A former colleague recently contacted me to say his employment had come to an end. He commented that he was tired of letting others decide his career path. That niggled in my mind for a while, as I know how easy it is to rely on our employers for career growth — and yet how fatal that can be.
The reality is no one cares as much about your career path as you do. Or at least, no one should. But when you’re overwhelmed by the work that is screaming out for your attention, it’s hard to think past the next mail drop, Web page update or major-donor call.
Here are some tips for growing your own career even while you grow the income of your nonprofit employer.
Set a goal for one specific, measurable thing in your fundraising program
One way we grow our careers is by having success in our careers. But standing out as an expert (or at least a better-than-average fundraiser) is tough, especially if you work for a nonprofit that doesn’t have a lot of resources to work with. So in the midst of everything else you are focusing on, select one area that you are going to give some extra energy to. It may be lapsed-donor retention, second-gift conversion, bequest marketing or whatever you see has potential to improve if given some extra TLC.
Next, develop a strategy and keep tinkering until you find solutions. You may not solve the entire problem, but are there small gains taking place? Are you seeing progress or at least finding out what doesn’t work? (Take heart; it was Albert Einstein who said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”)
Once you have some learnings, start sharing them with others in your network. Report them in your annual self-evaluation, or share them in a staff meeting. Sometimes we’re too modest, but if you are serious about growing your career, make sure you don’t hide what you’ve accomplished.
Learn. Then learn some more
It’s tempting to wait for our employers to offer to pay for continuing education. But even if that is happening, you owe it to yourself to invest in yourself. You may not be able to invest in a multiday event across the country, but buy a book that intrigues you (and then read it). View a webinar that covers a topic you want to master. Take a day off and go to a local seminar, or volunteer at a nonprofit that is successfully doing something that you want to master.
The first book of fundraising that I bought cost me several hours of pay; it was a sacrifice. But I still have that book years later because it reminds me that investing in myself matters. If I had waited for my employer — cash-strapped as it was — to buy a book for me so I could learn to be a better fundraiser, I would have retired sans book.
There are also great learning opportunities that are free and show up in your e-mail box every day — which you obviously know as you are reading this newsletter. But subscribe to (and read) one or two that are outside your specific focus. That’s a great way to learn what’s happening in the wider world other than your specific specialty or what’s in your job description. And that knowledge can help you as you look to grow your career and accept new challenges.
Talk to others
Much of my career was spent working for smaller nonprofits. Many, many times, I called organizations that did similar work as us but were much bigger. I asked them what they were seeing in this area or how this or that was performing for them. I suspect they didn’t think my organization was big enough to be a threat, so they openly shared information with me — and I learned new methods, had my ideas challenged and, yes, often hung up feeling reaffirmed.
Fundraisers are a wonderful group of people as a whole; there are tremendous needs that concern us, and we know we alone can’t solve them. Don’t be afraid to ask for information, and share it when you are asked.
We are all on a learning curve. After all, not that many years ago, not one of us had any idea how to raise money through e-mail. So no excuses! Make today that day you start managing your career so you can become the best fundraiser possible.
Originally published in NonProfit Pro.