Nonprofit Periscope

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On being a delinquent

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I know, I’m coming up on the five-month mark of the yawning gap in time since my last post, and all I can muster by way of concern is eh. I took the URL for this blog off my Twitter profile long ago. I left it off the business cards I just had printed. I don’t mention it in any professional bio. This is a dying blog.

And I’m okay with that.

I started this blog in the fall of 2009 when, newly relocated and unemployed, I had plenty of time to blog and the burning desire to stay connected to the nonprofit infrastructure blogosphere that had become like family. (Okay, not family, but really cool virtual colleagues.) Fast-forward to today, and things have, not surprisingly, changed. My interest in all things nonprofit is being supersede by other passions:

1. Cello. Those business cards I had printed? They’re for my budding career as a freelance cellist. My next recital is in May, my first paid solo gig is in June, and my band is playing a show in August. My career as a cellist predates my career in nonprofits by a good decade or so, and I’m nothing short of psyched to see the former take off, even at the expense of the latter.

2. Doing fun stuff with my boyfriend. Decades from now, I’d regret not competing in duathlons, visiting the Hoh Rainforest, and taking a kayaking trip around the San Juans, but I highly doubt I’d think, “Man, I wish I’d blogged more.”

3. My board of directors role. I’ve been on the founding board of a local association for the past year or so, and it makes my nonprofit background newly relevant, but in different ways than before.

Also, I’ve been cheating on my blog with Twitter. It’s so much easier. True story.

The good news is, I’m leaving blogging to the pros. The Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers Alliance continues to wow me with its cutting-edge questions and content (long after my discreet exit from the group, back when I knew my blogging days were waning). Other nonprofit blogs keep me up to speed on the sector–there are so many in my Google Reader feed I can’t even remember them all. I think I get more out of commenting on the posts of all these smart folks than I would from writing my own posts right now.

Thanks for reading, and hopefully I’ll see you around the Twitters and the comments.

-Elizabeth

Written by eclawson

April 21, 2011 at 3:06 PM

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Sometimes it does hurt to ask.

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As a development professional, I think of my home mailbox as my little fundraising lab. Every week I get a flurry of donation appeals from groups I’ve given to in the past, as well as some I haven’t, and on the elevator ride up I run a quick triage:

  • Maybe
  • No
  • Why did I even get this?

For months I’ve been getting appeals from a global nonprofit whose work I respect. They focus on a single condition, and their results are both visible and inspiring.  My little cousin was born with this condition, so I have a personal connection to the nonprofit. I’m an ideal annual-level donor for them. And they seem to know it, because they mail me an appeal EVERY MONTH.

As fundraisers like to say, the worst that can happen is that a prospect says no. But that’s not really the worst that can happen.

We’ve all gone through this: you get a donation appeal, you send back $25, you mentally check it off your to-do list…and then they ask you again. Often, you get the next appeal–from the same group, remember–before you get an acknowledgment for your first gift. And when that second one comes, you think, “Wait, didn’t I just give these guys money? What do they want now?”

Which is exactly what I thought every month as that aforementioned group’s logo peeked up at me from my stack of mail. Finally, my escape came: an appeal that said “Give now and we’ll never ask you for another dollar!” Yes sir, I thought. That’s exactly what I want. They got another $20 and I got a sigh of relief. Freedom! No more guilt at recycling the envelope, unopened, with the disfigured child on the front, a single tear sliding down his face.

Until the next month. You know what happened. Cue disfigured-weeping-child envelope with enclosed fundraising appeal. Cue disbelief, perhaps naive. This time, I didn’t just say no. I felt officially alienated.

There are many reasons this organization could have sent me an appeal immediately after I literally checked the box that said “Please remove me from mailing list.” Among them:

  • Their administrative staff hasn’t entered my mailing preference in the donor management database yet
  • I’m on more than one of their mailing lists
  • They always ask please-remove-me donors one more time
  • They figure it can’t hurt to ask again

Of those reasons, only the last two are reprehensible, even disrespectful. No, my hand didn’t skid across the please-remove-me box by accident. Yes, I thought you meant it when you said you’d never ask me again. I feel like whoever’s on the other end of that trifold two-color mailer is definitely not listening to me.

