When I was a recent college grad in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I had lunch with a woman several decades ahead of me in her career. She had a job I wanted some day, and I was so grateful she had agreed to meet with me.
She recommended many things to me that day. One of those things, however, was especially impactful.
A YNPN chapter was just starting up in Milwaukee, at that time. “Go seek them out and get involved,” she said. “You’ll really make a name for yourself.” This woman was well-respected in the nonprofit community, and her words seemed golden to me. I didn’t waste a moment seeking out YNPN.
Before long, I had joined the Board of Directors of YNPN’s Greater Milwaukee Chapter. We were in start-up mode, and it was so exciting to be leading an organization as we designed and built a website, designed and executed new educational programming, defined our mission and growth strategy, and pursued official 501c3 status.
Here’s the thing.
When you are a recent college grad, you don’t usually get opportunities like that. Often, young professionals are relegated to the virtual “kids’ table” in an organization. Maybe you are tasked with running social media (because “you know how to do that” and no one else does). Maybe you are thought of, kind of dismissively, as the “energetic” and “enthusiastic” one. Your relative age is likely brought up often – often in a bit of a condescending way.
I get it. I’ve been there.
At that point in my career, I was not satisfied with that sort of status quo. I wanted to lead. I wanted to make an impact. I wanted to learn how to shape a strategy, to work on the big-picture level – rather than simply executing other peoples’ strategies and vision.
YNPN gave me the opportunity to vault ahead in my career, to take on leadership opportunities I would not likely have had until years later. I am SO incredibly grateful for that opportunity and the way it has altered my career trajectory.
Want to know how else YNPN helped me?
In 2014, my husband and I moved to the Twin Cities, as he had found a new job here. I know all my fellow nonprofiteers know how discombobulating it can be to pick yourself up from one community and plop yourself down into another.
Nonprofit work is ecological work. The environment you’re in is everything. The other orgs. The other people. The way it all fits together. You gotta know things! You gotta be plugged in!
I wasn’t, obviously. I had to start over again from scratch. And YNPN-TC? This amazing organization completely softened my landing.
I felt welcomed like a sister. (After all, we were part of the same YNPN family!) We immediately “got” each other, since the entrepreneurial, high-achieving, welcoming culture of YNPN is pretty similar no matter which city you’re in.
In no time flat, I felt like I had my “people” around me. And they helped connect me to new people, who helped connect me to others. Just like that, I was building a new network.
I can’t sing the praises of YNPN enough. Obviously.
But sharing all of that was not the real point of this blog post. Sharing all of that set the proper context.
My real point, here, is to acknowledge how much I feel like a “big sister” to many of you. The “young” part of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network is starting to feel much less personal to me. Now, I realize that I’m starting to navigate into the waters labeled “mid-career.”
And as I’m navigating this new stage, I want to offer some caring, sibling-like guidance to those of you traveling the path I’ve already taken – a few things that I’ve learned in my career so far, so that perhaps you can learn some of these lessons a bit more quickly than I did, and so that you can be as successful as possible as soon as possible.
- The number one piece of guidance I will always offer to young nonprofit professionals?! Join YNPN! Get involved! Attend programming events! Roll up your sleeves! Volunteer for projects and committees! Consider joining the Board! Jump in with both feet. Seriously. I don’t think it’s possible to regret doing that. And very likely, it’s the best career move you’ll ever make.
- You know as much as most people. Recently, I came across this piece of advice from Gretchen Rubin, where she shared it as one of her “Secrets of Adulthood,” and it resonated so much. Unfortunately, I’ve only started to learn this in the last few years. I hope you can learn it much sooner. As a young professional in the workforce, it can be easy to feel inadequate, naïve, unqualified. Don’t. Just confidently move forward, knowing what you know – and realize that you probably know as much as most everybody else around you (even if some of them seem much more confident than you feel). Honestly? Some people are just better at appearing confident. They still probably know just about as much as you know.
- Save your judgment. There is always far more complexity in a situation (and in a person) than you can perceive. Just know: you will never, ever know the whole story. There will always be things you haven’t considered. Knee-jerk opinions are for amateurs. Wait. See. Gather information. Gather more. And just stay neutral until you have a darn good grasp on things — if that ever happens. Think of the mature and wise people you know. They’re like this, right?
