New to the Nonprofit World? Here are 5 Ways to Hit the Ground Running

March 2020

A career in the nonprofit sector can be highly rewarding for motivated and mission-driven individuals, but that doesn't mean it's easy. It can get pretty overwhelming trying to manage different types of advice and information, understand all of the varied roles around you, and learn new skills, especially without much support from your organization. For someone adjusting to a career change or recently entering the nonprofit sector, it can feel next to impossible. 

With the right tools, however, this transition doesn't have to be overwhelming. We've put together a guide with five simple steps to help you enter your new role feeling prepared, confident and set for success. 

1. Build your Professional Development Plan 

As you consider your next nonprofit opportunity, invest some time to reflect on your goals and create a personal strategic plan for your career and the necessary professional development. Entering your new role with a defined plan will assure you're focused and ready to learn, and will help you to leverage your new experiences to help meet your long-term career goals. 

Start by doing a personal skills inventory. A SWOT analysis is a great way to help you determine what skills and experiences you feel confident with or want to improve. This tool can also provide a visual aid to help you identify and plan to improve your "Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats" (SWOT) related to your job and within the sector in which you work.   

Strengths and weaknesses represent the skills and experience that you bring to the table. For example, your strong communication and grant writing skills may go in the strengths category, but if your network isn't as strong as it could be, or you don't have a strong track record with major gifts, put these in the weakness category. 

Opportunities and Threats represent external factors that could positively or negatively affect your career. A supervisor's upcoming retirement or a new position in your organization represent opportunities for you to move up in your organization. Potential budget cuts or low fundraising trends could be threats to your organization and your career options too. 

After you complete your SWOT analysis, create a plan as to how you will capitalize on your strengths and opportunities and work on your weaknesses and threats. We've developed a "10 Skills & Experiences" worksheet that identifies critical skills and experiences that every nonprofit professional needs to think about to achieve ultimate success.

2. Get Involved

Once you start at your new nonprofit, it is important to get connected in your community as well. Getting engaged with professional groups is crucial to building credibility and social capital in your community, as well as to gain invaluable knowledge about the nonprofit landscape of your area. Connection to well respected community groups can also help you to discover or build collaborative opportunities both for you and your organization. Don't just stick to organizations based around your niche industry. Connecting to a diverse groups in your community will strengthen your network and open the door to opportunities you may not have previously considered. 

An easy way to get connected is to look for networking opportunities or attend community events hosted by prominent organizations in your community. Not sure where to begin? We recommend you start by looking for the following organizations (many of which are detailed in Episode #20 of The Path Podcast featuring Leighton Fogan): 

Philanthropy federations 


Your Community Foundation 

Your local United Way 

Local arts councils or federations 

Strategic volunteer opportunities at prominent nonprofits 

3. Strategic Networking 

After you've connected to keystone groups in your community, it's time to broaden your network. 

"I can't stress enough how important that networking is--it's vitally important to your career and not something that's unattainable," says Mike Blackwelder, Past President of the Association of Fundraising Professionals Charlotte Chapter. 

Blackwelder recommends that you attend events at your local AFP chapter, professional/sector organizations, and the Chamber or other groups where you can meet and connect with your peers. Since those working in the nonprofit sector face challenges unique to other industries, it is crucial to build a strong network to provide professional and emotional support. Blackwelder stresses the importance for anyone working in the nonprofit sector "to have those people to turn to and to ask for advice, confide in when you are dealing with an issue, or honestly, just to complain when you don't know how to deal with something." 

Networking is most beneficial when you enter each networking situation with a plan. Set a goal to meet three "comps," or people with comparable positions to yours, and three "aspirational" peers each month. The "comps" are people who you can share experiences and advice about strategies and challenges that you will face day to day. They are important not only as confidants that undertand where you're coming from, but also as information sources to expand your understanding of your sector.

