With 30+ years of experience and 18 years as a vice president in higher education advancement to call upon, I write today reflecting on the advice I wish someone in the profession had offered to me in the first decade of my professional life. The following condensed version of my professional path forward is offered only as context to the advice that follows:

Part I: 22 years old to 37 years old
  • Assistant director of annual giving and alumni affairs at New England College
  • Completed a master’s degree at the University of Maryland
  • Director of annual giving for athletics at Georgetown University
  • Director of annual giving for Georgetown University
  • Completed EdD at the University of Virginia and served as acting director of annual giving
Part II: 37 years old to 55 years old
  • Vice President for Advancement, Colby-Sawyer College
  • Vice President for Advancement, Dickinson College
  • Vice President for Advancement, Carleton College
  • Vice President for Development, Brown University
Part III: 55+ Senior Consultant for the Aspen Leadership Group

This may look linear but by no means was it. Life on this journey included a divorce, my father passing away at 58 years old, a new marriage, two kids, several houses, many dogs, being fired, and several moves for my family. I promise your life will offer a similar set of good and challenging experiences. Here are 13 things I have learned over time that can help you assess how you shape your own career. 

  1. A career is only one of many facets of your life. The other parts of your life will play as big a role in determining your professional trajectory and what success looks like as your ambition will.
  2. I wish I had not flown solo for the first decade or so of my career. I had people who believed in me but no one who knew the advancement profession or had a network to share. Having a mentor who could discuss the profession, serve as a sounding board, and guide my game plan would have been immensely valuable.
  3. Work to focus on a purpose rather than a destination: Why are you choosing a non-profit career? What do you really want from the experience? It is okay to want to be a VP or CEO of an organization but make sure you are doing for more than the title – make sure you have something of value to add. Focusing on your purpose will also make the journey to success more satisfying and fulfilling.
  4. Define where you want to have an impact. It can be more than one thing – education and human rights or conservation and social justice or cancer and healthcare and/or some other combination. Once identified, find out what organizations are have a first-in-class fundraising program and are making a significant impact, then either try to work for them or network with the leaders or staff who do. You want to be seen as someone who is affiliated or knows the best practices in the field.
  5. Think through what size of organization you will do your best work. Big organizations will have more specialized work and smaller advancement organizations (n<30) will allow you to have a greater responsibility for a variety of activities. You will feel you can have greater impact on a smaller organization; however, larger organizations (n>30) will likely offer more professional development and future career opportunities.
  6. In searching for your next job, make who you report to as high a priority as the job you choose to do next. A boss who supports your professional development and helps you learn your craft is more valuable than a higher paying job with a lousy boss.
  7. Take responsibility for your professional growth. There are a lot of online resources and books available that can help you advance your career. I hear from too many young people that there is not a professional development program at their work or a professional growth plan – work to create your own.
  8. When to change jobs? Kathryn Vasel from CNN Business offers some guidance: “In the early stage of your career, aim to get a promotion approximately every two to three years, says career coach Dana Mayer. At mid-career level, promotions tend to slow down to around every three to five years.” https://www.cnn.com/2018/12/27/success/outgrown-your-job/index.html
  9. Should you get a certification in non-profit management? Advanced degree?Neither one makes a difference if you are not passionate about the work, competent, committed to continuous learning, and a collaborative colleague. These certifications and degrees are wonderful achievements and demonstrate a commitment to the profession and your learning; however, unless the other personal competencies are in place these extra experiences will not lead to your next career advancement.
  10. Think through whether you want to be an individual contributor or manage a staff. You may not know this early in your career but as you grow think about how you want to have an impact. Also, whether you would be a good manager. Management is one of the biggest deficits in the non-profit sector because there is a tendency to promote top individual performers and then not offer any management training. If you decide management is for you, seek out a mentor and study best practices.
  11. If you are driven by wanting to make money and do good at the same time, you will need to be a strong fundraiser and manager. Moving to the top of an advancement operation usually comes from managing fundraisers and closing major gifts.
  12. The advancement profession lacks diversity, especially in leadership; work to change that. The non-profit profession is 70%+ women; however, men hold the inverse proportion of VP and CEO level positions. By some estimates professionals of color make up less than 5% of the profession. I am optimistic that this trend will shift in the next decade. If you are a woman or a person of color, invest in building your leadership skills and find a mentor who can guide you on your professional path. If you are a man, white, or hold power or authority, extend yourself to serve as a mentor and champion to members of these groups to create more equitable paths to leadership.
  13. Whenever interviewing for a job, you will increase your odds of getting the job if you do the following things:
  • Write a cover letter that describes why you will be of value to that particular organization
  • Do your homework- study the organization- know their challenges and ambitions
  • Dress appropriately for all interviews, whether by video or in person
  • Practice how you will answer typical interview questions (Why do you want this job? Why would you be a good fit? How do you think you can contribute? How can you help us build a stronger/better program?)
  • Focus on how you can help, not on what the organization can do for you

In closing, there is no perfect professional pathway. You will make mistakes along the way; however, these guidelines offer guidance for you to smooth your path to creating a more satisfying professional career. And know 30 years from now you will have accomplished and experienced many things, personally and professionally, but also know you will still be on your journey trying to figure things out just like me. I wish you much success in the years ahead.

Please send along your advice and comments on the original Coach’s Corner article on LinkedIn.

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