Career Advancement

How embracing flexibility and change will strengthen your social impact career

Photo credit: Jomar Aplaon, Shutterstock

Photo credit: Jomar Aplaon, Shutterstock

Recently, the CFO of my organization asked us to read “Who Moved my Cheese?” The book—worth a read to anyone undergoing a career change—creates a metaphor to discuss how people deal with change. Though slightly simplistic (and perhaps cheesy, hi-o!), the book makes a profound statement: When change happens, successful people adapt and move forward.

Changemakers need to be prepared for…change

Working in social impact means that change is constant. Roles and responsibilities shift often. Funding changes, organizations grow or redirect, new contracts and grants are taken on, and duties are shifted to provide more efficient programming. While change isn’t easy, I can say with confidence that this line of work is never boring!

We know our organizations must evolve and change in order to survive and the same can be said for good employees. Consider the example of social media. Ten years ago, fundraising was predominately done by annual mailers and newsletters. Now, any reputable organization must have an established following on Twitter, Facebook, and Instragram. Likewise, the roles of “communications” or “marketing” have been expanded to include managing social media presence.

Traditionally we think of careers as becoming more and more specific as they evolve. If your career was a shape, you might consider it to be a pyramid, with your work and role becoming more and more narrow as you move towards the top.

However, in the world of nonprofits and social impact, a desirable candidate will approach their career in a different way, with an eye towards having multiple skills and interests. You will often take on a variety of responsibilities throughout your career, or even in one position. Small organizations and start-ups often require staff to wear many hats. In my own career, I have simultaneously worked in fundraising AND communications AND recruiting AND whatever-else-is-needed-this-week.

This is not a bad thing! In fact, the more breadth of experience you have, the deeper your understanding of what it takes to get things done. Flexibility is something I actively seek in a good hire.

Let me offer a few tips on how to broaden your capabilities and increase your hire-ability:

Be willing to take on additional responsibilities

If you go to work everyday, fulfill your minimum requirements and go home, you are not getting enough out of your position. When you are done with your tasks for the day, ask how you can help. Be willing to take on additional responsibilities outside of your job description or what your predecessor did. Ask yourself how you can make your role or project even more helpful and beneficial to your organization. Even if you are working as an intern or the receptionist, taking on new tasks opens doors for you in the future.

Volunteer to assist in an area you’d like to learn

When I was working in Guatemala, I was interested in learning about impact assessment and evaluation of programs. I offered to supervise and translate for our staff facilitating the project.  While I would not consider myself a monitoring and evaluation expert, the experience increased my understanding of impact evaluations and broadened my capabilities. Start by identifying a department or program you find interesting and ask how you can help; you’ll be surprised what you can learn.

Maximize your network

As you expand your career and your capabilities, don’t just think about increasing the number of bullet points under the “skills” section of your resume. The people you meet at your job are the people who may help you find your next job. Talk to your coworkers and classmates. Stay in touch and keep them updated about what you would like to do in the long run. Your network is often the most powerful tool you have.

When many of us start our social impact careers, we sometimes have a narrow view of our work: an issue that excites us, a story that moved us to action, or simply a calling to make a difference. As we move along in our career, we expand our understanding and capabilities. Therefore, each position we hold provides us a new set of knowledge and a wider professional network.

So, maybe we should rethink that career pyramid. Rather than starting at the bottom, getting more and more specialized, a good recruit should position themselves as starting specific and getting wider.

What are your thoughts on flexibility in your career? Share your insights in the comments.

About Ashley Putnam

Ashley has worked for 5+ years recruiting staff for domestic and international organizations aimed at finding effective solutions to poverty. She currently serves as Fellowship Director for The Work First Foundation, where she manages a program that connects recent graduates with work in urban poverty and public policy. Ashley began her work in career counseling at America Works, where she counseled low-income clients on resume writing and job search in New York. She later worked as Community Engagement Manager for Mercado Global in Guatemala, where she organized internship programs and oversaw private fundraising. Ashley graduated from Barnard College in 2006 with a B.A. in Anthropology. Read more of Ashley’s career tips and advice at www.savetheworld-careers.tumblr.com or follow her on twitter @AshleyAPutnam