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The year ahead promises to be both interesting and challenging for social change organizations. If you're a nonprofit professional looking for inspiration to sustain your organization, movement, or cause, you're not alone — the emerging millennial workforce is increasingly focused on impact, too. Our sector has a lot of talent and more is on the way, as growing numbers of young people graduate with a strong track record of community service and a keen interest in the social and environmental record of potential employers.
To prepare for all that 2017 may bring, we spoke with the experts — people who have worked over their careers to create positive social, environmental, and economic impact — and asked them a simple question:
What is the one piece of advice you would give to a young person just starting out in his or her social change career?
Below, we've distilled the insights of more than fifty professionals in the private, public, or civil sectors. These are people who have led national nonprofits, launched game-changing advocacy campaigns, and helped catalyze some of the largest social movements in the country on issues such as college affordability, civic engagement, sustainability, and women’s and minority rights.
Here are five key takeaways from our conversations:
1. Network like a real person. Nonprofit work requires a great deal of empathy, persistence, and creativity. And networking, both within and beyond the sector, requires being able to build relationships that endure. It means being a real person on your conference calls, getting past the small talk at annual meetings, and having meaningful conversations with others when the going gets tough. People who work in the social change space often are "lifers," so there's a good chance your encounters and exchanges with others will be invaluable in helping you build a strong foundation for your career. Investing in authentic relationships also "sets the stage for collaboration down the road" (Susan McPherson) and helps you "build your own unconventional network of doers and thinkers — people you can really call on" (Kari Saratovsky). Remember: Behind every authentic leader is an authentic network. How are you building your network for social change?
2. Know your "why," and reflect on it often. This may be an obvious piece of advice, but it is true nevertheless: We all need to revisit our inspiration on a regular basis. What fired you up in the first place? Find a photo, letter, or quote that affirms your "why" and keep it at your workspace. Use it as inspiration to "make a habit of advocating for your nonprofit's mission in some way each and every day" (Tim Delaney). And when you find yourself facing challenges in your day-to-day work or career, let your "why" serve as a compass that can help lead you to the right decision. In the end, as many people told us, it's just a matter of "Really, truly knowing your values. And never compromising on them. Ever. For anybody" (Erica Mills).
3. Train for a marathon, not a sprint. "Savor every one of the seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years that add up to the marathon that is social impact. It doesn't happen overnight, but tomorrow can always be a better day for your cause" (Mike Martin). And like any great hero story, there will always be dissenters. "A lot of people out there are not going to understand what you do and why you do it. They are going to come at you with questions, with skepticism, with cynicism in their hearts. Nonprofit professionals have to get up every single day and work on issues that may very well not be resolved in their generation — or the next one. That's why it's important that you take time for some self-care" (Julia Campbell). Training for a marathon, however, is easier when you "travel in a pack; find good mentors to watch and learn from" (Erin McGrath) and "seek to learn and grow by asking questions and getting as much hands-on experience as you can. When you're uncomfortable, you're most likely working on a weakness, so take advantage of perfecting them. Remember, you are in the nonprofit industry to make a difference" (Jerome Goings).
4. Be your own advocate. The most common advice we received was about self-care. "When you're working day in and day out to make a positive impact on the world, it can be easy to lose sight of the impact this work has on you. Are you getting enough sleep? Keeping a work/life balance? Celebrating your wins?" (Alexandra Ostrow). Knowing how to set boundaries is a critical skill: "Find ways to leave work at work and cultivate hobbies and interests outside of your job. If you find that you're at an organization that doesn't support this, then don’t be afraid to leave" (Vanessa Chase Lockshin). Because in the end, "the people who are happiest in this work seem to be the ones who find ways to integrate their work and personal passions, and are able to truly live them both" (Kivi Leroux Miller).
5. Live in your community. Whether it's your school community, your church community, your cause community, or your recreational dodgeball community, it's imperative that you embrace it and make it your home. Take the time to listen and learn from other members of the community and be sure to give back to the places and people that embrace you. And when it comes to your work community, "Ask questions. Work hard. Be in the middle of the product or service itself, right there with the community. And smile often" (Nancy Lublin). Another way to know whether you're nourished by community is to "Listen to yourself. If you use personal pronouns to talk about your work, then think about why you do it and how you might change it. It's a big red flag when it comes to community and nonprofit work. It sets the trajectory. It's like building a skyscraper: if you're a little off at the foundation, then you're way off at the top" (Wayne Meisel).
Regardless of where you are in your nonprofit career, I hope these insights inspire you to take it to the next level or in a new direction. What's one piece of advice you would give to a young person just starting a career in nonprofit or social change work? Let us know in the comments section below.
Kelly Behrend is the co-founder of Enact Impact, which connects people on a mission with paid flexible and short-term work opportunities that help advance social change.