

Get comfortable with the fact that Canada’s nonprofit sector is smaller than you think

Despite Canada being the second-largest country on Earth (geographically speaking), it is important to realize that its nonprofit sector is tighter-knit than you may have assumed.

Though Michel is an aspiring nonprofit professional situated in the Ottawa area, there may be less separating him from another soon-to-be nonprofit professional in a city like Vancouver or Halifax than originally thought – especially if he ends up working in a specific issue area, like the environment, or in campaigning.

“I worked in campaigning in Canada for 13 years, and I pretty much knew everyone else that was active in campaigning at a national and international level,” says Ingram. “It’s big and it’s small out there.”

With this in mind, if you are looking for advice within a particular area of the nonprofit sector, but can’t find anyone in your specific area to speak with, don’t be afraid to broaden your search to a nationwide scope.

“Look for ways to find sector entrance points and networking opportunities that are not necessarily regionally-focused,” recommends Kearns. “Reaching out for advice to someone living a few provinces away shows outside-the-box initiative, and will often reflect quite positively upon the person you speak with. This networking edge will help you to stand out.”

“Keep growing”

For those who are already employed, whether they’re completely happy in their job, or they’re looking to make a change, it’s important to avoid complacency by continuing to grow, especially in ways that diverge from traditional means.

When it comes to thinking innovatively, why not start in your performance review? More often than not, regardless of the process used, employees are asked to give input and reflect on the year’s performance and goals.

“In some organizations, you can’t always move up the ladder, but it’s important to understand, especially if you are happy in your current job or actively seeking a step forward, that performance reviews are more than financial benefit negotiations,” says Ingram.

Ingram calls on nonprofit professionals to use performance reviews as a means of thinking outside-the-box, and to use them to keep growing not only optically in their job, but also actually.

“There are many non-financial perks you can negotiate that will place you in a better position for when you’re ready to take that new career step,” she adds. “This could mean negotiating for a change in job title, for a mentorship opportunity, or even a job shadowing opportunity within your current organization. It’s important to look beyond solely the financial aspects.”

Active volunteerism

In October, CharityVillage ran an article on ways to turn a nonprofit volunteer gig into paid employment, looking at the growth of a specific trend in Canada’s nonprofit sector: that prior volunteer experience with the hiring organization can serve as a major advantage for jobseekers.

Based on a number of experiences with his clients, Gardner expects this volunteering-to-paid employment trend to continue to build in the New Year.

“It’s a win/win situation for both sides – it gives the nonprofit organization flexibility to get work done without tying up their budget, and it also gives the candidate a chance to see whether or not they would like to work for the nonprofit,” he says.

However, with this trend in mind, Gardner cautions jobseekers to avoid being passive in their approach to volunteering. He encourages volunteers to be more strategic with their time in 2014, especially if they are looking at ways of parlaying their volunteer experience into paid work.

“You have to set the parameters of your volunteer work, by actually proposing the terms and conditions of your volunteering,” Gardner recommends. “It’s a great way of showing the nonprofit that you’re thinking in terms of proposals, because that’s the heartbeat of every nonprofit. Show that you’re thinking along these lines.”

When jobseekers engage in active volunteerism with nonprofits, it reveals an attractive skill: the capacity to help identify and achieve specific goals set by the organization.

“Take your volunteering a step further with a nonprofit,” says Gardner, “and you can expect to get a second look when it comes time for hiring.”

Understand how volunteers can contribute strategically

As regularly stated throughout the sector, volunteers make up the backbone of a strong nonprofit organization. While this backbone remains as important as ever to the respective organization it serves, the means in which this backbone is effectively used is evolving.

“One trend that is starting to pick up is that nonprofit organizations are thinking more strategically on how they engage their volunteers,” says Isakson. “Organizations that struggle with recruiting volunteers are playing around with what a volunteer looks like and what they can do for their organizations, and rather than focusing on helping to carry out the work of the organization in an operational way, they are now engaging volunteers who are able to contribute more strategically.”

Isakson explains that with this progressive school of thought, the most sought-after volunteers are now those who can provide advice, who can act as a mentor or coach to staff members, or even who can form a short-term advisory team to help ensure projects are completed as efficiently as possible, rather than relying solely on the expertise of the staff members involved.

Whether you are a jobseeker who wants to be active in organizational volunteer management, or someone looking to volunteer with a nonprofit as an entrance point to potential paid employment, Isakson suggests that having a firm grasp on effective volunteer trends will help to have your voice heard by nonprofit hiring managers.

“There are always opportunities to engage more opinions and ideas to make sure that whatever work is being done throughout a nonprofit, it is being done to the best possible level,” she says. “Coming into an organization with an understanding of best practices for volunteers reveals this trait.”

“Lead with a giving hand”

Whether you are currently between jobs, or perhaps seeking a switch from current employment to a new nonprofit position, it’s important to remember that opportunities don’t often fall into your lap.

“Lead with a giving hand,” says Kearns, in describing ways to be proactive in a nonprofit job search. “Don’t wait for someone else to ask you to do something. Get the jump out of the gate, and take the initiative that will help you get remembered by hiring managers.”

For instance, since nonprofits often work within tight budget restraints, finding ways to recover revenue, or providing new ideas that can generate revenue, are values that are highly touted by nonprofit hiring managers.

Kearns says that approaching an organization armed with something as simple as a one-page report of observances can go a long way in helping to reveal your skillset in an innovative fashion.

“I’ve seen people send an email to the nonprofit they’re interested in working with, attaching a list of constructive observations on ways for the nonprofit to improve, and it serving as a catalyst for a face-to-face meeting,” he says. “From there, I’ve seen nonprofits respond by saying ‘we’ve got a little bit left in our budget, could you work with us, for even two or three months, to help us on a project?’ Anything is possible, and by doing this, you’ve set yourself apart from the pack.”

By leading with a giving hand, jobseekers reveal ability, rather than passivity, and represent themselves as people who can translate observation into positive action.

Brock Smith is a radio reporter/producer and communications specialist based out of Ottawa, with a special interest in the nonprofit sector. Brock can be reached on twitter at @brocktsmith.

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