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Archive for October 2009

A Recession-Era Nonprofit Job Search Success Story

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The following is my final guest blog post for Idealist’s 2009 Nonprofit Career Month, wrapping up this week. For dozens of posts from a range of fabulous nonprofiteers, visit the Nonprofit Career Month Blog.

Once upon a time, there was a securely employed nonprofit staff member, drawing a good salary and benefits doing things she loved to do for an organization she adored with colleagues she would have given a kidney to, gladly, had any of them needed one. But something was missing: her family. She knew that she would never be truly happy as long as she was separated from them by thousands of miles. So she journeyed back to her homeland…unemployed.

It’s a true story—namely mine. And as Nonprofit Career Month wraps up, it occurred to me that my job search might serve as an encouraging fable—or a cautionary tale—to other nonprofit job seekers, whether first-timers, sector-switchers, or just hardy fools like me who say “recession be damned, I quit.”

I can’t promise that my experience is at all typical or replicable. But caveats aside, here’s the advice that worked for me…and what didn’t.

Some background: During college and grad school, I completed 5 internships in various nonprofits, worked abroad full-time for a few months, put in a few summers at a candy shop, and had logged only 15 months of continuous, full-time employment before beginning my job search. That put me solidly in the “entry-level” category. My experience: communications and fundraising. My passions: animal welfare and fundraising. My timeline: it’s been two months since I landed in Seattle. My goal: to get a job that I could live on, without backsliding too much in terms of salary or title.

What didn’t work

1. Long-distance job searching.
I started applying for jobs in Seattle before I got here. I submitted at least 10 applications…and got zero interviews. There are some tricks to it, but ultimately I decided I was better off relocating first and then looking.

2. “It’s a numbers game.”
We’ve all heard stories of job-seekers who applied for hundreds of jobs without scoring a single interview. And we’ve all heard that “it doesn’t matter how many other people apply if you’re the one who gets hired.” I confess: once in Seattle, I applied for 8 jobs. Of those 8, I landed interviews with 4. That’s a 50% interview rate. Yet if I had applied to 100 jobs, I would not have gotten 50 interviews. In the nonprofit sector, jobs are wildly diverse, and passion matters. So if you find 100 jobs you’re passionate about, either you don’t understand the job…or you’re starting to confuse passion with desperation.

3. “If you build up your personal brand right, employers will be calling you.”
Applications themselves took up only a few hours of my job search each week. I spent easily twice as much time on Twitter, my new blog, Brazen Careerist, LinkedIn, and other sites, building up my “personal brand” and trying to become a recognizable face in the sea of job candidates. One prospective employer said in an interview that he’d found my Twitter feed…and liked it. But no one fanned a contract in my face just because I tweeted something witty. (In fact, I believed before this, and still do, that personal branding is a lie.)

What worked

1. “If you find the perfect job, make yourself the perfect candidate.”
I found a new résumé format that made my application more readable and attractive. I was selective about the jobs I applied to, even if it meant going a week with no new applications. And even if I didn’t prepare every application as meticulously as I should have, I carefully customized the cover letter and résumé for each. And once I began doing all that, I actually started landing interviews. If I had to bet on anything that made the difference in my job search, it was that trifecta of readability, selectivity, and customization.

2. Dumb luck.
My first interview came about because I stayed up all night to finish and submit the application. There wasn’t even a deadline mentioned in the Craigslist ad. I was just crazy about the job. But it turned out that the organization had a 24-hour-on-call mentality, and the hiring manager was impressed with the 6 AM time stamp on my email. I would say this is another score for passion, which I mentioned above. But had the hiring manager not cared about my all-nighter, I would have been passed over for someone with more experience. I was told as much in the interview.

Another interview came about because I included a cover letter with my web form application, which apparently no one else did. I did this because I was taught always to include a cover letter. Again, I would say this means “always go above and beyond what’s asked for,” or even “always include a cover letter,” but if the hiring manager had been the type to be annoyed by extra materials in the application, mine would probably have been tossed. Instead, my surprise cover letter conveyed passion, which led to an interview…and a second…and a third.

