How to improve my career in the nonprofit industry?
December 3, 2010 8:56 AM   Subscribe

Nonprofit career professionals: Is it advised to focus within one sector of the industry, like the arts, or is it okay to move into different sectors through out your career?

I studied music performance in college, graduated, and worked for a temp agency in two administrative positions in academia for about a year, both considered to be nonprofits.

From there, I managed to get a job working for a nonprofit performing arts company for three years. I really enjoyed it, but recently had to move, leaving my job behind. Part of the reason I really enjoyed it was from the amount of event planning/fundraising that my job involved.

I am now at a crossroads in my career, and not sure what to do. I would like to stay within the nonprofit industry. However, I'm not sure if I should focus on any job within the arts, an event planning/fundraising job within the arts, or an event planning/fundraising job within the general nonprofit industry.

How to people move up their careers in the nonprofit industry? Is it common to go from academia to arts to working with the homeless, for example? Or do people usually stay within one sector?
posted by elegance to Work & Money (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
It depends a bit on your specific skill set. If you're in marketing, or management, the skills are fairly transferable. eg I've a friend in marketing who moved from disabled care to performing arts to museum promotion with relative ease. She's now managing the marketing arm of her local state museum. I'd guess that the ability to transfer your skills would be present with event planning as well, but I'm not really sure.

Why not ring some organizations that you think you might like to work for, ask to speak to their HR people and ask whether they need your skills?
posted by Ahab at 9:07 AM on December 3, 2010

All I've ever done is work for NPO's. I've worked for some big names you'd recognize and some tinies you wouldn't. I got my start in childcare and moved to affordable housing, now I'm in civil rights/legislation/and construction management.

I'm a program manager though, I suppose some formats aren't transferrable. Budgets are budgets, fundraising is fundraising, meetings are meetings. Within our medium sized community, relationships are way more important than titles, and people move fairly freely between agencies.

The most, most most most, important thing, is that you pick a focus area for which you are RABIDLY protective of. If you don't believe in the mission fully, you'll burn out. Fast.

That's why I left Habitat after several very successful years.
posted by TomMelee at 9:37 AM on December 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Congratulations on your dedication to non-profit work. While infamously not-lucrative, it’s important work and can be hugely satisfying. Within the non-profit world, some skills are eminently portable from one type of organization to another. As Ahab points out below, marketing and management are two that will allow you to move between fields.

Another skill set that will provide excellent portability is development/fundraising. Over the last decade I have worked for a community service organization, two national health-related charities, a human services organization and, most recently, a regional art museum. All of these organizations needed help raising money. And all of them had some sort of special event component. With that in mind, you should be in excellent shape to move between organizations with different foci.

That said, here are three pieces of advice. If you have the luxury of choice, make sure that you not only think that your prospective NPO is a good organization or that it does good work, but that you are excited and enjoy the work that it does. It will make the long hours and the compensation less of a factor. Not only that, it will improve the quality of your work. If you’re excited by the work that your group does, you’ll do exciting work in return.

In terms of the future and special events: Many organizations sue special events as fundraisers so building a track record of successful events will make it possible for you to work in a lot of places. That said: do make sure that you really want to work special events. It’s stressful in the short term, and in the long term, can be a specialization that doesn’t lead up the ladder as much as it does to the same rung on a different ladder.

Just have an idea of where you want to after you begin to tire of organizing events and make sure your prospective job has opportunities for your to enrich those other skills.

Finally, there is an adage in fundraising that you move up by moving on, i.e. promotion (and substantial raises) typically comes with a new job with a new organization. In my experience, this is mostly true.
posted by Verdant at 9:46 AM on December 3, 2010

From my observation of the career arcs of many relevant professionals (through the lens of development (i.e. fundraising) in public broadcasting), you have pretty portable skills you want to focus on and it is fine to expand the scope of your career goals to a broader sector of the nonprofit world. Be aware of your strengths in experience: e.g. there is a substantial difference between planning large events for general alumni of a large university versus planning intimate luxury events for a select group of major donors. Likewise, there is a big difference from fundraising from a large pool of members/subscribers versus seeking major grants form individuals or large institutional donors.
posted by nanojath at 9:59 AM on December 3, 2010

I'm a nonprofit professional. I've definitely bounced around a bit.

Many skills are very transferable - management, organizing, events work, grantwriting.

Being able to manage a staff, or run a project (or both!) is a skill that can be quite independent of the subject of the work. One of my old bosses was a former Very Corporate Executive who, after he retired, stroked a failing tiny NPO into a still-tiny but sustainable and thriving organization.
posted by entropone at 10:00 AM on December 3, 2010

IMO, skills - writing, marketing, fundraising, communications - are transferable. However, if you're a wonk, issue expertise will generally be less transferable. If you're a fundraiser for an organization that focuses on children's issues, it'll be easier to move to another organization that does children's issues because you'll know the players but you can move whever you want. However, if you're a tax policy guru, good luck trying to get a gig in animal rights.

The nice thing about the nonprofit world is that there are opportunities to directly support causes in which you believe and, if you decide you're sick of it, you can move to the for-profit world (they need event planners too).

If you like fundraising and event planning, by God, stick with it. I hesitate to make such blanket statements but I think if you're good at fundraising, there will always be jobs for you in the nonprofit world (not to mention politics). If you don't like fundraising and event planning, start trying to figure out what you like.

It sounds like one of the questions you're asking is "what kind of jobs should I apply for?" My answer would be, anything that sounds interesting to you.
posted by kat518 at 10:43 AM on December 3, 2010

Event planning and fund raising skills can be very transferable - as can lots of admin skills and of course finance skills. Have you looked for any local fundraising professionals groups? It could be useful to see people from a wide range of groups as fundraising and event planning duties can vary wildly from one organization to another and you can get to see a range of options.
posted by oneear at 1:31 PM on December 3, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for your answers! Such great response. I feel a little more at ease now seeing your responses. I've just noticed through my search, how specialized the arts are as a sector in the nonprofit industry. There are organizations such as "Americans for the Arts" that are there to support arts leaders, and there is tons of information about just that one sector. Being that I worked for an arts organization for three years, I realized how much information there is to learn just about the arts sector alone. I wonder how people can move around the nonprofit industry into different areas, and still give their organization/position/cause justice.

Is it just the arts that is so specialized, or are each one of the different nonprofit sectors specialized to?
posted by elegance at 7:41 AM on December 7, 2010

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