Nonprofit Adolescence

by Min Y. Chong

As Young Nonprofit Professionals, many of us are going through an awkward phase of learning who we are, what matters to us, and what we want to be when we grow up. We are near the beginning of our careers where our options and potential are nearly limitless. Considering the scope of possible paths is both exhilarating and petrifying. This is a time of growth, experimentation, frustration, discovery, and contradictions. We are idealistic and burned-out, passionate and unimpressed, over-worked and anxious for more responsibility.

Some people develop their skills early and appear to have it all. They move with grace from fundraising galas and grassroots rallies to board rooms and networking happy hours. They are unfazed by whatever topic comes up and are founts of insight and strategy. Some of us are late bloomers trying to catch up on the concepts of career ladderingorganizational culture, and knowledge transfer. And while life may not actually be a popularity contest, we are constantly told that it is all about networking and who you know.

We care passionately about our values, missions, and organizations, but life is full of swings. One day, we’re incredibly grateful for the privilege of doing the work that we do, and the next, we can’t stand that this is what our days are like. External limitations–from management, from resources, from processes and procedures–chafe at our ambitions. We feel angst about whether what we’re doing has meaning, and whether we’ll find what we’re looking for. Sometimes we feel pulled by a very specific need to create change on a particular issue and in a particular way. And sometimes, we have absolutely no idea what direction we want to move in. Either way, it is extremely difficult to feel satisfied where we are.

But being unsatisfied is an impetus for achieving more. And growing pains are inevitable with development. And let’s just face it: We are not an easily satisfied people. We come to this sector striving for a better, more equitable, and more just world with more peace, more beauty, and more good. With goals like these, it’s no wonder that we sometimes feel stuck.

There are over 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the United States and over 33,000 in the state of Minnesota (National Center for Charitable Statistics). None of us is alone in any frustration or ambition that we feel. There is a huge array of missions, issues, strategies, and organizational cultures available to us–enough options for all of us to be happy and fulfilled. We all have to sit at different tables, try out different organizations, roles, and industries to find out where we can harness our individual passions and do the most good.  

And while we all take a breath and continue to grow, here are a few things to try:

  • Even when you don’t know exactly what you want, share your inklings, musings, and suspicions as much as possible
  • Lean on your friends, family, peers, mentors and the others who support you.
  • Let anyone who wants to, help you.
  • Learn how others have achieved what you admire, but don’t focus on who has what. As a friend of mine once said about comparisons: “That way madness lies.”
  • Be grateful for the passion in your life.
  • When you find the feeling that you're looking for, chase it.

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