The wild card

1. “It’s all about who you know.”
I’m not a networking fan. I passed up networking events when I arrived in Seattle; I neglected to set up informational interviews; I forgot to call my aunt’s friend who used to work at Microsoft. But after my third interview mentioned above, my dad suggested I send him my résumé to email to his colleague’s wife, who used to work at the organization.

I balked. “Dad,” I said, “this isn’t the era of patronage anymore. I got the interviews because of my own merit. I don’t want it to look like I need insider help to be a strong candidate. Plus, she doesn’t even know me! What would she possibly say that could help?”

My dad shrugged. “Well, think about it,” he said.”

So I gnashed my teeth over it a little more and finally sent him my (customized) résumé. I figured that was it.

But when I got the call a few days later with the job offer, one of the first things the HR person said to me was, “We received a very impressive letter from [Dad’s colleague’s wife] about you.” I can’t say for sure whether it made a difference in my being hired. But if I had to do it again, I’d use that connection in a heartbeat.

My story has an idyllic ending (or is it a beginning?). I’m back with my family in the region I love. And after seven weeks of job-hunting, I was offered a position that draws on my fundraising experience, with a more-than-livable salary and impressive title, for a compelling cause, in a highly-regarded organization whose employees sing the praises of their workplace.

In the recession-era job search, I know I’m luckier than most. But since two friends have both landed their dream jobs in the past two months, I also know I’m not alone in my luck. So if I can share it with you in the form of advice, thoughts, or a glance at your résumé (I’ll even send you the format I scored with), please let me know: Elizabeth dot clawson at gmail dot com. After all, a cautionary tale does no good if it goes unheeded, and a success story isn’t really one until it creates success for someone else.

