One of the biggest frustrations that young nonprofit professionals have is that there is no linear career path in the nonprofit sector. There is no clear journey to a promotion like there is in, say, the legal profession. You go to law school, you get a job at a firm, you work your ass off and you move up the ladder from junior attorney, senior attorney, then partner. In the nonprofit world, you could stay at a job for five years and never move up from your program associate position. Most of the time, though, it’s not because you’re not a rockstar program associate, but because you work for a small nonprofit and there’s just no other position in the organization to which you can be promoted. It’s times like these that young workers either get really discouraged or get really creative. If you really want to be happy in your nonprofit job, I suggest the latter.

Rebecca Thorman wrote a fantastic post over at Modite about how to bring an innovative spirit to your career, so I decided to remix it a little bit to apply specifically to nonprofit professionals. While the path to career advancement may not be a straight shot, it doesn’t mean you can’t grow in your current position.

Think Small

I hate to tell you this, but um, that Executive Director job you were coveting may not open up for a few more years. Maybe not even for a decade. Can you wait that long? If you’re not willing to move to another organization with true upward mobility, you can still make an impact right where you are and practice leadership from your current role. If a promotion is just not an option within your small staff, then you may want to ask yourself if that’s what’s really most important to you. If it’s being upgraded from a Manager to a Director, fine, look somewhere else. But if what’s most important to you is to work for a cause you’re passionate about, try cooling your heels a bit and enjoy the fact that you get to do the kind of work that reflects your values. Do good work for a good cause and let that be enough.

Tackle a New Project

You know that computer system that’s slow as molasses? Yeah, that one you’re working on right now that takes a full minute to load webpages. How about the fact that no one in your organization gets professional development now because ‘the organization can’t afford it.” Why don’t you do something about it? Taking on a project that can improve your organization’s productivity can teach you a lot about management and leadership. You will say, oh, but I’m not in the HR department. Or I’m not in the IT department. But maybe you don’t even have departments. Maybe you just have a good idea that won’t get done unless someone takes the time to implement it. You can pull people together to figure out how to make your internet run faster or how to create an in-house professional development program. Or whatever else you think could use fixing. The point is that you can lead it. You can start a new project that will foster innovation in your nonprofit and stimulate organizational change. If not you, then who?

Start a Side Hustle

I was shocked, then intrigued when I learned that foundation executive Trista Harris owned a dry cleaning business with her husband. Shocked because I couldn’t see how she would have the time to have a rewarding nonprofit career and run a small business at the same time. Intrigued because I saw it as a great example of how nonprofit professionals can use their entrepreneurial spirit to earn more money for their household. Call it a side hustle, call it a slash career, call it a second job, call it whatever you want. The idea is that you can bring innovation to your career by exploring other avenues for your talents. The leadership skills you pick up while running your own business can be used to help you get better and more effective in your nonprofit job.

Set Yourself Up For Your Next Nonprofit Job

One thing that amazed me was that after I quit my nonprofit job of four years, several of my colleagues reached out to offer me a job with their organizations. They offered me jobs I hadn’t even applied for. What I realized was that even though I hadn’t ever received a promotion in my job in the four years I was there (we only had a staff of 6), my leadership skills had grown over time and I had built my personal brand to where people could see that. So even if you know you’ll never get the top job in your organization, it shouldn’t stop you from doing excellent work in your current position. If you do a great job in your role right now, other people from other organizations will take notice. And when there’s an opening later on, you might just be the first one they call.

Although it might be the clearest way to go, getting a promotion is not the only way to advance your nonprofit career. If you want to “move up,” it can also mean growing and changing in other ways that are under your control.

What are some other ways nonprofit professionals can think differently about their careers?

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