In Washington, a great place to begin developing a professional career is to work at a nonprofit. Nonprofits are always looking for volunteers and enthusiastic employees committed to their cause.
The nonprofit field has changed over the years, with the need to have employees who are multi-skilled. With shrinking budgets and changing missions, there are opportunities to make an impact. When I came to Washington in 2008, I already had experience working in a nonprofit from my time as a Program Coordinator with Akron International Friendship. This basic experience led me to a job writing grants and engaging in community outreach at Central Union Mission, and then at the Washington Legal Foundation, a think tank. I was not only able to raise money, but I was also able to see for myself how the office of the Executive Director, Finance, Development and Outreach, as well as specific program managers, work together to provide good service to their clients (I cannot stress enough the importance of proper reporting on monies spent. Proper reporting ensures trust and enhances the stature of a nonprofit with donors and the general public).
Many of the skills learned from campaigns and politics apply in the nonprofit field. One, you want to have a rationale for what you want to accomplish in a community. For example, Central Union Mission is the oldest homeless shelter and social services agency in Washington, DC, dating from 1884. Their mission is to provide social services to the poor and underserved of the DC area. Two, raising awareness and money for the organization is important. This kind of consensus-building and coalition building (both internally and externally) is critical to an organization’s current and future success. In politics, one cannot convince voters that a problem must be solved unless you have unification among different groups of like-minded people. You can take this unity to the voters and communicate to them on how you intend to solve the problem. Nonprofits are great places to learn how to consensus build and relate to otherwise different people who are together working for the same cause. Of course, you will have your good days and bad days, but you will develop the tools for being a professional in a Washington, DC office.
Working in a nonprofit is a great training ground for leadership. When I was appointed by the Executive Director to be a grant writer, he often reminded me that I was responsible for raising money to pay their salaries. A great responsibility was given to me to oversee the maintenance of existing foundation relationships while finding new sources of funding. Every day was pressure-packed to be sure, but knowing that you are the tip of an organization’s spear is indeed empowering. While it is true that leadership in nonprofits can be formally structured, good leadership can also be organic, arising from various roles and departments. Great nonprofit organizations develop leaders, and don’t let them go.
One place a young professional can go to for networking in the nonprofit field is the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network. They offer job opportunities for nonprofits, as well as networking and professional development opportunities. For additional information about the pros and cons of nonprofits, read this.
Washington, DC provides more than one way to seize opportunities, and nonprofits are as good as any. Be committed-work for a nonprofit!
Serge Thomas is a nonprofit and political professional living in Silver Spring, MD. He worked on the Mitt Romney 2012 Presidential Campaign and on state legislative races in two states at the grassroots level.