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Written by eclawson

October 26, 2009 at 12:11 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

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How to hijack a sector

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How to hijack a sector
I was thrilled to see a recent op-ed in Nonprofit Quarterly, penned by (full disclosure) my former boss and exhorting nonprofits to involve themselves in the health care debate. Advocacy itself is intimidating to many nonprofit leaders, both for legal reasons (yes, it’s legal) and personal ones (yes, you must be assertive). Faced with this double hurdle, nonprofit leaders must not only engage in advocacy on behalf of their clients, communities, and sectors, but must also prod their peers to do the same.
Yet advocacy still has a long way to go to fix a glitch of terminology that has snared the sector. The health care reform debate, raging in the houses of Congress and houses of citizens alike, not only dominates and polarizes news coverage, but—more relevant to our sector—it loads a new set of baggage on the name “nonprofit.” It has hijacked “nonprofit,” sweeping it to new recognition among news consumers, which in theory is good. But it has done so in a context saturated with uncertainty, partisanship, even hostility, and in this way the name of our sector is being slowly poisoned, if not intentionally.
When journalists throw around “nonprofit” in the context of health care reform, it often adds to the confusion rather than alleviating it. Take a recent Washington Post article, “Health-Care Cooperatives Can Work.” The article uses “nonprofit” 11 times to describe the merits of a health-care cooperative such as Germany’s. If a reader of this article was relatively unfamiliar with nonprofits, she would learn the following about them:
1) Some nonprofits provide health care.
2) Nonprofits such as Kaiser and Blue Cross/Blue Shield are wealthy organizations that pay large executive salaries.
3)  Nonprofit involvement in health care reform can help keep costs low.
While all three observations may be true, they do little to explain to readers what nonprofits do, aside from health care, hypergenerous salaries, and getting dragged into politics.
Consider an opposing WaPo article, “North Dakota Scandal Raises Concerns About Health Co-op Route.” “Nonprofit” appears five times, none of which are particularly clear. From this article, a reader would learn that:
1) Blue Cross/Blue Shield is a nonprofit. (Whatever that is.)
2) The cooperative model would create nonprofit health plans. (Whatever those are.)
3) Health-care nonprofit executives make too much money. (Greedy bastards.)
A more straightforward Reuters article, “U.S. public health option gathers steam,” again throws around the term in unhelpful ways, such as:
“Van Hollen predicted a government-run health insurance plan, which would offer consumers a nonprofit alternative to private health insurance companies, would be included in the final health reform bill from Congress.”
“All three bills in the U.S. House of Representatives and one of two Senate bills call for some sort of nonprofit health insurance program overseen by the federal government.”
“The Senate Finance Committee’s bill, viewed as a leading proposal…allows for nonprofit private cooperatives, which proponents say would meet Obama’s goal of providing competition to private firms.”
If I were a news consumer with no describable understanding of the nonprofit sector, I would have no greater knowledge of it after reading these (and many other) stories. Granted, that’s not the purpose of writing them. However, as nonprofit supporters and leaders, we must be aware of this new context for our sector’s name. And we must vigilant about explaining our real work in accessible terms whenever possible. The problem, at its core, is the same one that spurs discussions about changing the name of the sector. The term “nonprofit” is a poor fit for the work we do. It’s sterile and largely meaningless to those outside the sector.
However, where the debate actually clarifies the term “nonprofit,” especially what it means in the context of health-care reform, it does our sector a service. Take the Reno News & Review piece “A single-payer system would be best,” which offers about as clear an explanation as they come:
“A nonprofit model would still allow insurance companies to stay in business and even to make a profit. But because nonprofits don’t have shareholders and must demonstrate that they provide a public good, they do not have the incentive to drive up short-term profits on behalf of shareholders by adopting practices such as denying coverage to “risky” patients at the expense of their clients. Any bill that does not provide one or both of these provisions is a statement that the goal of health care in America will continue to be profit for insurance companies.”
And this, from the WaPo opinion piece “D.C. health reform in one simple step:”
“Many people do not realize that CareFirst is a nonprofit insurance provider. In the District, the company operates under a federal charter requiring it to serve as “a charitable and benevolent institution” whose assets are owned by the public. With its 2008 legislation, the D.C. Council determined that it was time to hold the company accountable to that public.”
These examples stand out not because they cast nonprofits in a favorable light—bias, whether positive or negative, tarnishes the impartiality of news coverage—but because they explain exactly why a nonprofit plan is a good or bad idea. In doing so, they educate readers about nonprofits, though it may not be the primary goal of the stories.
More importantly, however, this two-pronged result demonstrates  that the journalists understand nonprofits. And the better journalists understand nonprofits, the better they can convey their understanding to news consumers, allowing news consumers—who are also consumers of nonprofit services—to make informed decisions about their support for nonprofits.
The surge in news coverage of “nonprofit health care” options, therefore, is not just a health care issue, or a health-care nonprofit issue, but an issue of importance to the entire nonprofit sector, and well worth our vigilant monitoring.

I was thrilled to see a recent op-ed in Nonprofit Quarterly, penned by (full disclosure) my former boss and exhorting nonprofits to involve themselves in the health care debate. Advocacy itself is intimidating to many nonprofit leaders, both for legal reasons (yes, it’s legal) and personal ones (yes, you must be assertive). Faced with this double hurdle, nonprofit leaders must not only engage in advocacy on behalf of their clients, communities, and sectors, but must also prod their peers to do the same.

Yet advocacy still has a long way to go to fix a glitch of terminology that has snared the sector. The health care reform debate, raging in the houses of Congress and houses of citizens alike, not only dominates and polarizes news coverage, but—more relevant to our sector—it loads a new set of baggage on the name “nonprofit.” It has hijacked “nonprofit,” sweeping it to new recognition among news consumers, which in theory is good. But it has done so in a context saturated with uncertainty, partisanship, even hostility, and in this way the name of our sector is being slowly poisoned, if not intentionally.

When news stories throw around “nonprofit” in the context of health care reform, it often adds to the confusion rather than alleviating it. Take a recent Washington Post article, “Health-Care Cooperatives Can Work.” The article uses “nonprofit” 11 times to describe the merits of a health-care cooperative such as Germany’s. If a reader of this article was relatively unfamiliar with nonprofits, she would learn the following about them:

  1. Some nonprofits provide health care.
  2. Nonprofits such as Kaiser and Blue Cross/Blue Shield are wealthy organizations that pay large executive salaries.
  3. Nonprofit involvement in health care reform can help keep costs low.

