Things I wish I’d known when I started my career

We’ve all heard the phrase, “I wish I knew then, what I know now.” And if that saying has never rung true to you, stick around a few more years, and it will. I’ve learned a lot since I entered the nonprofit world in 2001 at the ripe old age of 23. Here are my top 10 things that I didn’t learn in books. Some are funny. Some are serious. And some are things I never thought I’d deal with, but I have.

10) You have to be likable. One of the key factors of being a successful fundraiser is relationships. If you aren’t likable, then relationships can be hard. If you work with difficult people, try to put yourself in their shoes. You never know what someone else is going through when you interact with him or her. By showing empathy, you automatically become more likable, and hence, will become a better fundraiser.

9) You will have bosses that don’t like you. I’ve had a handful of bosses I did not get along with at all. No matter what I did, l felt as though I would never please them. The key – don’t try to please, simply do your job to the best of your ability. I took what I didn’t like about how those bosses interacted with me and my co-workers and used that to become a better leader myself. If life gets super difficult with your boss, try asking him or her if there is anything you could do to make their job easier? Acknowledging their job can be difficult may improve your relationship. Being a boss is hard. Don’t let one boss define your experiences.

8) Pay your dues. No, I don’t mean association or chapter dues (although we will get to that a bit later). Every good fundraiser has done the grunt work. We’ve learned from stuffing envelopes, setting up events, moving boxes, handwriting addresses, and all those other tasks that make us roll our eyes because we want to be in charge. Take the time to move up through an organization or positions. A year in an entry level position does not qualify you for a director role. Take the time to learn from those with more experience. Talk to your boss (even the ones you don’t like) about your goals and aspirations. Let him or her know that one day you want to be a director and ask for projects that can help you gain the skill set you will need to get there one day.

7) It’s okay to make mistakes. I’m a recovering perfectionist. I used to cringe when I would make a mistake, try to hide that the mistake was made, and then make excuses for the mistake. Anyone else? No? Well, lucky you. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received from a boss was, “It’s okay to fail as long as you fail forward.” We are human, thus, we make mistakes. When you make mistakes, do these three things – 1: Admit it. 2: Fix it (if you can) or know what to do to keep it from happening again. 3: Learn from it. If we aren’t making mistakes, then we aren’t learning.

6) Do weekly reports. This may sound silly, but I’ll tell you why I find weekly reports so important. I had a boss that fit #9. To prove to said boss that I was doing my job, I started sending him weekly reports. He didn’t ask for them, but I was trying to prove to him I did know what I was doing in my position. What I learned from doing these reports was the sense of accomplishment I had leaving work on a Friday afternoon. I spent about 30 minutes recapping all the work I had done since Monday, and I made a list of upcoming projects on my schedule. These reports helped guide one-on-one meetings, goals, and learning opportunities long after that #9 boss was gone. When I had people to manage, I asked them to create weekly reports. It allowed me to see where they may need guidance, and the reports gave me a snapshot of the work being done by the team I managed. If not for any other reason, do weekly reports for yourself. It’s amazing to write out everything you’ve accomplished in one week.

5) You will eat a lot. Fundraisers take people to coffee and lunch. Fundraisers attend other nonprofits events either to support their colleagues or as a guest of a donor. With each position I had came a new waist size (ok, not really, but somedays it felt that way). When I started out in fundraising, I don’t think I ever imagined how much I would eat. This sounds silly, I know. But I don’t think there is a fundraiser out there that doesn’t take coffee or lunch meetings on a regular basis. My advice – make sure you aren’t always going to grab a burger. Mix in some healthy options every once in a while, and enjoy those meetings.

4) Join AFP. I mentioned paying your dues earlier. These are the dues that I recommend for every fundraiser. Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) is the organization that has grown my career. I did not join AFP when I first started in fundraising, and today, as I finish my final year on our local AFP board, I wish I had. The level of expertise and knowledge that can be found in an AFP meeting are top notch. Fundraisers want to see each other succeed. Membership to your local AFP chapter provides continuing education, connections, and access to the international organization. AFP is what you make of it. If you join, get involved. If you don’t get involved, you won’t find the value in the organization. Learn more about AFP.

3) Learn, Learn, Learn. Read about fundraising. Attend fundraising classes (see AFP), conferences, and webinars. Many larger organizations offer on-site training in leadership, communication, crucial conversations, and writing. Take advantage of these offerings. Ask for professional development in your annual goals. The more you learn, the more well-rounded a fundraiser you will become.

2) Don’t burn bridges when you leave a position. When you know it is time to find a new position, you may be burned out, overworked, and completely done with your current organization. Don’t leave on bad terms. I’ve remained in good terms with all organizations that I’ve worked over the years. Jobs come and go. Your passion may change. But you never know when someone from a previous position will come in handy in a future position. Don’t stay if you dread going to work daily. It’s important to know when to go, but you must go out on good terms. I’ll have an upcoming blog post on how to know when to go, so watch for that in the near future.

1) Be passionate about where you are working. When you aren’t passionate about the cause, it shows. Donors can tell when you are just going through the motions and not truly excited about the mission. If you aren’t sure if you are passionate about the mission, ask yourself this simple question, “If I learned about the organization and didn’t work here, would I support it?” If the answer is yes, then you are good to go. If the answer is anything other than yes, then figure out where your passion is, and find that type of organization. Having the passionate voice behind the ask makes the ask more viable, and donors connect to that passion.

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