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When 2,300+ nonprofit professionals gathered in Portland last month for the 2019 Nonprofit Technology Conference, they didn’t glean career guidance from keynote speakers and session presenters alone. For a second year, the NTC Career Center offered an on-site spot to connect with longtime community members for eight-minute mentoring and professional profile or résumé reviews.
We asked this year’s Career Center Mentors to share their top career tips. Here are a few highlights.
Director of Information Technology, Urban Teachers
In her experience with career mentoring, Dar believes a common error is sharing a generic checklist of tech skills, rather than showcasing accomplishments and skills that nonprofit tech teams need.
“Highlight your entire skill set. Did you do the product evaluation for migrating to a new CRM? Did you lead the journey-mapping for a new website? Do you know how to manage a budget or maybe you found cost savings for an org? Maybe you’re really good at tech project management. You don’t have to have a PMP to highlight that on your résumé. Someone that can successfully organize and lead a cross-team tech project is worth their weight in gold to any organization.”
Another frequent issue is recognizing and addressing self-doubt. “Go for it! Job listings are wish lists. As a hiring manager, I am often happy to have a candidate with a 75% match with the job description. I look for mostly-matches that demonstrate they can get up to speed on the rest of the items I need for the position.”
Looking to hone some essential nonprofit tech skills? Dar recommends fine-tuning your ability to juggle many things, address shifting priorities, and continually learn and adapt — “all on a tight budget while standing on your head (Okay, maybe not that last item. It often feels like that’s what you’re being asked to do).”
New to the sector? Dar advises that nonprofit jobs often involve taking on many different tasks and responsibilities. “Use that as a learning opportunity. There are just as many directions you can go in nonprofit tech as there are in the for-profit tech world. Find your strengths, your niche, and what you like doing.”
Senior Director, Social Impact Strategy at Oracle NetSuite
David’s top advice is 1) Take advantage of opportunities, 2) Create opportunities, and 3) know your direction. “It’s the interplay of these three things that make for a great and fulfilling career.”
David’s introduction to the sector was when someone dropped by his office and asked, ‘You like computers, right?,” which led to volunteer HTML-coding training with at-risk youth,“ says David. “At the time, I had a general sense of my direction, but the specifics eluded me. By being open to the volunteer opportunity, it allowed me to add to my direction. I discovered I wanted to make the world a better place and I enjoyed using technology to do it.”
One of David’s first “real” jobs in nonprofit technology was a mix of taking advantage and creating opportunities. “I responded to a job listing in line with my direction and I found out that the federal grant that funded the position was a matching grant. I would have to raise the match before I could get paid. At that point, I had to create the opportunity, take a risk, and raise my salary. This was an interesting journey into privilege. I worked with a community-based social and racial justice organization, but it was my privilege that allowed me to create the opportunity. Creating an opportunity doesn’t have to be too dramatic. Going to the NTC and talking to 50 people can create a lot of opportunities.”
But what if there are no opportunities? “Opportunities take a lot of work. In job searches, it was not uncommon for me to apply to 100 different jobs. In volunteer contexts, I would get involved with five or 10 different organizations before I found or created the opportunity. There is no shortcut to the work, but knowing your direction will allow you to sort through all the opportunities and allow you to select things that take you in a positive direction.”
Executive Director, Next Century Cities, and NTEN Board Vice Chair
A longtime mentor, Deb most enjoys talking with people who are examining their current position and considering taking on more responsibility. Here are her top five tips.
Find your passion and pursue it.
Don’t settle for a position that does not fill your soul. Working in the nonprofit community can be challenging in many ways, but you do have the opportunity to get paid twice. First is your actual paycheck (and it should be a livable wage!) and your second payment should be the sense of personal satisfaction you receive from your work.
Be brave, be bold.
Do not underestimate your capacity to take on greater responsibility. Everyone in leadership had a first leadership role and we all felt worried about our ability to do it well. Accept that no one is perfect and making mistakes is a part of learning and growing.
Ask and listen.
Never believe you have to know everything. You need to tap the skill set of those around you. Find mentors, listen to the experts on staff, be open to new ideas, and create space for conversation.
Build up the people around you.
Provide regular, real, and helpful feedback, ensure your budget has room for professional development, and encourage folks to take chances and step up.
Give credit and accept blame.
When you are a leader and things go well, publicly congratulate staff. When things go wrong, take responsibility.
Vice President, Big Duck, and NTEN Board member
Check mission first, people second.
Feeling that an organization’s or company’s mission aligns with your values is often the first step of a job search. Beyond that, people often focus on the details of the job description or the range of the salary. How you’ll be spending your day and whether you’ll be fairly compensated are other givens. But what about focusing on who you’ll be spending the day with? With so many hours spent collaborating with colleagues, finding a group of people you can learn from, respect, and enjoy is just as important. If you are evaluating a position, don’t just scroll through your LinkedIn network for people who can put in a good word or connect you for an info interview. Look for people who know the current or former staff at your potential employer and see if they’ll talk to you about the culture.
Before you leave, grow from within.
Now let’s say you love the people you work with and are still fueled by the mission, but don’t love how you are spending your day. Before you leave, consider talking to your colleagues about other things you can do there. Bringing in some new responsibilities or switching jobs completely can breathe new life into what may feel tedious or boring. And if you love working somewhere, there’s a chance they love you too and would rather find a way to support your growth than lose you completely if there is an opportunity to do so.
Find what charges you up.
Not sure if you should stay or go? Confused about where to take your job search? Take time to reflect on what kind of work energizes you and what feels depleting. Look back at your past week or even your most recent jobs, and make a list. Spot any trends? Before you dive into the nitty-gritty of a specific job, zoom out and a get a sense of what you really need in a job, in a workplace, and in a supervisor, and focus your search on the elements that are most likely to motivate you.
Director, Digital Strategy, Pathways to Education Canada, and NTEN Board Chair
Jason reviewed several résumés at the 19NTC Career Center and noticed a common tactic of work experience separated into “Volunteer” and “Employment” sections. “Consider a single heading of ‘relevant experience’ that includes both volunteer and employment experiences, and highlight the roles that most closely align with the role. Whether the relevant experience is paid or unpaid, it is still valuable and should be highlighted accordingly.”
When thinking about your next steps, Jason recommends you consider not just your next position, but the position you want after that. “It helps to create the space to reflect on how shorter-term job decisions can also support your longer-term career goals.”
In nonprofit careers, a sense of meaningful impact is often identified as an important consideration. “When considering career decisions, take a step back to reflect on your personal values and identify what these values look like in action in order to provide clarity that can inform future career decisions,” says Jason. “For example, if balance is identified as one of your personal values, what does balance look like on a day-to-day basis? What does it look like in 30 days? Six months? A year? What is the role your career will play in living out your values? These reflections can help to plan your next steps.”
Ready to take these tips and find your next opportunity? Visit our Nonprofit Tech Job Board for freshly-posted listings from change-making organizations across the country.