While all three observations may be true, they do little to explain to readers what nonprofits do, aside from health care, hypergenerous salaries, and getting dragged into politics.

Consider another WaPo article, “North Dakota Scandal Raises Concerns About Health Co-op Route.” “Nonprofit” appears five times, none of which are particularly clear. From this article, a reader would learn that:

  1. Blue Cross/Blue Shield is a nonprofit. (Whatever that is.)
  2. The cooperative model would create nonprofit health plans. (Whatever those are.)
  3. Health-care nonprofit executives make too much money. (Greedy bastards.)

A more straightforward Reuters article, “U.S. public health option gathers steam,” again throws around the term in unhelpful ways, such as:

  • “Van Hollen predicted a government-run health insurance plan, which would offer consumers a nonprofit alternative to private health insurance companies, would be included in the final health reform bill from Congress.”
  • “All three bills in the U.S. House of Representatives and one of two Senate bills call for some sort of nonprofit health insurance program overseen by the federal government.”
  • “The Senate Finance Committee’s bill, viewed as a leading proposal…allows for nonprofit private cooperatives, which proponents say would meet Obama’s goal of providing competition to private firms.”

If I were a news consumer with no describable understanding of the nonprofit sector, I would have no greater knowledge of it after reading these (and many other) stories. Granted, that’s not the purpose of writing them. However, as nonprofit supporters and leaders, we must be aware of this new context for our sector’s name. And we must vigilant about explaining our real work in accessible terms whenever possible. The problem, at its core, is the same one that spurs discussions about changing the name of the sector. “Nonprofit” is a poor fit for the work we do–indeed, almost the polar opposite of it. It’s sterile, and largely meaningless to those outside the sector.

However, where the debate actually clarifies the term “nonprofit,” especially what it means in the context of health-care reform, it does our sector a service. Take the Reno News & Review piece “A single-payer system would be best,” which offers about as clear an explanation as they come:

  • “A nonprofit model would still allow insurance companies to stay in business and even to make a profit. But because nonprofits don’t have shareholders and must demonstrate that they provide a public good, they do not have the incentive to drive up short-term profits on behalf of shareholders by adopting practices such as denying coverage to “risky” patients at the expense of their clients. Any bill that does not provide one or both of these provisions is a statement that the goal of health care in America will continue to be profit for insurance companies.”

And this, from the WaPo opinion piece “D.C. health reform in one simple step:”

  • “Many people do not realize that CareFirst is a nonprofit insurance provider. In the District, the company operates under a federal charter requiring it to serve as ‘a charitable and benevolent institution’ whose assets are owned by the public. With its 2008 legislation, the D.C. Council determined that it was time to hold the company accountable to that public.”

These examples stand out not because they cast nonprofits in a favorable light—bias, whether positive or negative, tarnishes the impartiality of news coverage—but because they explain exactly why a nonprofit plan is a good or bad idea. In doing so, they educate readers about nonprofits, though it may not be the primary goal of the stories.

More importantly, however, this two-pronged result demonstrates  that the journalists understand nonprofits. And the better journalists understand nonprofits, the better they can convey their understanding to news consumers, allowing news consumers—who are also consumers of nonprofit services—to make informed decisions about their support for nonprofits.

The surge in news coverage of “nonprofit health care” options, therefore, is not just a health care issue, or a health-care nonprofit issue, but an issue of importance to the entire nonprofit sector, and well worth our vigilant monitoring.

Written by eclawson

October 22, 2009 at 8:26 PM

Introducing the Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers Alliance

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For much of my nonprofit career, I’ve been following some of the sector’s rising stars–the young nonprofit professionals who not only bring their best to their work, but also blog about it so others can learn and converse along the way. Now this cohort has formalized and today is inaugurated as the Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers Alliance, the brainchild of Allison Jones.

