2009’s Nonprofit Career Resolution: Be Intentional!

This post appeared on January 7th, 2009 as a part of the Career Corner Advice Series

It is no secret that 2009 is shaping up to be a tough year all around. Sadly, that prognosis applies all the more to people looking for nonprofit jobs. The job search process, as most people undertake it, is frustrating, difficult, and demoralizing. Throw in dire economic forecasts and general uncertainty as we move into the new year, and you’ve got the recipe for a perfect storm of career frustration. What, then, can the nonprofit job seeker do in 2009? The answer, fortunately, is plenty.

Meg did a fantastic job of outlining some of the nuts, bolts, and numbers in her recent blog about seasonal lethargy and the current state of the nonprofit sector. Unemployment is up, nonprofits are wary of new hires, and organizations—from foundations to nonprofits of all sizes—are keeping a closed fist on their purse strings. So, how do you get ahead and get yourself ready for the moment when that ideal nonprofit job comes along? Simple. Create Intentional Opportunities.

Whenever I talk with job seekers about their search, I like to run through a little warm-up activity. I ask the participants to raise their hand if they’ve sent off at least three resumes this week. Most everyone raises a hand. Then I ask who has attended at least one networking event in the last month. Hands, albeit fewer in number, go up. Next I ask who has conducted an informational interview in the last month. Fewer hands still. Finally, I ask, “Who has approached an organization to discuss creating a mutually beneficial, intentional opportunity that fills a needs for the organization while also allowing you a chance to network and work on skill sets that will make you a stronger candidate when you apply for jobs?” To date, no one has yet raised a hand. Let’s change that shall we?

The ability to create intentional opportunities is one of the best ways to get your foot in the nonprofit door. Furthermore, it is a truly unique features of the nonprofit sector. Granted, most (if not all) of these opportunities will be unpaid, but, by the end, you will be further along in achieving your goal of finding a great nonprofit job than you would be if you simply sat at home launching resume after resume into cyberspace. How then do you create these intentional opportunities?

Step One: Know how you see yourself best making a difference and know how to express your personal mission statement clearly and succinctly.

Step Two: Talk to people. Find out from friend, professional and academic contacts, and the career services office at your community college or university (many also work with alumni) what nonprofits they know about and respect. Make a list of organizations that sound interesting to you.

Step Three: Go on Idealist and do an Organizational Search. You can search by geographic location only (which I recommend) by entering the city and state and then “Within 50 miles” or search by geography and area of focus. Once you have a list of organizations, go through them and see what their websites look like. Add 3-5 organizations to the list you started in step two and then prioritize who you want to talk with most.

Step Four: Make contact. Let them know who you are, what you are interested in, and where you see points of synergy. In other words, instead of saying something like, “I’m a big fan of your organization and I think the work you do is really important. How can I help?”, say, “Hi. My name is Steve and I have a passion for education and teaching critical thinking. Recently, I’ve branched out from working only in the classroom to developing my grantwriting and fundraising skills. Given that you are a new 501(c)3 educational organization, I was wondering if there was a way for me to help you research and apply for funding.”

You will likely run into a few organizations that simply don’t have the ability to co-create an intentional opportunity with you and that is okay; you will likely find plenty of organizations that will.

This entry is by Steven Joiner, Director of the Career Transitions Program and author of The Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers for Sector Switchers. He actually used the quote in step four to land a really cool grantwriting gig with a local nonprofit.


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