On Becoming a Leader is an advice column in which Allison Fine, an author, consultant, and expert on nonprofit management, answers your questions about nonprofit careers and leadership. Have a question? Ask Allison.
Q. "Just graduated with a master’s degree in public and nonprofit management. A classic question: I cannot seem to get in the door of a nonprofit for even an entry-level position, despite having a strong academic background and a prior career in law. (I am a nontraditional student, which adds to the complexity.) So — any ideas?"
A. Hi, Anonymous. You have my complete sympathy for your dilemma. It is very tough to try to break into a new sector midcareer, but it isn’t impossible. You are going to be a great fit for some lucky nonprofit, but you need to change the door you’re trying to go in.
If you were just getting started, it would make sense to put your faith in your slim resume and distribute it everywhere. However, because you have a life story and experiences that cannot be captured well on a resume, you need to change your strategy.
Your biggest deficit right now is that you don’t have a nonprofit professional network. You need people who know you and can vouch for you and refer you to an organization in need of a good, smart worker. You need to create a new professional network through relationship building.
When I was a young executive selling direct-mail services (many years ago!), networking success meant getting someone’s business card, which was tacit permission to continue selling services to that person.
However, this century, good professional networking favors relationship building. The upside of living in a world powered by online networks is that there are so many ways to connect meaningfully with other people and build deeper and broader networks.
Let’s get practical about how this actually works. I will assume that you have already friended everyone you know on LinkedIn and Facebook.
Here are your next steps:
Step 1: Identify several issues of interest to you. It is best not to start too narrow in your search — give yourself some room to explore different areas and see where you might find the most opportunities.
Step 2: Join the LinkedIn and Facebook groups for people working in those areas. Once you join, you will find that some are more active than others, so concentrate on those groups.
Step 3: Befriend people in those groups. Ideally, you want to connect with people with whom you have a friend in common. If not, you can still send them a personal note with your request to connect, but first read the next step!
Step 4: Now, here’s the big step. Before, you might have said something like, "Hi, Frank, I would love to connect with you because I am looking for work in housing." If Frank’s busy — and who isn’t? — he is likely to ignore this request unless his sister or mother has told him to help you. Your job is to change this dynamic. You want to be a giver and not a taker, in the parlance of the Wharton professor Adam Grant. You want to become an asset to Frank. What are the most serious problems his cause faces right now? What kinds of expertise is he looking for? (In addition to fundraising help, of course. Nonprofits always need that!) How can you be of service to the cause? You might ask him if he has a few minutes to chat about these questions. Or perhaps he knows of another organization that can use your help. And, yes, this is all volunteer at this point, but as you said, these people don’t know you, and you’re not making traction on paper, so you need to start somewhere.
Another way of framing this process is to pivot from job searching to creating your own personal brand, not just to land this first job but for the ones after that, because we’re all in a gig economy now. You want to have a reputation as someone who is trustworthy, thoughtful, and generous.
In addition to personal outreach, there are other ways to be a giver rather than a taker and enhance your reputation. You can post your own articles on platforms like Medium. Now, please be careful: Don’t post something just to try to sound like an expert. Ask questions in your posts. Don’t pretend to be the smartest guy in the room. Write about issues that interest you. "Like" other people’s posts, and write constructive comments on them. Congratulate people for work well done or milestones. Showcase your generosity and kindness — the type of good, giving traits that smart nonprofits need and want in their employees.
This whole process is what Tom Watson, the author of CauseWired, refers to as karma banking. You’re building your bank, and over time you can start to dip into it and ask people for help.
In all of these ways, you are becoming a known resource for these organizations that goes far beyond your resume. And that begins to open doors for employment. It does take some time and effort, but it will give you opportunities that simply sending your resume around won’t. You want to get to the point where showing someone your resume is just a formality of the hiring process, not the way to crack the door open.