- Rest in you. Rather than reaching for some sort of external stimulation or validation (which is an easy thing to do, especially when you’re new at something), just rest in your knowing. Don’t speak just to say something, anything, so people know you’re there. Don’t put up your hand, or jump into a conversation, until you feel an inner nudging to do it – or until you feel like what you have to say will really advance the conversation and/or bring something new to the table. You want to develop a reputation for adding value wherever you go – not the opposite.
- Be real. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not, the thing that you think others prefer or admire. That never really works, anyway. People are savvy. They see through you more easily than you might think. Why waste your time and theirs? Why compromise the real connection you could have with them? Why make them distrust you, potentially, when they see your artifice? You do you. Then you can be successful on your own terms – in your own unique way.
- Vulnerability is the true strength. Have you seen Brene Brown’s brilliant work re: vulnerability? No? STOP EVERYTHING YOU’RE DOING RIGHT NOW AND WATCH THIS TED TALK VIDEO. What do I mean by vulnerability? Be willing to admit when you don’t know something. Share a personal struggle with others, which builds strong(er) relationships with them. Open up when you are confused. Forget erecting your ramparts and walls, so you can appear “strong” or “smart” or like you know everything. Just tear them down and BE in the world – be as you are. In that, you’ll find the most solid confidence and strength there is. Think about some of the people you most admire. I bet they do this. Being like this is so strong, because you have completely let go of any fear. What could ever stop you, if you’re like this?
- Approach every situation from a place of strength. I’m a social worker, and as such, I’ve been trained in strengths-based practice. For you non-social workers? The CliffsNotes version: we see the strengths, gifts, resources clients have, rather than a diagnosis or a problem or a lack. In your career, do that for yourself. Don’t go small! Don’t focus on what you think you don’t know, or the skills you think you don’t have! Don’t under-sell or under-cut yourself! Know what you know. Realize and practice your gifts. Step into situations knowing that your experience, knowledge, and skills are certain to make those situations better than they would be without your presence there.
- Make time in your schedule for regular coffees/lunches with your nonprofit colleagues – peers, mentors, mentees. Just do it. We all work in an ecosystem. Acknowledge that. Water the seeds. Feed their growth. Be grateful for the community you’re in, and work to strengthen it. One of the best ways to do that is to strengthen your one-on-one relationships – which in turn strengthens the entire network/ecosystem of the community. And we all do better when we all do better – right, my fellow Minnesotans?
- Be proactively generous in giving to others. Yes, they say that what goes around comes around. But who cares? Don’t even worry about that. Just give, give, give. You will find SO much joy in helping others achieve their goals. BONUS: you will be fueling the advancement of your career without even knowing that’s what you’re doing.
- Cheer on your colleagues and friends. Be the wind at their back! You will find so much joy in seeing people you “came up with” achieve goals they’ve had for years – when you’re all actually doing the things you’ve been aiming for. By this point in my career, I have friends who have become Executive Directors, VPs, therapists, lawyers, CPAs, PhDs, and medical doctors. How sweet is that – to have friends who are doing such amazing things?! You get to share in the joy of everyone’s successes when you’ve been there with them in the struggle.
- Always stretch beyond what you think you “can” do. You will always — always — surprise yourself. Early career is the time to especially, exponentially stretch, grow, expand — by leaps and bounds. That is most possible when you’re scared $#!%-less at times.
- Anything worth doing is going to be hard. Looking back now at all the things I’ve done that seem most meaningful and worthwhile, I remember how much they stretched me in the moment. I struggled. I huffed. I puffed. I sweated them out. You are going to feel the WORK when you are doing something worthwhile. That will probably be your best sign, in the moment, that you’ll be glad, down the road, that you did something.
- Nothing is about you. Nothing. Get rid of that ego. You will be much more effective if you see yourself as a vessel, providing a needed service in a given place and time. You’re not special. Nothing is ever about you, your personality, your smarts, your experience. Nothing. Especially in this sector where the mission – the mission! – is everything.
Yes, I realize that last one kind of contradicts an entire list of guidance for YOU – but in a lot of ways, it is the one lens through which you should be reading all the other stuff. Really. In the end, that mindset helps free you up to do the best you can possibly do. You’ll be focused, throwing all your energy into the work, rather than spinning your wheels worrying about yourself.
Friends, I’m a big fan of mentorship. At every point of my career, I’ve always had at least a handful of both mentors and mentees. I heartily recommend the same approach for you.
This also means I want you to feel free to reach out to me directly to chat (I'm on LinkedIn). I’m always up for that!
What other things have you learned so far in your career/life? Is there anything I missed – or even something you think I got wrong (or at least should have said differently)?