Excelling as a Young Nonprofit Professional

Last week, I had the opportunity to meet with students at the University of Michigan who were selected for the Development Summer Internship Program (D-SIP), a program which is helping to build a pipeline of fundraising talent by placing undergraduate students in paid summer interships.  Though the majority of the students participating in the program will be placed within the University’s own development departments, four will be placed at area nonprofit organizations.

As part of their orientation, these students heard from a diverse panel of nonprofit representatives and community leaders.  I was in the fortunate position of moderating the panel, and so had the opportunity to learn from the group’s collective wisdom.  Although the discussion was extensive, there were six key lessons lifted up by this group:

  1. Be a blotter (or a sponge).  This piece of advice was offered by Molly Dobson, a founding donor of the D-SIP program.  She was encouraging the students to be curious, ask questions, and learn as much as they could during their summer internship.  I truly believe this should apply to all of us, regardless of how senior you are in your organization.  There are so very many opportunities to learn from the people you interact with each day, and it’s important that capitalize upon this.
  2. Try new things.  In the nonprofit sector, folks often wear a lot of hats.  Use this to your advantage.  Try out different experiences, explore work that falls outside of your expertise, and use this to learn about yourself.  You might have undiscovered talents, so why not seize the opportunity to find them?
  3. Speak up, and always communicate solutions.  Too often, young professionals feel as though their ideas and insights are not worth sharing.  Even worse, though, is when a young professional is facing a serious problem in getting their work done but feels uncomfortable discussing this with others in the organization.  Small problems can snowball into major problems, so it is important to address questions and concerns early on.  That said, no supervisor wants to hear constant whining.  It is important that you not only lift up problems to your supervisor, but offer some different solutions.  You will get a much better response to “I’d like to try this differently” than you will to “This just isn’t going to work.”  Even if the solution you offered isn’t one your supervisor agrees with, she will appreciate the fact that you tried to think about some options before approaching her.
  4. Always be cultivating your relationships.  Relationships are key – both within and outside of your organization.  Value the different perspectives that folks bring to the table, and always make your best effort to meet their needs in a timely fashion.  Relationships are vitally important in fundraising.  After all, when people trust you, they will give you greater leeway to do your work.  Donors that you have cultivated strong relationships with an organization are less likely to try to dictate where their dollars are spent, and this is key to ensuring your agency has the flexibility it needs to respond to the challenges it seeks to address.  Additionally, be sure to recognize that there are likely folks from a variety of communities who identify in some way with your organization.  Find ways to tap into these communities and empower them to be allies in your cause.
  5. Avoid mission-creep, but adopt to a shifting environment.  Nonprofits have to find the balance between staying on-mission and remaining responsive to the community.  The mission should be reviewed regularly by the Board to ensure it remains relevant, and the programs and services should constantly reviewed to ensure that they align with the mission.  As a fundraising professional, it is vital that you stay in step with your organization’s program as you seek new avenues of funding.  At the end of the day, advancing the mission is the core of what every single person in that nonprofit is charged to do, do don’t allow yourself to be blinded by the prospect of funding.
  6. Apply your learning beyond your career.  Your experience should inform what you do as a donor and volunteer.  Use what you learn from being a nonprofit professional to become a better community member.

Having received advice like this, I’d imagine the interns are well prepared to have an impactful summer!  What would you add to the list?


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