As a fundraiser, I understand the need to ask. But as a donor, I’m baffled by the lack of comprehension that I don’t want mail from this group anymore. My fellow fundraisers–and I ask this purely out of curiosity–what possible reasons do you have NOT to listen to your donors?

Whether you’re a donor, a fundraiser, or both, you probably have experience with this. Do you agree that sometimes it does hurt to ask?

Written by eclawson

November 11, 2010 at 4:06 PM

As if you need a reason to be a nonprofit rockstar

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I’m a Millennial, and I like my information bite-sized.  But trying to learn things that way–mostly online–can be a piecemeal effort, and at heart I’m more old-fashioned: I love books. So I was tickled when I heard Rosetta Thurman and Trista Harris were crafting a book of advice on nonprofit careers. The result: How to Become a Nonprofit Rockstar, which debuted today in both e-book and print formats.

Full disclosure: I was invited to read and review an advance copy, and if you click the link to the book above and decide to buy it from there, I receive a small portion of the sale price. Come on, though. I studied ethics at Oxford. I won’t fawn over a book for a kickback; I’ll fawn over it because it deserves said fawning. Luckily this one does.

I’ll keep this review brisk, because I like long book reviews about as much as you do, and your time is better spent reading the book than reading my blog post about the book.

Reasons to read How to Become a Nonprofit Rockstar:

  • Curation. It rounds up the most reliable nonprofit career tips from across the Internet–expert blogs, Twitter, news interviews, etc.–and presents them in a coherent collection that’s easier to navigate and notate than that folder of bookmarks I painstakingly saved. This alone makes me a fan.
  • Relevance. It references up-to-date career search tips, emphasizing social media and other techniques that are still crossing over into the HR mainstream and therefore benefit from explanation.
  • Well-roundedness. It includes tips on managing your finances, work-life balance, and other things that seem peripheral to a career but affect it more they get credit for.
  • Ambition. It lists ways to advance your career no matter what phase you’re in: volunteer, intern, entry-level, mid-level, senior, etc. Even if you’re already the boss, you can always get better at it (as both Rosetta and Trista know personally, since they’re now bosses themselves).
  • Details. It suggests exact phrasing for milestones such as negotiating a raise. I know, I’m not in it for the money either, but tip #41 alone is worth the price of the entire book several times over.

Rockstar’s weak spots have already been observed by Trina Isakson, and I agree with several of them, including:

  • The book feels written for Millennials. I would add that this makes sense given the often fledgling careers of people in my age group. But the recession has sent people of most generations into the job hunt, many of whom who could benefit from Rockstar if it had a less age-specific feel.
  • As an introvert, I also find some of the imagery and tips better suited to extroverts.

In addition, as a diehard reader of Rosetta’s blog and a catcher-up to Trista’s, I realized with a jolt that some chapters were recycled almost wholesale from existing–and free–content on said blogs. On one hand, this briefly made me feel like a sucker. On the other, let’s be honest: it’s efficient. Like I said, the real gem of this book is its accomplishment in curating content that is far more useful as a collection than as isolated bits in cyberspace.

That aside, Rockstar is a book worth reading and sharing. For me, it came along at the perfect time: in danger of drifting into career doldrums for a few weeks, I snuck a few pages in my cubicle this afternoon and hit the list of ideas for tip #32: “Fall back in love with your job.” Thank you, Rosetta and Trista. It’s about time I did.

Written by eclawson

November 1, 2010 at 9:25 PM

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More with less, less with less, or…zilch?

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There’s nothing like a recession to teach everyone to do more with less. And as we’re still in the (maybe improving) throes of a downturn, the Nonprofit Millennial Blogging Alliance chose as our next group topic this very idea–specifically, what nonprofits can teach businesses about doing more with less. Our inspiration is Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business by Do Something CEO Nancy Lublin. So while you should really be reading the book, until it arrives from Amazon, you can read our collection of posts! Everyone wins.