Here’s the Alliance roster so far:

I’m tickled to be part of this alliance, because we millennial nonprofit bloggers (it’s a niche, you know) look out for each other anyway, and it’s about time we made it official. Kind of like a polygamous engagement party for the blogosphere. But less scandalous.

My hope is that this alliance will become a conduit for meaty discussion on the nonprofit sector, drawing from each of our areas of expertise and sharing flavors across them. For example, I’ve already contributed two guest posts to the Nonprofit Career Month blog, but I’m sure my own topic–the intersection of nonprofits and news media–has a lot to learn from Allison’s blog on nonprofit careers. If other young nonprofit professionals are inspired to add their own blogging voices to the conversation, it’ll only get richer from there.

So to tackle one of Allison’s prompts for my inaugural post: why am in the sector? I’m a nonprofit sector devotee because it’s a unique and irreplaceable safety net. I’ve worked for public policy shops, refugee services, a think tank, a dispute resolution center, and a canvassing group–all nonprofits, all vital. Nonprofits take on challenges and responsibilities that no one else will. For this kind of work–the hungry-feeding, back-clothing, soul-ministering, scientific researching, arts-fostering,  cause-advocating kind–the public sector is too snarled in red tape and the private sector is too entranced by  profit. Nonprofits have the government’s sense of responsibility and business’ innovation, and it’s a perfect pairing. We do thankless work, and more with less, and have been for hundreds of years before “nonprofit sector” was even a name. Who wouldn’t want to be part of this?

And the best part yet? We get to write about it.

Written by eclawson

October 12, 2009 at 11:16 PM

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The case for adjectives

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“Simplify,” one of my undergrad professors used to say. “Stop sprinkling your writing with modifiers that mean nothing. If your nouns need adjectives and your verbs need adverbs, they’re not strong enough. Don’t modify. just use stronger ones.”

So I did. Years later, I’m still leery of adverbs, though I’ve learned some adjectives pull their own weight. When writing about nonprofits, however, modifiers are more than welcome.

Our sector is a vast and diverse one. “Nonprofit” embraces everything from massive institutions with thousands of employees to tiny agencies run by one part-time volunteer. And in between, there are countless variations. So when news stories use “nonprofits” to refer to a specific subset of nonprofits, it’s often both inaccurate and–depending on the topic–damaging to the sector’s reputation.

Take, for example, one of the major stories in nonprofit news this week. The Chronicle of Philanthropy released its survey on nonprofit executive compensation (covering 2008) and found, among other things, that CEOs at the largest nonprofits received salary increases during the recession.

And several news outlets that picked up this story said just that:

Some, on the other hand, had accurate stories but used headlines that did not make the crucial distinction between nonprofits whose executives received raises and nonprofits that make up the majority of the sector and that remainappropriately cost-conscious:

(The Chronicle’s own headline on its Managing blog doesn’t mention salary increases, instead focusing on the finding’s flip side: Nearly 30% of Nonprofit Leaders Took a Pay Cut This Year; Pay in 2008 Grew Quickly.)

Whatever journalistic merits of the headlines in the second set, the  fact remains that they leave out a crucial adjective: large. As in, “CEO salaries at large nonprofits up in 2008,” etc.

When donors, volunteers, and other supporters read the second set of headlines, how does it looks for their investments in nonprofit work? As the Chronicle attests in its blog post about the study, “given the severity of the downturn, it is surprising that two-thirds of the organizations are not reducing pay for their top executive.” I hope readers don’t just skim news headlines. Fortunately, donors and other nonprofit supporters are more likely to read at least the first paragraph in these articles, and to discover there that the headline (and the study’s main finding) doesn’t apply to all nonprofits. But it’s those readers unconnected to nonprofits, and least likely to read beyond the headline, that we need to be mindful of. They get their perceptions of nonprofits from headlines like these. And that’s unnerving.

Granted, it’s more unnerving when large nonprofits give their executives raises during a recession. But that’s for another post.

What do you think? Are headlines’ sweeping generalizations about nonprofits denting the sector’s reputation? Or are they effective teasers that draw in readers?

Written by eclawson

October 7, 2009 at 5:09 PM