Career Series No. 11- Nonprofit Development
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What did you want to be when you were growing up and why?
When I was young, I wanted to be a psychologist or a guidance counselor, because I’m a really great listener, and I like to help people find ways to solve their own problems.
What is your current job?
I’m the Membership Representative at a nonprofit. At my organization, “membership” is considered part of the development team (which most people outside of the nonprofit world would just call fundraising). Most of the development team focuses on major donors, rich people or foundations that can donate thousands of dollars at a time. Membership, on the other hand, is about everyday donors, people who donate more like $10 or $25. We send out a number of fundraising mailings every year to these people, some to ask them to renew their membership, some to inform them of the specific issues we’re currently working on, and some that give more general information about our organization, the history, and our plans for the future. A big part of my job is the planning of these direct mail pieces (every part of the process, from strategy, to creative development, to copy editing and securing approval from executives) and handling the responses we get from them.
How did you land that position? (What made you want to pursue that?)
In college, I thought a lot about joining the Peace Corps, but decided that working at some sort of nonprofit in the States was a more realistic long-term plan for my “do-gooder” nature. I did a summer internship in the Communcations department of a nonprofit and maintained a good relationship with my supervisor. After college (and about two years making lattes and waffling about what kind of “grown up” jobs I should apply for) I remembered how much I liked that internship, and checked out the organization’s website to see if there were any entry-level positions open. As luck would have it, this Membership Representative position was up there, and I was pretty qualified for it. I applied, and dropped an email to my former supervisor, who (I think) put in a good word for me with the hiring manager. Then, when I was asked to come in for an interview, I focused on how much I like the work the organization does, how I understand that the development side is super-necessary for the other aspects of the organization to run, and how I could use the stellar customer service skills I’d developed as a barista to make sure that our members felt good about us as an organization.
What does/did a typical day at work look like for you?
My days don’t have a very rigid schedule, but I’m almost always busy. I get to the office by 9am every day, and start by checking my email. I monitor three separate email accounts for the organization, including the general “contact us” forms from our website, so every morning I’m greeted by a full inbox and plenty of little problems to fix. Most of them are simple: someone wants to unsubscribe from our email list, or change their mailing address, or cancel a pledge they’ve made. Sometimes it requires a little more care, like when people ask very specific questions about our position on a certain issue, and I need to ask someone else in the office who works more closely with that issue.
Usually at least once a day, I’ll go to a strategy meeting with one of our consultant firms (we have one for our online messaging, one for direct mail, and one for telemarketing campaigns) where we’ll discuss plans for upcoming fundraisers and the statistics on how the previous fundraisers performed. In the afternoon, I sort through the mail, process any checks that come in, and read/respond to any letters that come in from our members.
I generate a few financial reports every day to keep our executives up-to-date on our fundraising goals, and in between all of the other things, I’m the main person answering the phones, too, so I spend a decent chunk of time talking to our members throughout the day. Those calls are pretty similar in content to the emails I receive – a lot of simple requests I can take care of (like, “please remove my name from your mailing list”) and some occasional complicated ones. I usually take an hour-long lunch break around 1pm and leave the office around 6pm.
What do you love most about it?
It can be really gratifying to fix a problem for someone, even when it’s something small. Pretty frequently, I’ll have someone complain that we email them too much, or that they made a mistake on their donation form and now they’ve donated $200 when they meant to donate $20. People are really impressed when they have an actual human respond in a timely manner, armed with a solution (like changing their email settings to only receive certain types of emails, or to get a weekly digest instead of daily updates, or to quickly process a refund for a contribution error). Also, getting to talk to our members on the phone can be really rewarding, and reassures me that the work we’re doing is valuable and that people believe in us.
What do you hate most about it?
On the flip side, I also have to deal with a lot of negativity from the public. Sometimes it’s a member who doesn’t seem satisfied with the way I’ve tried to solve an issue. Sometimes it’s someone who doesn’t support our work, and wants to tell me all the pessimistic reasons we shouldn’t bother trying to change the way things are. A call like that can really dampen your mood and mess with your motivation for a whole day. Also, I spend a lot of time doing data entry and adjusting people’s account information, which is definitely not the most invigorating thing in the world, so I’m looking forward to moving up the ladder a bit, so I can spend more of my time doing the “meaningful” work and less time doing “tasks.”
What’s the coolest thing that ever happened to you at work?
We have some big-name donors. It might seem dumb, but it feels really cool to get a handwritten envelope in the mail from a famous actor or producer, and to be privy to some personal information, like their email address. Obviously I can’t use any of that information outside of work, or even really talk about it, but it does feel a little bit cool to know it anyway. In membership, I’m usually stuck at the office, but most of the major donor team also gets to do some cool work travel to visit with prospective donors and attend fundraising events with celebrities. Also, we are located in Washington, DC, and we will sometimes get random perks like free tickets to an event at the White House.
What strengths do you think are necessary for someone to be successful at this job?
Patience and friendliness are really important when you’re on the phone with a donor, because you want to make sure they feel appreciated and valued. After all, even if they’re only donating $15, all those little $15 gifts add up and eventually allow the organization to pay your salary. You also need to be able to distance yourself from the work a little bit. When someone is mad about a glitch on the website, and they yell at you about it, you can’t take their anger personally.
What’s the best piece of advice you can give someone who’s looking to pursue this as a career?
Be willing to start at the bottom and work your way up. I was an intern first, and a lot of higher-ups in my office had similar experiences of being hired after an internship and then moving up one promotion at a time. I’d also recommend focusing on nonprofits that really focus on a cause you care about. It’s much easier to deal with the negative aspects of the job if you can confidently say you’re contributing to cause that really matters to you. The nonprofit sector is probably not the place to look if you’re trying to make a six-figure salary, but working on something meaningful and close to your heart can definitely be worth it.
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