Nonprofits: A Training Ground for Professional Development

Throughout my professional life, I have pivoted a few times. Initially, I wanted to be in consulting but found that that lifestyle was not sustainable. Then I moved on to retail store management, because it paid well. Finally, I realized I wanted to be in technology.

When I moved into the technology sector, I had only taken some classes that were focused on database management and managing technology teams. I would go on to earn a Masters of Information Systems in 2011. After I received the degree, I had no idea how to break in and actually put my degree to work. I was frankly quite discouraged about my prospects of moving from an entry level technical support position to my dream career of product management. For this reason, I put together a comprehensive plan to get myself up to par with what employers would expect from a product manager. Number 1 on that list was to get experience in managing teams and budgets.

You may be asking yourself why I chose such an ambitious plan considering the fact that I was not confident in my ability to make this transition. The answer is encapsulated by a motto that I follow, which is to “Be Ambitious.”Setting a meaty goal that was intimidating was the only way I could ensure I would augment my skill set enough for this to be worthwhile.

At this point, you are looking at the title of this article and wondering how this all relates. Well that is simple, I started volunteering at various organizations around Chicago. If an organization said they had a need, I was the first person to raise my hand. Over the course of several years, I helped plan 6 figure events; I managed dozens of volunteers; I developed complex business plans; I consulted on technological implementations for multi million dollar nonprofits; and most importantly I was gaining valuable leadership skills as the sole person responsible for large scale projects. I actually became so successful at being a go to person for several organizations that they insisted on paying me for the work, which was a huge plus.

After pursuing these opportunities and getting good at them, I also found a direct correlation to the number of opportunities I received at my place of employment. I became the go to person for new projects, client pitches, and speaking engagements. I know for a fact that the confidence I built working with nonprofits were invaluable to my own success. In fact, I have increased my income 200% in 5 years because of the skill set I gained from my nonprofit work and not the degrees I have.

In the technological sector, there is a prevailing idea that one has to go into either a major industry leader (think Google, Facebook, Apple) or a hot startup to become successful. I actually tried that path but found it limiting because there was a certain level of bureaucracy that existed which prohibited me from doing the type of work I wanted to pursue. The nonprofit sector knows their limitations, whether it be a talent gap or monetary issues, which means they are often much more scrappy. Many nonprofits embody the idea of “Fail Fast” much better than companies where I worked. Additionally, how great is it when you can say that the work you are doing on a daily basis literally could lead to saving someone’s life. There is a prevailing idea that nonprofits can only use monetary support, but in reality I have found that volunteers with specialized skills are often as useful for the long term survival of the organization.

So what am I saying here? Ultimately, I believe that volunteering at a nonprofit is an amazing way to augment your skill set and to expedite professional growth. In 2016, it is so important in this congested job market to continually look for opportunities for growth that distinguish you from the rest. As such, it is important to look for nontraditional development opportunities that push the boundaries of your own talent.

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