Any nonprofit employee can reel off dozens of examples of their organization doing more with less. But I think it’s something of a red herring. Let’s not kid ourselves: nonprofits have been doing more with less for the entire 400-year history of our sector. Whether the economy is in the tank or through the roof, it’s no stretch to say that nonprofits are the most efficient organizations in the country. In fact, it’s almost arrogant to call ourselves “nonprofits”–as in, “Look at all this good we can do with laughably little money! What, you need venture capital, private sector?” (Granted, some nonprofits have more cash than they need; it’s not unheard of to be overfunded and understaffed while scaling up a program. But that’s the exception rather than the rule.)

So doing more with less, while efficient and industrious, isn’t the story. The story, in fact, is about doing less with less.

It doesn’t make sense, does it? Who would want to do less with less? Where’s the achievement in that? The trick, however, is not doing less, period; it’s doing less by yourself.

If the industrial revolution taught us anything, it was about the stunning efficiency of the assembly line. Each worker on the line did one task: attach a hose, for example. That one task wasn’t enough to build an entire car. But hundreds of people doing one thing, and doing it perfectly, built car after car after car. It’s not just mechanical production that demonstrates this concept. Specialists in the animal world work together in symbiotic relationships to accomplish tasks they can’t do alone. (It also makes for cute pictures of hapless birds perched on giant ungulates.)

This is where nonprofits diverge from their counterparts in the private sector. Nonprofits can do less with less–but with greater results–when they specialize and collaborate.

Thanks to the Foundation Center and the Lodestar Foundation, we can search a database of collaboration examples that showcase various types of collaboration across the country. I’ve been watching this concept in action over the past year as Washington Nonprofits, a new state association, has been crystallizing in my home state.  (Full disclosure: I’m on its founding board. But that doesn’t make it any less of a solid example.) Washington Nonprofits isn’t being built from scratch; instead, it’s forming through a more Frankensteinian process of existing groups contributing their specialties to a larger purpose. For years Washington’s nonprofit sector was served by a handful of infrastructure organizations that each focused on a geographic area, and some on a facet of nonprofit work, such as volunteerism or leadership training.  Certainly the state’s nonprofits were lucky to have them, but their fractured efforts still weren’t the same as a statewide association that could respond to the needs of the entire state sector and represent it at the national level. Recognizing this, in 2009, leaders from these organizations decided it was time to launch a joint effort. The result is an association that blends the skills of multiple leaders to benefit organizations that would otherwise be part of the turf of one at a time.

And turf is the operative word. Specialized nonprofit collaboration works when leaders refuse to get dragged into turf warfare.  Turf warfare certainly isn’t unique to nonprofits.  In the private sector it’s called competition, and is considered a driver of innovation. Ditto for biology, where the concept of survival of the fittest originated.  It’s easy to see why competition would be celebrated in these spheres.  Apple and Microsoft, Amazon and Barnes & Noble, Domino’s and Pizza Hut…don’t their constant turf wars (or market share wars) give us better and better products?

Of course.  But can you imagine what Adonis of a mobile phone Apple and Microsoft could come up with if they actually worked together? Forget just buying it…I think I’d want to bear its little electronic offspring.

Nonprofits may never get credit for anything as sexy as an Applesoft phone. But while businesses are struggling against each other to do more with less, nonprofits at least have a perfect opportunity to do less alone and more together. Embrace the beauty of less with less: Stop trying to squeeze water from a stone. Find someone who needs your rock and has a well.

Written by eclawson

July 13, 2010 at 8:33 PM

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Subsector-switching, part III: Tera Wozniak Qualls

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This is the third installation in a series of guests posts on subsector-switching by members of the Nonprofit Millennial Blogging Alliance.  (Catch up on part I here and part II here.) Tera Wozniak Qualls is a nonprofit professional, community member, and the original social citizen in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Check out her blog and follow her on Twitter.

What subsectors do you distinguish within the nonprofit community?
The nonprofit community has many subsectors, even within general sectors.  If I had to name the broad sectors I would include: human services, health, education, foundation/philanthropy, arts and culture, environmental, religion, and international.

