Like many of us, I came upon a career in development by happenstance. As a new graduate with fresh eyes on my budding career, May 2008 was a less than stellar time to hit the job market. In order to counteract the declining job market, I spruced up my resume to cast a wider net – I knew hiring trends were telling me to look beyond traditional routes.
After several promising interviews and let downs, I finally caught a break. In June 2008, I accepted a position as a communications coordinator for a small association management firm in St. Louis. It checked most of the boxes for me, and I dove head first into the world of nonprofit management. For nearly two years, I worked side-by-side with a supportive manager, however it wasn’t until some additional manpower was needed on a client’s charitable project that I found my stride.
One of our client associations also operated a charitable 501(c)3. During a busy season, they were looking for additional staff to pitch in on the organization’s largest project. Looking for a way to mix things up and a bit of a challenge, I offered to help. This opportunity stretched me out of my comfort zone, but completely engaged me in a way I had not been in nearly two years. Offering to pick up work and take opportunities that are not part of your day-to-day tasks is one way to advance yourself in the field of development. Even if it doesn’t change the course of your career, you are making a good name for yourself in the office. If it wasn’t for that opportunity, I would likely be a communications professional for a trade or medical association. The work I did for the 501(c)3 gave me my first taste of fundraising and volunteer management.
After gaining more responsibility and experience, I took a leap of faith in 2010 and landed an entry level development role at the AAE Foundation for Endodontics. Since then, I have worked hard to learn and understand all facets of the organization. During the past seven years, I helped my director grow our annual campaign from just over $1 million to over $1.6 million, grow our staff from two to four individuals, was promoted to manager in 2015, spent time traveling the country to work with constituents, donors and grantees, and most recently, was promoted to director of the department.
As part of a national organization with a slim budget for travel, the opportunities to work with donors and beneficiaries were not overwhelming. After expressing an interest to my supervisor in more travel to gain experience and benefit the Foundation, she worked with me to budget appropriately and I traveled to visit 14 endodontic institutions from University of Southern California to New York University and many in between. Expressing interest and allocating resources to get out of the office and work directly with donors and prospects was one of my most strategic professional moves to help advance my career. Knowing my audience and better understanding donor motives made a huge difference in the quality of my work once I returned to the office.
Though I am certain you have heard this before, find a mentor! I was lucky enough to find one who was also my supervisor. She always advocated for me and supported me, and she was up front and honest with me. It is so valuable to speak with other nonprofit professionals who have paved the road before you. My mentor retired in March 2017; she paved a smooth road for my promotion to director in the years leading up to her departure. I am grateful for her mentorship, and I value our relationship.
Since I moved to Chicago in 2010, I have been a member of AFP Chicago, as well as various other professional organizations. For years, my participation beyond continuing education events was nonexistent. However, after benefiting from AFP Chicago’s Mentor Program, my mentor connected me with an AFP colleague with a job lead! Was it that easy? After meeting with her and learning about her experience and involvement with AFP Chicago, my interest in volunteer service was peeked, and I took the plunge. Though at first it seemed self-serving, I quickly learned that AFP Chicago would provide me with much more than job leads – it would provide me a network of friends that have shared career experiences, advice and the opportunity to move the needle on various issues in Chicago’s nonprofit community. I am better at my job because of the individuals I have connected with through AFP Chicago. I’ve now served on various committees and began Board service in 2016. Similar to speaking up and taking responsibilities in the work place, I encourage you to do the same through a professional organization.
Lastly, I encourage you to do something professionally, every month, that makes you a little uncomfortable. Whether that be attending a networking happy hour where you don’t know anyone, reaching out to a professional colleague (outside of the office) to grab lunch and talk business, asking to pitch in on a new project in the office, or taking a nonprofit course at a university. We learn the most when we are stretched beyond our comfort zone. If it doesn’t feel comfortable, no one needs to know! The more you put yourself in these situations, the more normal they will start to feel; you will begin to benefit professionally, and it will show in your work!
My parting thoughts:
- Meet people in the field, and if you see them again, say hello. Chances are, they DO remember you!
- Ask questions (there are no dumb questions);
- LISTEN (just like when you are fundraising);
- When you interview, make sure they know what you will do and how you will serve their organization, not what their organization will do for you!
- Don’t cut out of the office early;
- Make friends at work, but you are there to work.
Thanks to our 2017 Celebration Sponsor
Alyson Hall, CFRE, is the Director of Development for the American Association of Endodontists Foundation, and a member of the AFP Chicago Board of Directors.