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Creating your own growth opportunities: Answers from the YNPN National Conference

Published on: Sep 13, 2017

Sitting down at the Work for Good Lounge with a dozen young nonprofit professionals attending last month’s 2017 YNPN National Conference in Atlanta – where we were proud to be a lead sponsor – executive search experts Mary Hughes and Dennis Hanthorn fielded questions on career growth and advancement. Among the takeaways: how to compete for internal opportunities, conduct a worthwhile informational interview, and make the case for your next raise. Also weighing in were Work for Good’s own Senior Client Development Manager Chelle Shell and Marketing Director Danny Bu.


Mary Hughes: Your growth is a learning contract between you and your supervisors – or one you make with yourself. The goal is to move to the next stage, like doing less technical work and more work creating teams. The question is, How do I insert myself in situations to get good at next-stage skills? Where can I learn from people who are doing the work a bit more broadly or deeply? That could be volunteering, working with an association like YNPN, formal education, on the job.

Dennis Hanthorn: Even a small organization has many opportunities for learning. Board members and others in the community can help you learn specific skills – setting up an accounting system, using forms or reports, planning a giving campaign. What’s great about nonprofits is that it’s more than just your organization: It’s about finding opportunities to help others. That gives you the green light to ask for help. Develop colleagues and ask them for advice – I know it’s flattering when someone asks me how I can help them do a better job.

What if you have the skills but you still can’t get the job opportunities?

Hanthorn: Welcome to the working world! It’s about relationships. Don’t burn any bridges: If you worked with someone 10 years ago, that person might be your way in.

Hughes: Or you might be able to get some feedback from them about where to go next.


Are organizations really willing to do these informational interviews? I’ve heard that people find them annoying.

Hanthorn: Some organizations are so slammed, they don’t have time for informational meetings, but there are others where people are happy to sit down and have coffee with you.

Hughes: If you’re organized, know about them, and know what you want, any executive will feel you’ve used their time well.

First, know who you’re talking to, and tell them how: I read an interview with you, or an article about your impact. Tell them you want to know what it takes to be a member of their team. That’s how you can figure out how to market yourself.

If you’re looking for work, tell them about what you do well: Think of three things you’ve invested time in and that you like to do. If you can articulate the kind of organization you want to work for – like one big enough to move up in, or small enough where you can flex some entrepreneurial muscles – you can think of three specific examples to mention. Your interviewee may have connections there, or know people at similar organizations.

And make sure it’s no more 20 minutes. Even if they want to stay longer, tell them no: “You’ve given me your 20 minutes and I don’t want to mess up your schedule.”

High-level positions often go to those new to the organization or the sector, sidelining internal applicants. How do we compete?

Hughes: Sometimes it isn’t about technical skills, but relationship skills and access to donors. There’s not necessarily anything you can do to compete against that, but recognize that most leaders want someone who understands the nonprofit world – so be able to communicate your knowledge. At the same time, develop as many contacts as you can in the for-profit arena, which is a source of so much giving.

Hanthorn: If you can anticipate the skills they’ll look for in their next executive, try picking them up. If you have a job, start volunteering where you want to be: It’s a perfect segue to a new job. If you don’t have a job, volunteer one or two days a week and start learning. That can also create a stronger relationship with the right leader.

Danny Bu: At the American Cancer Society, where I used to work, most of the senior executives, managers, and mid-level employees were volunteers at one point. Volunteers are attractive because they know your donors, know your mission, and know other volunteers.

What if you feel like you’ve hit a wall in terms of compensation? What is the industry standard for raises – how often, how they’re tied to title changes, benefits?

Hughes: Compensation transparency is a big challenge for organizations. I talked with a client recently who is determined to develop equity by publishing salary ranges and requirements for getting them. But the reality is that most nonprofits are not necessarily giving people more money along with more responsibility: Increases tend to take place when you move organizations. That’s an unfortunate thing, because it means turnover is the norm.

Chelle Shell: You can find resources to compare your salary by position and location at and It’s difficult for your manager to argue with data, and it will give you the confidence to go after what you deserve. Apply for some other positions, and you might be surprised by the offers you get.

Hughes: Make a business case for your raise. What would it cost them to bring in someone new? Unfortunately, institutional knowledge is pretty cheap: It’s what you’ve achieved, and the skills you’ve picked up, that earn you a raise. Also, make your request a year ahead of when you want the raise, to account for budgeting timelines.

Audience member: If you like working there but you’re leaving for better pay, stay in touch! They might realize how much they miss you, and offer you more to come back.

Mary Hughes and Dennis Hanthorn are senior consultants at the Georgia Center for Nonprofit’s Nonprofit Consulting Group. Both focus on CEO/executive director search and transition, among a number of other areas.

YNPN, the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network, is dedicated to activating young emerging leaders, helping them acquire the skills and awareness they need to be effective changemakers by connecting them with resources, people, and ideas. Find out more about them on their national website or the website of your local chapter, or by following them on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

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