Your Philanthropy Career: How to Advance Professionally

 photo:  Kostsov/shutterstock

photo:  Kostsov/shutterstock

At mid-career, the grant writer wants to advance professionally and is exploring his career options, including becoming a grant-writing consultant.

To that end, he’s ordered new business cards and set up a website. He has also initiated conversations with local consultants, which he describes as “101 on how to start a business.” And he recently added his name to an online database of consultants serving nonprofits in his region.

Like the grant writer, people in tax-exempt organizations must take the initiative, rather than relying solely on mentors or supervisors, to get ahead professionally, according to experienced fundraisers and other nonprofit leaders. Many organizations are too cash-strapped to send their employees to conferences, offer outside training or provide tuition assistance. In other cases, they resist sending valued employees to educational meetings where they could be recruited by other organizations.

In interviews for this article—part of a monthly series, "Your Philanthropy Career"— seasoned nonprofit leaders offered their thoughts on how to get ahead professionally without getting burned out or making a bad career move. Following are some of their career-advancing ideas:

Figure out how to get your dream job. Tahsin Alam, associate vice president for talent management at Rutgers University Foundation, advises aspiring nonprofit officials to do a careful “gap analysis” to examine their current position in light of the experience, skills, and other attributes they would need in the job of their dreams. He is now halfway through a two-year process to help his organization’s 250 employees do exactly that.

While it seems like an obvious career-mapping exercise, too many people in the nonprofit world don’t do it, Alam says. “People tend to go to a job based on the title and compensation, without taking into account whether it’s really the right move or whether they have the skill set to do the job.”

The gap analyses Alam has done so far have helped several colleagues such as one woman who thought she wanted to do grant writing, but realized it was not her dream job after all. “She was ecstatic because she saved herself from a bad career move,” he says.

While most nonprofit workers don’t have access to a formal gap analysis at their organization, he adds, there’s nothing keeping people from doing their own. The most important thing, he says, is to be thorough in assessing exactly what the dream job requires, which can be done in numerous ways, from informational interviews with people in that position, shadowing such professionals for a day, discussions with executive recruiters, taking a class, serving on a nonprofit board to get leadership experience, and so on.

Create a strategic plan for your career. Susan Faraone, a senior consultant with the Aspen Leadership Group, an executive recruiting and talent management company, developed another career-mapping tool, a seven-step process. Nonprofit professionals can use it to guide their careers in a way that’s consistent with their core values, while accounting for  strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and barriers. The tool guides people to set professional priorities and articulate the steps they will take to meet those priorities over a one-year period. It also includes a list of dates during which they commit to review the information and record their progress.

One impetus for creating the career-planning tool was Faraone’s experience helping nonprofits do organization-wide strategic planning. “I realized this could be applied to a career path,” she says. Another inspiration was becoming an executive recruiter and seeing that when it comes to their professional lives, “very often, people have not taken a long-term view,” Faraone says.

“It’s about periodically thinking more deeply about one’s own work and taking a direction,” she says. “If you don’t know where you are going, it is easy to get lost.” And for people unhappy in their current job, Faraone adds, “having a strategy and a plan increases the likelihood they will be able to work with their supervisor to improve their current situation or find another position that provides greater satisfaction.”

Resist being stereotyped. Working for a large, sophisticated nonprofit such as a hospital or university, rather than a tiny charity, makes it easier to advance within the organization, but there’s also the risk of being stereotyped, says Eileen Savage, the lead fundraiser at Cranbrook Educational Community in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

Savage had that problem during her 17 years at the Indiana University Foundation: She wanted to step into a management role, but found her path barred by her bosses. They feared she would be unable to lead colleagues effectively who were then her peers, not yet subordinates.

Savage, a highly valued employee, began looking for other positions, and another college soon made her an offer. At that point, one of her bosses asked what it would take for her to stay.

“I said I wanted to be director of major gifts, and he said he’d see what he could do,” Savage recalls. “I had to take a bold step to be seen differently. They did promote me and give me the support I needed to hire and mentor other major gifts staff.”

To make such a move, Savage adds, nonprofit professionals need to be certain of two things: that they’re greatly appreciated in their current role, and they are prepared to leave if more senior positions are not available.

Don’t underestimate chemistry. Another thing Savage learned from a boss at the Indiana University Foundation: the importance of a good fit between employees’ personal and professional habits and the culture of the organization.

“He said ‘hire the person who is well-qualified and fits your team best, because chemistry is everything,’” Savage says. “I thought you just hired the best person.”

The importance of chemistry was driven home for Savage in a subsequent fundraising job at a Los Angeles arts and cultural organization. Shortly after she was hired as the second-most senior development officer, her boss left, and Savage was named interim vice president.

After asking repeatedly about becoming the vice president permanently and getting no answer, Savage realized that the president and board chair had someone else in mind. Her Midwestern demeanor and approach to fundraising, she says, did not fit the Los Angeles scene.

