“I fell into it.”
I am not sure this is the answer we always want to hear regarding how we came to this profession, but don’t we hear it all the time? I certainly have said it throughout my career, and I know many of my peers have similar stories. Our paths to nonprofits and fundraising are as varied as they come, often indirect, circuitous, and sometimes downright off-the-wall. Though I realize many younger professionals now are finding the nonprofit sector via degree and certificate programs as well as through organized collegiate chapters of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (go UH!), many of my peers and those before me did not even realize the nonprofit fundraising profession was a career path.
Despite the increasing number of specific education degrees and graduate programs for nonprofit-related careers, it still feels to me that nonprofit jobs are often overlooked or shrugged off as “do-gooder” jobs. Most don’t realize this path is most certainly a calling, and one that requires professional knowledge, experience, and integrity. It is a profession, and an important one.
According to the National Council of Nonprofits, the nonprofit sector employed nearly 11% of the workforce in 2013 (14.4 million workers), which includes more employees than the national defense, construction, real estate, and space research industries combined. What’s more, the nonprofit sector contributed an estimated $937.7 billion to the national economy in 2014, more than five percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). With those numbers, the nonprofit sector would rank as the 16th largest economy among the 199 nations tracked by the World Bank – wow.
Perhaps we need to look at how we are recruiting and retaining candidates into our profession? True, one of the hindering factors is pay – the nonprofit sector is not where one goes to become a millionaire. But it is a place that calls for a special type of person. What I hear most from my colleagues who have spent their careers in nonprofits and those who come over from the corporate world, is that we all just want to feel that we are doing some bit of good and helping to make our communities better. It is not only a career path that provides excellent experience, it is a path that allows you to give back and change lives.
(Break out the Coca-Cola cans and sing along… I’d like to teach the world to sing…)
But seriously, this is true in my case. Nothing is better than knowing that every single day I am working to help others and make our Greater Houston community better. I can wake up completely exhausted and weary, but the minute I step into a meeting with a client I become energized, focused, engaged. I love my client and volunteer work and their intersecting worlds, and nothing is more satisfying than seeing an organization succeed and thrive in its mission.
But I didn’t always feel that way.
Oddly enough, I worked for my university, TCU (go Frogs!), in Admissions and volunteered in the Development office in my college days, but despite it being right in front of my face, it did not occur to me to consider nonprofit work then. My mind was fixed on the publishing world, and despite a fruitful but less-than-thrilling internship at a leading college publisher my senior year, my mind was set. New York seemed to be the next destination.
Oh, how plans change.
With 18 years in my rearview window, I can say with absolute certainty that I did not in fact “fall into it” as if my path is not my own, nor did I directly choose the nonprofit world. I would argue that it chose me.
Like many young professionals, when I started my post-college career, goal number one was to GET. A. JOB. As a young woman married to a graduate student with a small stipend, I needed to get to work quickly. Bills needed to be paid. At that point I was living in Lexington, Kentucky and the biggest employer in town was the University of Kentucky. Hence, my introduction to the nonprofit sector. It was not a romantic light bulb moment of my “true calling” – not at all. It was a job, and I was thrilled to have it.
Little did I know, my love affair with the nonprofit world was starting, but it began with a slow simmer. As my journey led me to Washington, DC and then back to Texas, I returned to development work in the education sector, and learned a ton about events, annual fund campaigns, volunteer management, writing, data management and much more. Though I enjoyed my work, I was not focused on a particular career or a future path. I was working harder than ever before, but I did not have the confidence or drive to determine and chase specific goals. I was on auto-pilot.
Life, though, has a way of slapping you awake at times, and I experienced a huge wake-up call in 2009-2010. Suddenly I was a divorced, single mother of a three-year-old, new to the Houston area, with only my family as any kind of solid anchor. No one really ever plans to be in that spot, and I wouldn’t recommend it, but in hindsight, it was exactly what needed to happen.
Over a period of five years or so, I lived in a purgatory of work and healing, learning from my colleagues and peers and growing in experience. I worked (and worked, and worked) and healed personally. The simmer was rising to a boil by this time, and I suppose after 15 years in nonprofit work and surviving a major life trauma, something seemed to click for me. As simple as this may sound, I finally realized what had been missing for me – leadership opportunities. As I got more involved in our Association of Fundraising Professionals Greater Houston Chapter and other leadership efforts, I began to feel the sizzle and hum deep in my belly – it was the feeling of knowing I was channeling more of my potential.
There is a true power in certain moments – and my moment happened in my car as I drove away from a lunch in the fall of 2015. It was my “light bulb” moment, and since I am a spiritual person, I really believe I final heard The Man Upstairs knocking me on the head, trying to get my attention. In that moment, the joy and fear of the revelation made me actually laugh out loud. I will never forget it.
It was in that moment in downtown Houston that I decided to pursue my own nonprofit consulting business.
The practical Type A planner that occupies most of the driver’s seat time in my head tried to sit up and protest that more time and planning needed to go into this major decision, and the Nervous Nelly shrieked and protested that this was too risky, too rash, and I did not know nearly enough to be a consultant – no way. But Opportunity won out, and after 15 years of nonprofit experience, my love affair boiled over after so many years of simmering.
It took me years to get here, but I realize this is exactly the type of work I am called to do, whether I am helping one of my nonprofit clients, volunteering for the Salvation Army, or serving my church as a council member. Leadership, coaching, mentoring – I get to do all of it as an entrepreneur, consultant, and volunteer and I have never been happier or more challenged in my daily working life.
I hope that those coming after me do not need to take the long route to their calling, as I did, but I definitely tell my colleagues not to give up on this quirky, wonderful nonprofit world. We all hit roadblocks at times, or dead-ends where nothing seems to be clicking, but with a little persistence, you can find the right way in the end. Don’t ever give up on finding where the simmer meets the boil. It may be in a large shop raising major gifts, or it may be directing a shop of one for a struggling social services agency. Find your way, and don’t give up – don’t just passively “fall into it”. Climb it, claim it, and wrangle it into submission.
Through AFP and many universities, our sector is now more professionalized than ever before, but I believe we can do a much better job of recruiting great professionals to our field. We have an opportunity as nonprofit fundraisers to share our real stories, to show young professionals and our community why more than 11% of the workforce chooses to work in the nonprofit sector. It’s more than a job, it’s a calling – and we can help others find it (hopefully sooner than my 15-year path).