Skills for the sector, and how to build them: Advice from young nonprofit pros

Published on: May 17, 2017

The purpose-driven sector is seeing more jobseeker interest than ever before, but it’s also subject to some misconceptions about the rigor it requires from its people. For more on the skills you might not realize you need, and the places to find them that you might not have thought of, we asked two professionals for their perspective as young nonprofit executives: Ivan Canada, Executive Director of The National Conference for Community and Justice of the Piedmont Triad, and Allison Jones, Director of Marketing and Communications at Code2040.


“One of the things lacking among new people in the sector is the ability to manage multiple deadlines and projects simultaneously,” said Canada. “You have to be disciplined to keep things moving.”

One great way to get a sense of this challenge is to volunteer. “By getting involved, you can gain an understanding of all the steps we have to go through to get to the final product,” said Canada, which is especially helpful for sector-switchers. “People coming from the corporate world are used to a different model, and that allows them to think differently about problems. But they have to understand the limitations—what you can’t do in a nonprofit arena.”

Jones agreed about the value of volunteering: “It’s a major entry point for a lot of folks. You can get your hands dirty, and try out different areas—programs, the board, fundraising—to see where you might fit in.”

Another valuable aspect of volunteering is the range of people you meet and work with. “Because so much of our work is collaborative—with board members, development pros, volunteers, beneficiaries—emotional IQ is very important,” said Canada. Learning to be self-aware, comfortable with diverse groups, and passionate for a cause will keep you invested in the work, no matter what you might have to do on a given day or project. “No job is going to consist 100 percent of things you enjoy or are good at.”

Volunteering can also pay off in organic connections, said Jones: “Networking the traditional way can feel disingenuous. It’s much better to find opportunities where you can learn, or teach, as part of the community.”


Another ability that pays dividends, said Canada, is a sense of the big picture: “Being committed to looking beyond a band-aid approach to ask, What are the systems at play here?” For instance, getting food to a homeless person is a good feat, but it isn’t going to solve homelessness; to reach that goal, you might target systemic racism or unjust incarceration practices.

To keep the skills of his team sharp and expanding, Canada budgets professional development funding for everyone they hire. “Your local Young Nonprofit Professionals Network provides a great source for development because it’s run by young people who know what their peers aren’t learning on the job,” said Canada. He also points to resources online, including industry blogs, as well as books and conferences.

If you have yet to join a team, Jones suggested tapping into any alumni network you’re a part of, and seeking out informational interviews with an array of people, rather than focusing in on the job title or organization you most want to end up with: “Any common denominator is compelling to people—saying you went to the same college, or volunteered at the same place, helps someone trust you and feel connected.” Talking to a wide range of people, she said, opened up many opportunities along her career path.

Canada also cited relationship-building as one of the best thing you can do for your career. “People run into problems when they are afraid to ask for help,” he said. “You have to be brave enough to reach out, but you also have to have someone, inside or outside your organization, who you can trust is willing to help you.”

The National Conference for Community and Justice of the Piedmont Triad is a human relations organization, based in Greensboro, North Carolina, that promotes understanding and respect among all cultures, races, and religions through advocacy, education, and dialogue. Find out more on their website, and follow them on Facebook or Twitter.

Code2040 is a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that creates pathways to educational, professional, and entrepreneurial success in technology for underrepresented minorities with a specific focus on Black and Latinx people. Find out more on their website, and follow them on Twitter.

Marc Schultz is copy wrangler for Work for Good. David Terraso also contributed to this article.