What subsectors have you worked in so far?  How did you transition between them?
In my career I have worked for both the education and human services subsectors.  While getting my bachelor’s degree I worked for a United Way focused on human services programs.  After college I got offered the opportunity to work for a university nonprofit academic center. I moved to the academic center to exercise my love for working with multiple nonprofit organizations.

Do you consider yourself more strongly drawn toward a specific subsector/cause (such as homelessness and housing issues) or to a specific nonprofit function (such as fundraising, outreach, etc.)?
Although my career has been short I have thought a lot about this question.  So far, I have decided I am more draw to a particular nonprofit function.  Program management allows me to use all my strengths.

Do you want/plan to return to a specific subsector in the future?  Are you doing anything on the side now to keep your knowledge of that subsector fresh?
I sometimes think about returning to human services and would if I found a strong program management opportunity.  Currently I am working on developing my leadership skills and knowledge of the foundation/philanthropy sector.

Do nonprofits lend themselves more easily to this kind of transition among subsectors around than the public or private sectors do?
I actually think it is harder to move among and between subsectors in the nonprofit sector.  Although there are many subsectors that require the same skills, passion for a cause and interest in hiring someone who has knowledge about your cause is typically considered.  Networks in specific sectors also plays a strong role in hiring an individual or moving between sectors.  However, some roles, such as fundraiser are more mobile.

Many students or entry-level professionals interested in nonprofit work are faced with a choice: take a menial job or volunteer position for an organization or cause they care deeply about, or take a more lucrative position in the public or private sector that uses their specific skills (writing, research, advocacy, etc.).  If you were advising someone on a career move in this situation, which would you recommend they do?  Is there another option?
I would recommend taking the position you feel you will be happier in.  If you decide to take a position in the public sector just for the salary you will spend time looking for ways to fuel your need for working in the nonprofit sector and hating the job.  If you are tailored to work in the nonprofit sector, go for it. You will find ways to make extra salary, and there is potential for other benefits outside of salary.  Some might actually mean working less hours during the week, which could provide you the opportunity to work a second job.

What advice do you have for mid-career nonprofiteers who want to try a different subsector?
I would suggest volunteering in a sector you are looking to switch to before switching.  Although the sectors are all considered nonprofit they are all much different and you should be sure about your switch before making one you might regret.  On the other hand, you are young and have a lot of career left.  Making a switch could mean an optimal learning position and an opportunity to possible meet someone or gain a network that will lead you to your dream job.

Written by eclawson

June 22, 2010 at 8:35 PM

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Subsector-switching, part II: Elisa M. Ortiz

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This is the second in a series on what I call “subsector-switching”–working in one subsector of nonprofits and then changing to another, for any of a variety of reasons.  I asked the Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers Alliance for thoughts on subsector switching, and this is the first guest post on the topic, from Elisa M. Ortiz. Elisa is a dedicated activist and organizer for social change with extensive experience developing and leading advocacy and civic engagement campaigns, working with diverse grassroots constituencies, utilizing various social marketing and outreach tools, and training, educating and empowering thousands of people. She currently works at Smart Growth America as the State Campaigns Director, leading state policy reform efforts around transportation and land use. To learn more and connect with Elisa, check out her blog Onward and Upward or follow her on Twitter.

What subsectors do you distinguish within the nonprofit community?
I think of subsectors in two different ways: one based on issue area and one based on mission focus. These aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. In terms of issue focus there are nonprofits covering everything from homeless issues, to women’s rights to transportation and land use (like my own organization) to education to health care and much, much more. On the mission-focused side there are think tanks, advocacy organizations, direct service nonprofits, grant makers and others.

What subsectors have you worked in so far?  How did you transition between them?
Within the issue area subsectors, I’ve worked in various nonprofits including two different women’s rights and reproductive justice organizations, in low income housing, nonprofit infrastructure and now in smart growth and transportation. Transitioning between these subsectors hasn’t been that difficult for me. I’m a fast learner and as soon as I accept a position in a new subsector I try to read and absorb as much as I can. I then spend the first few weeks of a new job continuing to read, listen, learn and ask tons of questions. One can generally ‘get’ the terminology, key issues and basic themes pretty quickly, especially if the new job offers good training and on-boarding for new employees.