More than a year later, the organization hired a new vice president who is, as Savage says, “perfectly suited for that environment.” She adds: “They hired the person who is the right fit for the role they are looking for.”

Savage’s takeaway? “Chemistry is so important,” she says. “Your background and qualifications do not necessarily lead you to where you think you belong or deserve to be.”

Nurture relations with former colleagues. Robbee Kosak, a longtime fundraiser who now leads the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, which makes grants in science, technology, engineering, and math, tells aspiring nonprofit professionals to keep in touch with people they’ve worked with previously. Those contacts, she says, are often essential in moving up the professional ladder.

Kosak started out her own fundraising career at Carnegie Mellon University, working in alumni relations, then separate from the development office. After leaving that position, she kept in touch with former Carnegie Mellon colleagues including volunteers, seeing some of them at regional and national fundraising conferences. But she also made a point of sending birthday wishes, holiday greetings, and other periodic messages to her Carnegie Mellon contacts. Such small gestures are common in people’s personal lives, but are often overlooked in their professional lives, she says.

Years later, people she knew from Carnegie Mellon recruited Kosak back to the university to combine alumni relations with development and to design and lead Carnegie Mellon’s first billion-dollar campaign. Kosak’s career reflects steadily advancing positions to reach the top of her grantmaking foundation, which is now raising funds to expand its core program of providing five-year fellowships to the nation’s top scientists.  

Commit to longer tenures. Short tenures on a resume can raise a potential employer’s suspicions. Less well-known is exactly how much high turnover costs nonprofits. Recent research by Reeher, a software company focused on improving fundraising in higher education, found a nearly 60 percent decline in contributions, a loss of more than $647,000 on average, from individual donors in the year after their primary fundraising contact leaves. And across the 135 colleges and universities the company serves, departing fundraisers generated more than twice the amount their first-year replacements reported.

Early in his career, Josh Plumley says that he was troubled by a lack of recognition for achieving solid fundraising returns in his first year as a new development officer. Then he realized that, instead of leaving for greener pastures, he should stay long enough to achieve results that would speak for themselves and help him advance.

“One thing I committed to at that point was sticking it out in one place for at least three years,” says Plumley, now senior director of development at Children at Heart Ministries in Round Rock, Texas. “Stay at least three years, because this is a relationship-based business, and it is a long-term conversation” between donors and the charities they support.

Heather Reynolds, chief executive officer of Catholic Charities Fort Worth, has been with her organization for 16 years. She was hired as a fundraising intern in her first job out of college with the caveat that she had to raise double her $28,000 pay in order to keep the position.

A few months later, after taking a fundraising course offered by Benevon, a consulting company that helps small and regional charities, Reynolds and her colleagues held a special event that raised more than $300,000 in its first year. Now, Catholic Charities Fort Worth is raising about $10 million annually, up from $250,000 before Reynolds started. Helping her organization grow, she was promoted to CEO at the ripe age of 25.

“Staying at the same place really allowed me to become expert,” says Reynolds. “Staying put longer can be very helpful.” Unfortunately, she says, “this is rare, nowadays.” As Catholic Charities Fort Worth has grown, Reynolds has made many new hires and looked at plenty of resumes. “I see lots of short tenures of one year to 18 months,” she says, adding that she usually disqualifies candidates with a string of short stays.

Job hopping, experts say, may actually work to the advantage of people willing to stay with an organization, by giving them opportunities to step into newly vacated positions.

As a fundraiser aspiring to be a college president, Thomas Minar knew that achieving his goal would require patience in addition to long tenures. The hurdle he faced before becoming president of Indiana’s Franklin College in 2015—after positions including seven years as top fundraiser at American University in Washington—was getting leaders in higher education to see him as presidential material.

“Senior colleagues look at a fundraiser as a cash register, and chief financial officers are famous for this,” says Minar. “Combatting this perception was the biggest challenge I had.”

Minar, who holds a master’s degree in business and a Ph.D., credits the doctoral degree with helping him finally achieve the presidency. His Ph.D. in political science added teaching and scholarly work to his resume, the kind of background many people expect college presidents to have. Just having an MBA, Minar adds, would not have been enough. 

Ask tough questions. Before taking a new position, too many nonprofit executives fail to get a clear picture of the organization’s fundraising approach, which is critical for both fundraisers and other key leaders, says Lilya Wagner, who heads a fundraising consulting division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Columbia, Maryland. Nonprofit officials, she adds, “tend to be optimists” who research how much a prospective employer is raising, but fail to probe more deeply into organizational dynamics that trip them up later.

Wagner herself is guilty of that shortcoming. “The president in my last job thought he’d hire me and never have to do any fundraising,” she says. “At another place I worked, there was no organization-wide strategic plan for three years. If there’s no plan, how can you know what to raise money for?”