Aspirational peers are individuals in positions that you would like to reach in your career. If you are interested in nonprofit senior leadership, you should (respectfully) connect with executive directors in your community, and learn more about the skills and exepriences they felt necessary to attain the roles in which they currently serve. Aspirational peers can serve as mentors who can share experiences, provide invaluable advice, and potentially serve as references to help you navigate your nonprofit career path. 


4. The First 90 Days Approach: Five Questions With Your Boss 

Your performance in the first 90 days of your new job will make a significant impact on your new boss and colleagues. Although this may seem daunting, you can easily set yourself up for success. Don't wait until your first performance review to start a candid conversation about the expectations of your new position. Meeting with your boss early on will enable you to better understand your role, learn strategies to help you excel, and start building trust and communicating effectively with your supervisor. 

As outlined in Michael Watkins' great book The First 90 Days, we recommend you ask your boss for time to discuss each of the following topics during the first few weeks in your new role: 

1. How does your supervisor measure success? 

Ask your boss what the most important performance measurements are for your position. Figure out whether your supervisor wants you to write a certain number of grants, raise a specific dollar amount each quarter or take a number of meetings so you can set goals and start working towards these goals. We see many frustrated nonprofit professionals who find out too late that metrics used to evaluate them at the one-year mark were not clearly expressed at the outset nor were they clearly defined in the job description.  

2. How does your supervisor like to communicate? 

Do they like when you pop into their office throughout the day, or do they prefer to communicate through email or text? Asking about communication preferences up front can reduce potential awkwardness and get your work relationship off to a great start. 

3. What's been done before? 

Ask about the strategies that produced the best results for the organization in the past five years and which ones didn't quite work. Knowing this upfront can keep you from "reinventing the wheel" and allow you to implement existing strategies to hit the ground running -- and avoid repeated failures. 

4. What are the biggest priorities and challenges in the organization? 

These questions set you up to be a star employee. Asking about the organization's biggest priorities can help you manage your time to get the most important things done first and make a larger impact quicker. Learning about challenges will allow you to anticipate and plan ahead for potential roadblocks and start brainstorming solutions. 

5. Who are the key players? 

Relationships are key in fundraising . Knowing "who's who" will enable you to prioritize building relationships with these important individuals who will help you meet your goals. Don't be afraid to ask your boss or coworkers to facilitate introductions to key volunteers, board members, previous staff members or others in the community that will help you understand the organizational landscape. 

5. Curate a Personal Learning Plan 

Your organization is certainly working on its strategic plan each year. Why not do this for your own career development? Create a roadmap to expand your career view for the next year, and be intentional about how you curate knowledge to best help you achieve your goals.  Although you may not know all the milestones yet, there are still many steps you can take to ensure that you are continuously growing and staying on top of relevant industry knowledge. 

As an added plus: some of these opportunities will help you get credits for the CFRE certification. If you are pursuing your CFRE, make sure to keep track of the courses and events in which you participate as they may well offer CFRE credit. 

There are tools, workshops and other learning opportunities available to those even with the tightest schedules and budgets. Some examples of curated knowledge to incorporate into your learning plan include: 

Listening to Podcasts 

Attending events and workshops at your local AFP chapter 

E-courses and webinars, such as those offered by GrantSpace, AFP, Nonprofit Ready or Blackbaud

Classes at your local community college or university

Taking time to learn how to use your organization's organizational or grant management platforms more effectively 

Signing up for a newsletter or skimming a few articles each day from industry news sources such as Philanthropy News Digest, Nonprofit Quarterly , or your favorite fundraising blog 

Collectively, these 5 steps can help jump-start your new nonprofit career opportunity, or help you fully prepare for your next one!  For more great insight on this topic, check out Episode #5 of The Path Podcast featuring Mike Blackwelder.

Are you pondering your next move in the nonprofit sector?  Check out how PMA could help you build your nonprofit career and tailor one of its coaching and training programs to fit your needs.  Contact us today and we'll be happy to discuss further.