Do you consider yourself more strongly drawn toward a specific subsector/cause (such as homelessness and housing issues) or to a specific nonprofit function (such as fundraising, outreach, etc.)?
I definitely find myself more drawn to my job function – organizing and outreach – more than any particular subsector. I find that moving between subsectors allows me to learn about a lot of different issues and still gain skills and experience as an organizer and strategic planner.

Do you want/plan to return to a specific subsector in the future?  Are you doing anything on the side now to keep your knowledge of that subsector fresh?
Honestly, there isn’t any particular subsector that I’m looking to return to in the future (though I’m not opposed to returning to any of them). I’m looking to advance my career and I’m flexible as to the type of organization that can help me do that.

Do nonprofits lend themselves more easily to this kind of transition among subsectors around than the public or private sectors do?
I’m not sure I can answer this since I’ve never worked in either the public or private sectors. But if I had to guess, I’d say that the private sector probably provides more flexibility in transitioning between subsectors. My take is that corporations are focused on finding the right person with the right skills for the job and that skills are transferable across sectors. I think many government jobs are highly specific and focused and therefore it may be harder to transition between departments.


Many students or entry-level professionals interested in nonprofit work are faced with a choice: take a menial job or volunteer position for an organization or cause they care deeply about, or take a more lucrative position in the public or private sector that uses their specific skills (writing, research, advocacy, etc.).  If you were advising someone on a career move in this situation, which would you recommend they do?  Is there another option?
This is a tough question. If someone decides to take a job in a nonprofit she cares about, she also needs to make sure she’s going to get something out of it besides ‘making a difference’ – it should provide professional development (formal or informal), allow that person to learn new skills and if possible, provide direct opportunities for advancement. If those things don’t exist, he or she will end up like so many young nonprofit idealists: burned out and forced away from the work that he or she loves.

What advice do you have for mid-career nonprofiteers who want to try a different subsector?
Go for it! Some job roles may lend themselves to subsector switching more easily than others (for instance, I think government relations/policy jobs may be more difficult to transition between issue areas), but even if it seems difficult I think getting out of your issue area pigeonhole can only prove beneficial. If you’re transitioning between issue areas, I suggest stressing one’s skills and abilities rather than experience in that particular area. I also recommend reading up on the new issue as much as possible before any interview.
In terms of switching job roles, I think volunteering to do the work you want to do is probably the best way to gain experience. I think you may also have to accept a ‘step down’ from your current level of responsibility if you’re switching job roles entirely. But if you’re really interested in switching, its worth the extra work.

Written by eclawson

June 6, 2010 at 12:47 PM

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Subsector-switching, part I: Elizabeth Clawson

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My six-month-aversary at my new job was a few weeks ago, and after preparing for an executing my review with my boss I finally had time to sit back and think about how things are going, aside from the answers I’d put on the standard HR review form. After all, a year ago I was working in a different organization, for a different cause, and while the learning curve is fortunately steep, it imparts a touch of vertigo some days.

