3 Tips for an Aspiring Nonprofit Professional

During our Week 4 Fellows Learning Session, we got to hear from a pair of nonprofit professionals in Columbus who have both recently entered the nonprofit sector. Oyauma Garrison was already well into his career when he switched from the corporate insurance business to serve as President and C.E.O. of A Kid Again. Meanwhile, Kelsie Fields, current Development Manager for City Year Columbus and a past Fellow herself, is just one year into full-time professional work after preparing for the nonprofit sector throughout college. Despite being at remarkably different points in life, Oyauma’s and Kelsie’s insights blended nicely as they shared their early observations and lessons from nonprofit work. A few central points about personal development and advancing one’s career opportunities arose and resonated with my experiences in the Fellowship to that point.

First, telling a cohesive and compelling personal story is key.

Oyauma started the session by explaining why and how he came to be with A Kid Again, and for the next several minutes, he had the whole room captivated as if it were a public story telling. By the end of his recount of a family medical scare that led to new inspiration and purpose, my eyes were as close to tears as they will get. Oyauma described the events that led him to his current position, using appropriate changes in tone and thoughtful pauses to create suspense and powerful emotional appeal. He also openly shared his thought process at each step. Overall, the story conveyed his body of professional experience, a portion of his skill set, the way he responds to unexpected challenge, and his values, namely a strong commitment to his family and work.

Since I have sought to better understand and craft my own story this summer, I made note of Oyauma’s as an example to follow.

Second, tangible skills make a young person attractive to nonprofits.

Kelsie specifically mentioned the value of knowing Salesforce and marketing for her work in development. More importantly, she emphasized being prepared to fulfill multiple roles within an organization. To get ahead, she has taught herself new skills in response to the needs of the organization she is with. In that way, she advised that anyone can make themselves essentially irreplaceable.

Like me, Kelsie had done some academic study of nonprofits in college, but even at university, I had begun to question the specific skills I could bring to an organization. Hearing her perspective and her emphasis on continual learning was crucial. While I already knew I would benefit by adding more tangible skills, I am now more committed to putting in the necessary time and effort. Working for Ohio Crime Victim Justice Center (OCVJC) has also confirmed that my language skills are one of my biggest current assets since I have been asked (to my enjoyment!) to do some Spanish translation work outside of my primary project.

Third, to address a need at work, new staff must be prepared to provide a solution and clearly explain the reasoning for it.

It can be difficult for young people to adjust to a new organization’s culture when they think the work could be improved in some way. However, Kelsie and Oyauma detailed how someone can possibly make an impact, even while lacking much power or influence. Kelsie recommended presenting a specific plan to a supervisor. That way the supervisor can respond directly to the plan, rather than simply dismissing the employee who mentions a partial idea that could sound like criticism. Oyauma then added that you should be able to walk the supervisor through the plan step by step.

This advice seems most important to remember in moments of frustration, but I was happy to realize I had already followed the approach for providing reasoned explanations of recommendations. For my project of reviewing the Crime Victims Rights Toolkit website, I have organized my feedback into a structure that tells which part of the Toolkit I am referring to, describes the current issue I see, and then provides an actionable suggestion. Even though I do not have direct editing privileges for the website, I also created a document to show what the toolkit would look like if my suggestions were implemented.

Sample of Toolkit Recommendations

Example of my Toolkit Recommendations

When I was asked to recommend a cloud-based data backup service for OCVJC to use and explain my reasoning, I made a spreadsheet to compare the details and my evaluations of several of the available options. Both instances show that providing clear, easy-to-follow suggestions is actually most important not so I can be well-prepared to talk my co-workers through my thoughts, but so they can understand what I am thinking by perusing my work without having an in-person meeting every time.

Having clarity from the beginning on projects and in communication saves an organization time. Especially in a nonprofit environment, there is lots of work to be done with often thinner resources. That means that these three tips both improve a young person’s ability to stand out for nonprofit jobs and to contribute meaningfully to an organization from the outset.

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