Fundraising On-the-Job Training
But this is not an impossible, catch-22 situation for you. Luckily, that on-the-job training is available in a vast array of volunteering and internship opportunities, as well as temporary job assignments through staffing agencies.
According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, between 61 and 65 million Americans volunteer annually, which is more than a quarter of the population. For the lean and mean nonprofit organization with limited manpower, volunteers are an important and highly valued part of their workforce. What's more, the second most popular volunteer activity (behind coaching, tutoring or mentoring) is fundraising. So nonprofits recognize that volunteers not only provide free services, but are often a financial windfall. The business of attracting volunteers has therefore become rather sophisticated. Many nonprofit organizations employ full-time volunteer coordinators charged with training and placing volunteers so that both the nonprofit and the volunteer get the most out of the experience.
To dip their feet into nonprofit waters, many people volunteer to participate in fundraising events. There are all sorts of ways to get involved with a fundraiser--you can man the registration table, deal cards at casino night or run the marathon. Fundraisers are a great way to get to know an organization and a cause. It's particularly useful for someone in the corporate world who is interested in philanthropic giving to help out with fundraisers for nonprofit organizations that their employer already sponsors.
While any volunteer experience helps, you ultimately need to make a longer term commitment where there are opportunities to observe fundraising staff in action, get some training or simply learn more about the range of strategies the nonprofit community engages in to tackle an issue. And nothing beats taking some time to volunteer in the development office. You may start off with some rudimentary administrative work--such as entering information into the database--but the interactions with the staff are invaluable. If you show initiative and enthusiasm, there are a range of projects that staff may ask you to help out with, such as writing articles for the organization's newsletter, researching potential grant funders or finding vendors for the next fundraising event. In most cases, staff will provide you with informal training so that you can help out with these more meaty projects.
For the best long-term volunteer experience, make sure that the organization has a structured volunteer program run by a coordinator. As a former volunteer coordinator put it, "a volunteer position should feel as much like a job as possible." One of the best resources for finding volunteer opportunities is www.volunteermatch.org. The site requires nonprofit organizations to register and submit a detailed description of the tasks that they need volunteers to take on. The search engine on the site allows you to pick those opportunities that best meet your schedule and the kinds of projects you want to take on.
Another important volunteer activity--especially for those interested in philanthropic giving--is serving on the board of a nonprofit organization. Board members provide critical leadership and oversight to help an organization thrive and grow, so board membership can give you an opportunity to demonstrate leadership and commitment. Serving on a board also lets you apply skills and experience that you already have while learning from your fellow board members and the staff of the organization. You are also likely to get to know leaders in the nonprofit community and major donors--two groups that often sit on nonprofit boards. If you are going to get anything out of the experience, however, it's important that you make a serious commitment to the board beyond showing up for meetings. For more information on what it takes to be an effective board member, check out BoardSource (www.boardsource.org), a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating effective boards. There are many, many opportunities to join nonprofit boards, even if you don't have a great deal of experience in the nonprofit world. A good resource that links nonprofits with board members is www.boardnetusa.org. Nonprofits may also advertise for board members on www.volunteermatch.org.
Volunteering at a nonprofit organization may be the most effective way for you to find a job. If you volunteer for any length of time, you will not only learn about job openings (in many cases before they are posted), but will also gain allies who will recommend you to their colleagues.
Many nonprofit organizations offer internships--usually for college students, graduate students and those who have recently graduated--that are structured to provide a meaningful work experience with direct supervision from an experienced professional. Like volunteers, interns are highly valued; as one planning giving director describes them, "Interns are the jewels of our organization." Beyond taking on activities and projects that over-stretched staff don't have time for, boards and executive directors see interns as the next generation of nonprofit leaders. This transition in leadership has become an important issue of late as many executive directors--who are for the most part in their 50s and 60s--plan to retire.
While most internships in the nonprofit world are unpaid, there are some that provide a modest stipend. Universities usually have an internship placement program, a good place to start to research internship opportunities, especially those where you can also receive course credits. Many study abroad programs incorporate internships into their course curriculum. In addition, universities across the country (including Georgetown, University of California-Irvine, Harvard and New York University, to name just a few) have internships programs linked to curriculum in fundraising and nonprofit management. And many foundations offer internships and fellowships.
As is true for volunteering, you'll get the most out of a structured, established program where intern positions look a lot like full-time jobs. Many internships--especially the paid positions at the largest and most prestigious nonprofit organizations--are competitive. It's important that you do your research and follow application guidelines. As you would for a paid position, you want to highlight any work experience, volunteering or academic projects that relate to the issue that the nonprofit organization to which you are applying addresses, or any activities that demonstrate you have knack for fundraising.
Not everyone has the luxury of devoting themselves to a nonprofit organization for little or no pay. If that's true for you, you can also build your resume or get your foot in the door through a staffing agency. Many established nonprofit organizations use staffing agencies to fill entry-level positions, such as development coordinators, usually on a temp-to-perm basis. There are in fact staffing firms that focus exclusively on nonprofit organizations, like Professionals for Nonprofits, which is headquartered in New York City but also has an office in Washington, D.C. The temp-to-perm arrangement is often ideal for you and the nonprofit; you both can get to know each other before making a commitment. And if you are working full-time for a period of months, the agency may offer you health benefits as if you were a full-time employee for the organization. It's important to remember that the positions that agencies are trying to fill are administrative; you will be filing, faxing, copying and typing. That said, most nonprofits welcome enthusiasm and initiative, and you may soon be taking on more substantive projects.