The biggest adjustment so far has been learning my way around a whole new subsector, or cause.  Cancer research is a far cry from the nonprofit infrastructure Kool-Aid I’d imbibed and then served to others. And I’m not the only nonprofiteer in this predicament: in the past year, several friends have also changed not only jobs, but subsectors as well. After all, while many of us start out following our passion for a specific cause, there isn’t always an open job in our dream cause when we need one. So I began wondering: how are us subsector-switchers faring, and is the phenomenon of subsector-switching a good career move or just a take-what-you-can-get kind of compromise?
I asked some of my fellow Nonprofit Millennial Blogging Alliance members to weigh in on their experiences, and I’ll post the responses in a new series on subsector switching. To kick it off, below are my own reflections to the questions I posed to the NMBA.
1. What subsectors do you distinguish within the nonprofit community?
I think along the lines of NTEE major groups. So when I talk about subsector-switching, I mean leaving a job in, say, a member benefit org for a job in a health-related org. I also like the dichotomy Mat’s Nonprofit Blog draws between caring and change groups. But that’s for another post.
2. What subsectors have you worked in so far?  How did you transition between them?
My first nonprofit job was an internship at a think tank. I’m embarrassed to admit I have no clue what subsector that would fall into. After that I interned at a couple of human services organizations and another think tank before landing at a member benefit org for two years. The only common thread between all those gigs was that I used my writing and research skills in whatever job I was doing. My focus wasn’t so much cause-related as job function-related.
3. Do you consider yourself more strongly drawn toward a specific subsector/cause (such as homelessness and housing issues) or to a specific nonprofit function (such as fundraising, outreach, etc.)?
After my two years at the member benefit organization, I drank the nonprofit infrastructure Kool-Aid big time, thanks to the mentorship of my fabulous colleagues and other nonprofiteers. The combination of whipping up a national movement and getting my sea legs in my first full-time, real world job was a heady brew. So when I decided to move back home to Seattle and went looking for another job, it was disorienting to get to know other subsectors pretty much from scratch. But I had some sold job functions under my belt–communications, fundraising, a touch of advocacy–so I was reasonably sure I’d be able to find something I a) was good at and b) enjoyed.
4. Do you want/plan to return to a specific subsector in the future?  Are you doing anything on the side now to keep your knowledge of that subsector fresh?
For the first few months of my new job with a health-related organization, I was wrapping up a contracting gig with a member benefit group (not the one I’d previously worked for), and I enjoyed getting to keep up on the nonprofit infrastructure world that way. Now I’m on the board of yet another infrastructure group, so you’d think that would keep me plugged in to the subsector I still think of as home. But it’s a struggle to make time for board work (sorry, fellow board members!) in my down time, and I can feel my infrastructure radar getting fuzzy. Still, I can see myself just keeping up with it on the side, rather than returning to infrastructure in a paid job.  Specifically, I can see myself staying in my current job for years, and if that means infrastructure will be more a hobby than a profession, I can deal with that.
5. Do nonprofits lend themselves more easily to this kind of transition among subsectors around than the public or private sectors do?
I don’t have a lot of experience with or data on this, so it’s kind of a guess. But I can see nonprofits being more flexible about hiring, taking a chance on someone who may not seem a perfect fit for the job description but who brings something new to the mix. This could mean that if you were previously working in one subsector and you’re interviewing for another, you don’t seem like a bad fit, you seem well-rounded. On the other hand, I’ve heard anecdotes about nonprofiteers getting passed over for private-sector jobs because their experience looks “soft” to some people.
6. Many students or entry-level professionals interested in nonprofit work are faced with a choice: take a menial job or volunteer position for an organization or cause they care deeply about, or take a more lucrative position in the public or private sector that uses their specific skills (writing, research, advocacy, etc.).  If you were advising someone on a career move in this situation, which would you recommend they do?  Is there another option?
A year ago, I would have recommended taking a better position outside the nonprofit sector (or in a different subsector–same idea) and then returning to nonprofits later, armed with new experience. But having jumped subsectors myself (though I’m still in a nonprofit, thank goodness), I’ve seen how hard momentum takes over. Once you get in the groove of a new sector or cause, the groove gets deeper and more comfortable. As passionate as I am about nonprofit infrastructure, my day-to-day focus is on health-related issues now. And with this in mind, I think it would be faster to climb the ladder starting from a peon position doing something you care about than to jump the track from one mindset to another, whether it’s a mindset shaped by sector or subsector.
7. What advice do you have for mid-career nonprofiteers who want to try a different subsector?
We nonprofiteers are multidimensional beings; chances are you’re already dabbling in other subsectors to begin with. Let’s say you work for a religion-related organization and you want to get into animal welfare. Do you already donate money to an animal welfare group? Volunteer with one? Know someone who works for one? That’s a natural entrée. Take whatever connection you have with the cause you’re interested in and bump it up a notch at a time. That way not only do you get a feel for what it’s like from the inside, you’ll also have a relationship established with the organization already when job openings crop up.

Written by eclawson

May 31, 2010 at 7:36 PM

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