In such situations, Wagner says, “the fundraiser is sidelined, and we become scapegoats. If it doesn’t work, it’s our fault.”

To avoid taking a no-win position, incoming fundraisers and others who oversee contributed income need to ask pointed questions to determine exactly how fundraising is practiced and whether the organization’s top staff members and trustees are actively engaged in recruiting supporters, Wagner says. Also important to know: whether the hiring organization has identified potential donors, and if it has a well-thought-out plan to engage them.

Know what winning is. At Children at Heart Ministries, Josh Plumley says he has learned to ask potential employers to stipulate three to five outcomes they want him to achieve.

“Define the win,” he says. “What has helped me is clarifying with potential bosses to say what key results they want to see. Make sure when you are interviewing. Expect them to be clear about what these are. Otherwise you will be pulled in too many directions.”

Another part of winning, Plumley says, “is saying 'no' to certain things, saying 'no' to an opportunity that, when you line it up to the strategic goals of the organization, is not aligned to the main mission.” Even now, he adds, he’s still learning to how to turn down requests and opportunities that interfere with his primary duties.

Practice, practice, practice. “Many people are uncomfortable with role playing, but it is critical to raising money and getting ahead,” Plumley says. “However you practice is how you will play.”

In one of his early jobs with Campus Crusade for Christ, now known as Cru, Plumley had to raise funds to pay for his missionary work, including his salary, benefits, and other expenses. “I can remember the hours I stood in front of the mirror and thought about how I was presenting myself,” he recalls. “I would practice how to get a visit and how to follow up. It takes real diligence to get a face-to-face meeting.”

By practicing such interactions, he adds, “you plan meaningful connections with people. We have to do this in development to make donor relationships deep and rich.”

Never stop learning. When Heather Reynolds of Catholic Charities Fort Worth was getting her master’s degree in social work, she and more than 100 fellow students were given the choice of doing a traditional thesis or a simpler paper. She chose the former.

“There were only two of us who submitted a thesis,” Reynolds recalls. The statistics required by the thesis, while difficult to learn and apply, helped enhance her performance as CEO, she says.

“Don’t just choose the easiest way out,” says Reynolds. “Take every opportunity to learn.”

Another way Reynolds learns is by asking. “I’ve always been a big believer in asking a lot of questions, and I don’t care if I come across as dumb,” she says. “Over the years, this has worked in my favor.” Her many questions, she admits, contrast with other leaders who project an all-knowing attitude, but asking for information has benefits, too.

“When I’m asking questions and getting different answers, this tells me that my team is not all on the same page,” she explains. “It causes me to dig deeper.”

Mag Strittmatter, chief executive officer at the Roadrunner Food Bank in Albuquerque, New Mexico, says she was feeling burned out in the middle of her fundraising career. Then she discovered Benevon, the consulting company, which teaches a fundraising approach that revitalized Strittmatter and, she says, “led to a second wind” professionally.

In previous university jobs, Strittmatter had a portfolio of potential supporters she was expected to contact regardless of whether they had expressed interest, made a donation, or met with college officials. The Benevon method encourages nonprofits to stop pursuing people who aren’t interested or engaged, an idea that excited Strittmatter.

“It freed me up to spend time with those who are interested. You can increase your bottom line and serve more people.” Her newfound enthusiasm eventually propelled Strittmatter into a CEO role. 

Learning the new approach, Strittmatter says, was key. “In higher education I felt encouraged to keep hammering at it,” she says. “It was very freeing to let that go.”

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Cheat Sheet: 10 Ways to Advance Your Career

  • Analyze how to get from your current position to a dream job.
  • Create a professional strategic plan.
  • Avoid becoming stereotyped.
  • Maintain relationships with former colleagues.
  • Don’t job hop.
  • Thoroughly question potential employers.
  • Clarify key outcomes to achieve in new positions.
  • Practice for success.
  • Commit to career-long learning.
  • Identify and learn from mentors, but don’t rely solely on them to advance.

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Editor's NoteThis article is the second in a monthly series, Your Philanthropy Career, by veteran philanthropy journalist Holly Hall on navigating a successful career in the nonprofit sector. The series is a partnership between Inside Philanthropy and the Aspen Leadership Group, which focuses exclusively on search and talent management in the field of philanthropy. Recognized leaders in the field recruit and provide counsel to other leaders and emerging leaders, building enduring, productive relationships and supporting exceptional careers. Learn more at www.aspenleadershipgroup.com and www.philanthropycareer.net.

Holly Hall has been covering fundraising and related issues for nearly three decades. She holds a master’s degree in philanthropy and development from Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota and has been a featured speaker at numerous fundraising events and conferences. Her journalistic experience includes working as a writer for Psychology Today magazine and writing for other national publications such as the Washington Post. She also worked for more than three years in communications for the American Red Cross, where she created and edited The Humanitarian, an award-winning quarterly magazine for Red Cross constituents.