Here’s a BuzzFeed-style quiz for you:
Can you list every free meeting space within a 40-mile radius?
Do you mutter expletives at a frozen Outlook page or the infamous pinwheel of death?
Are you an expert on staff dietary restrictions?
Do you consider yourself advanced in the arts of flip-charting and calendar stalking?
If you answered “yes” to any of the above, you are likely a young nonprofit professional in the midst of your very own epic coming-of-age tale.
I recently joined the working board of Young Nonprofit Professionals - Little Rock (YNPN-LR). YNPN-LR is part of a larger, national network that promotes an efficient, viable, and inclusive nonprofit sector to support growth and learning for emerging professionals. My role as board secretary includes the usual secretarial tasks: note-taking, scheduling, subtly nudging folks, organizing events, and other duties as assigned.
I also work as a program assistant at the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation (WRF) where I support the Foundation’s grantmaking, internal operations, initiatives, and goal areas. In the wake of joining YNPN-LR’s board and celebrating my second anniversary at WRF, I have been reflecting on the significance of being a nonprofit professional. My roles involve supporting a team and staff while finding my niche in public service and philanthropy.
Similar to youthful protagonists in epic stories and movies, we young nonprofit professionals must band together to survive several hardships and learn the value of friendship, work, and service. We experience our first romances, find independence, and rebel against the system while discovering our unique talents. Maybe the typical day of a young professional does not quite match stories like Catcher in the Rye or Little Women, but by embracing supportive roles such as flip-charter, notetaker, and convener, emerging nonprofit leaders can successfully embark on adventures to achieve professional development, organizational excellence, and impactful public service.
In many coming-of-age stories like The Hunger Games, the hero is presented with a life-changing opportunity. And although my nonprofit journey has been less dramatic than being selected to fight to the death to maintain order in a corrupt dystopian society, I’ve learned some valuable lessons along the way:
Identify leadership opportunities within and beyond my organization. Leadership does not only come with "CEO," executive director, or other impressive titles. I am my own leader. I apologize if you already heard this from your boss, teachers, or mom, but it’s true. Here’s how I have learned to create my own epic destiny:
Be a proactive supporter. When I have the capacity, I volunteer to be the note-taker or lunch orderer. When I started at the Foundation, my supervisor advised me to “think in time,” see and meet the need before it’s a requirement or urgent responsibility.
Become an expert and share expertise. After facilitating or organizing several productive meetings, I have been asked to do it again. I have taken advantage of these opportunities, documented processes, and made my notes available to others. Organizational goals stretch far beyond the individual, so I want to share knowledge and foster efficiency.
Build and use networks.I never know who I’ll help connect ideas for in a meeting or what opportunities can come up by catching up with folks.
Networks at the office and beyond are a knowledge clearinghouse. Generally, leaders in the sector are willing to share their wisdom and experiences, so I’m never afraid to ask for guidance and support.
Stay in touch. I’ve found that occasional emails are great, but coffee is better. People appreciate it when I take time to authentically connect with them.
Embrace change. Since nonprofits and foundations drive social change, they should evolve with current events and community needs.
Take time to reflect and learn. If I get blindsided by a sudden change, I don’t let it keep me from doing better next time. Instead, I think about what happened and how to ensure things go more smoothly moving forward.
Change can create opportunity. Staff roles, technology, and all the other trappings of an office environment are bound to shift. My current position didn’t exist before I came to the Foundation, so I make sure to embrace and adapt to change because who knows what career options will surface in the future.
Flip charts, emails, and meetings are not the elements of most epic, coming-of-age bestsellers. However, I remember to appreciate my own story: I am a young nonprofit leader supporting my team, cursing at Outlook, and finding my niche in the sector.