Help me plan my life
September 21, 2011 9:24 PM   Subscribe

I need advice on how to plot out my career - right now I feel doomed to drift. I work in development currently, not sure I want to stay there, but it's the only thing I know how to do.

I've been working in development (ie fundraising) for non-profits for about 5 years now, and while I like certain aspects of it, I'm not sure I want to stay in it.

I fell into development shortly after graduating. I raise funds from statutory sources and foundations. I like the writing and research aspect of the role. I also like the idea of raising the funds needed to allow important work to take place. But I don't see myself progressing much higher than "Senior Officer" status in this sort of role.

I HATE schmoozing important donors - I get really nervous of offending them and also resentful that I have to worry about this. I don't like being in the limelight or handling important people. I've not progressed beyond Senior Officer anywhere that I've worked, so I've never managed anyone, but I could probably be OK at that.

I don't think I would want to go on in development with a view to eventually becoming a development director, because of all the important people you need to handle. I've worked in small organisations and I've seen my directors suffer under a lot of stress and nervous exhaustion due to unreasonable expectations from trustees who don't understand how the organisation works. I feel like the people who do well in development are really Type-A, in a good way, but they have a killer instinct that I have never had.

So where else could I go? I'm quite retiring, I don't want glory, but I also don't want to still be drifting in the lower echelons of operational staff when I'm 50 or whatever (I'm 29 now). What other kind of work could I do? I'm good at and enjoy writing and research. I write for fun too, and it's the one thing I'm truly passionate about. I'm a people person, but a bit "too nice" (I'm trying to fix that). I've never managed someone but could probably be OK at that with some practice.

So my question: How do I stop drifting and work out a plan for what I want to do in my career? What kind of jobs could I do with the skills I have? I'm in the north of England. Anon in case anyone I work with finds this!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (6 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I also work in a field closely related to development. I understand your reluctance and shying-away from schmoozing instincts, and I think those are totally ok. With five years experience, you open yourself up to a lot of monetarily rewarding opportunities. Especially if you want to stay in the UK/EU, you can market yourself as someone with definable experience. You may want to look toward something in development which isn't focused on large or major gifts, and perhaps more toward something akin to what I know as Annual Giving. Gifts in the $500 to $2000 range (on-going annually) that aren't large enough to endow a scholarship or program on their own, but support the mission of your organization and can bundle their giving with other members willing to do the same.

are you a member of a professional organization like CASE? I don't know if you work in education, but I do know that CASE is an excellent org, and it's worth checking out their career listings. I am often squicked-out by direct fundraising, and I am very thankful that I am not in a position that requires a direct ask. I am more on the soft-ask/service providing/feelgood/everyone loves you side. I would encourage you to check out CASE or your regional professional org equivalent, along with checking resources for non-profits in your area searching for development pros for perhaps grant writing, alumni/member relations etc. You will be able to put your skills to use without being burdened by the 'hard-ask'. Hopefully this will leave you more energy to pursue your personal life/and passion for writing.
posted by Bohemia Mountain at 9:41 PM on September 21, 2011

Also, please feel free to message me via mefi if you would like to talk more in depth about your question. I'm not located anywhere near you, and would be more than happy to talk with you on the matter. best of luck!
posted by Bohemia Mountain at 9:42 PM on September 21, 2011

If you're not wanting to continue in development (though like Bohemia said there are definitely ways to stay there), a few ideas....from a non-profit worker who has done just about every department. Development used to intimidate me but I quickly learned: people want to give you money. You just have to ask. Sounds too easy to be true but it is. However I totally understand not wanting to do it full time.

What about research firms? At my nonprofit we often hire research firms as consultants to, well, research for us, and write both one-pagers and longer reports. The plus side is they are for-profit (more $ for you), but still can often take non-profit clients (helping important work still!). Here in the U.S. labor unions also hire researchers often.

Still want to stay in non-profits? Consider communications. While that does involve verbal asks, but not for money, pitching stories to reporters. It is not necessarily schmoozing, but is similar. You could ghostwrite op-eds for leaders of organizations, write website copy, write talking points, even write tweets :)

I would say talk to as many more experienced/older folks as you can. Ask them about their jobs. Take them out for coffee. Do some volunteer work in fields you find interesting. Read Penelope Trunk's blog! I absolutely love her career advice.
posted by manicure12 at 9:55 PM on September 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think some kind of consulting might be for you. Direct mail and online-focused firms advise and implement strategy for direct marketing and other sorts of small-donor fundraising. It has the fundraising, the research, and the writing--but not the sucking up to rich folks part. With five years doing this stuff for orgs I think you might be well-positioned to jump to an account executive or account manager role.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 10:48 PM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have you considered a shift towards some other branches of fundraising, for example recruitment, community fundraising, legacies or additional giving?

Direct marketing recruitment and additional giving in particular require no direct contact with donors. And you could certainly use your writing skills in those positions, typical examples being writing cash appeals for existing donors, or preparing telefundraising scripts for donor recruitment. They are much more spreadsheet based then relationship based - you communicate with donors via mail/email and/or manage agencies which speak to the donors directly (phone, face-to-face etc). Your job is generally to manage results, analyse trends and produce fundraising products/materials.

You say you've worked for small organisations - typically it's the better-known, slightly larger charities that invest in individual giving/direct marketing as you need a certain amount of name recognition to make it work. That's where I'd start looking if I were you. Good luck!
posted by vodkaboots at 8:02 AM on September 22, 2011

I worked in development for about 7 years and left it at age 31 for many of the same reasons you cite. I just couldn't imagine myself on the development career track for the rest of my life. I worked at respectable institutions and was able to get a promotion every couple of years, but I could see that after a certain point, there was a lot of competition for top jobs, and I wasn't sure I had the real desire in me to hold out for those roles.

It seemed like a huge risk at the time, but I collected my meagre savings, moved to smaller city, and went back to school to do a masters degree in a totally different field. I had no idea if I was doing the right thing at the time, but all I knew was that I needed some change.

I have been able to leverage that development experience, though, in my new field of design strategy. Especially in my work with government agencies and nonprofits. I consult to organisations who want to transform their products and services, as well as their internal processes and systems. Through my development experience, I learned a great deal about leadership, communication, and more generally, the art of persuasion. That's something that can help you be successful in design, business, advertising, public affairs, and public policy, just to mention a few things. You don't even have to limit yourself to writing careers. There's lots of communications-based work out there that includes facilitation, communication strategy, training, and planning-based work.

I remember back when I left the development world, I worried a lot that I had already invested a lot in that career and that I might be making a huge mistake by leaving that behind. At 30 it's easy to fear that you're already too old to make a change. But nothing could be further from the truth. There's really no hurry either. Just start looking out for other things that interest you. You'd be surprised at the weird and unexpected ways you can leverage your experience.
posted by amusebuche at 5:12 AM on September 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

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