In defense of the nonprofit generalist

The following blog is by Stephanie Jacobs.

main.jpgHello, my name is Stephanie Jacobs, and I am a nonprofit generalist. 

I have worked for nonprofits for the past nine years, but I don’t have deep expertise in any particular field, nor do I have years of experience in one kind of job. I’ve worked for a humane society, an organization that serves senior citizens, a nonprofit consulting firm, and a grantmaker membership association. I’ve done everything from grant writing to program planning, and I’ve never done the same job twice. I know a lot about the nonprofit sector as a whole, the various positions and roles within the sector, and what part nonprofits play in relation to the other sectors.

I’m a Marketer and Researcher and Strategic Planner and Volunteer Manager and lots of other things that I do in my job that have nothing to do with my title. I currently work with foundation staff and trustees that care about education, workforce development, arts and culture, international grantmaking, and health care. I need to know just enough to keep up with the conversation, but I don’t have enough time or mental capacity to know it all. In other words, I know a little bit about a whole lot of stuff.

In a time when the job market has tightened and nonprofits are being told to act more like corporations, you may hear from some people that it’s better to specialize within one field or position to demonstrate your expertise to potential employers. That may be sound advice, but I think there are many good reasons why you should be a nonprofit generalist.  

  • You can be passionate about doing good for any kind of organization. You work in the nonprofit sector because you care about something. That something can be kids or animals or the poor. By being a generalist, you can do good anywhere.  
  • You don’t need to be pigeon-holed into one kind of position. It can be difficult to get a different role in the sector if you stay in one kind of position for too long because employers could assume that you only know how to do one thing. 
  • You will never stop learning or meeting new people. When you need to have a wide base of knowledge rather than a deep one, you need to have your pulse on what’s happening in the community at large. And you need to know the people in those areas who can connect you with the right people and resources to get the job done. 
  • You can help connect the dots. A nonprofit generalist sees the sector as a whole, rather than through the perspective of a particular field or issue. When you can see the big picture, you see how everything is connected, and you can help organizations make those connections. 

Essentially, to be a good generalist, you need to be a multi-tasker, people-person, and Jill or Jack of all trades. If the thought of that makes you tired rather than exhilarated, being a generalist might not be for you. But, if you want to build your career by being a generalist, here are a few tips on how to get by knowing very little about a whole lot of stuff: 

  1. Be comfortable not knowing it all. You will never know everything. You will probably not be the expert in the room, but you will be able to connect issues and people because you will be able to see the big picture.
  2. Be curious. You need to ask a lot of questions to gain a certain amount of understanding to do your job, engage in conversations, and know the best people and resources. 
  3. Say yes more than you say no. Not only can this demonstrate your ambition to your current employer, but it also gives you the opportunity to try new things. Many people have created new roles for themselves by saying yes to all of those “other duties as assigned.” 
  4. Look for positions in which you wear multiple hats. I believe you gain the best experience when you have the most exposure to many departments within your organization. It also prepares you for leadership positions within organizations, when you need to know what’s happening in many parts of the organization. If you can’t do this within your nonprofit, look for volunteer opportunities with other organizations that can give you that experience.
  5. Learn more about organizations that work with/for other organizations. Having general knowledge of the nonprofit sector is particularly important in organizations that are hubs, likeinfrastructure or capacity building organizations. Look at theMinnesota Council on Foundations, the Minnesota Council of NonprofitsMAP for NonprofitsCharities Review Council, or Ewald Consulting.
  6. Rely on others. You have to be constantly connected with people inside and outside your organization so that you have people to turn to when you have a question or see a connection that needs to be made. Your network is your biggest asset, and it needs to be as diverse as the general knowledge you need to do your work.

I plan to look for roles that allow me to work with a broad network of colleagues, expose me to many parts of the organization, and help me see the sector as a whole, hopefully in leadership positions within the sector. I may never be an expert in one particular area, but I’m proud to be a generalist, helping people and organizations connect the dots to get things done.

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