Nonprofit career tips by and for UBC students

Along with my colleague Roselynn Verwoord, fellow Next Leaders Network steering committee member, I presented on the topic of careers in the nonprofit sector at the latest University of British Columbia Student Leadership Conference (SLC 2010). As a UBC alum, I’ve presented at this conference before – I really enjoy meeting keen students interested in career development and the nonprofit sector.

The top tip I enjoy sharing with students is how a degree does not define you. You do. I demonstrate this by sharing my main post-university jobs (high school teacher, nonprofit gala event manager, and promoter of student engaged citizenship and community-university engagement) and asking what they think my undergrad degree was in. Chemistry and Biology are generally not the first guesses.

The workshop participants brainstormed different tips and resources related to finding employment in the nonprofit sector. They came up with a pile of suggestions in a really tight period of time – many that were new to me. Learning happens in every direction.

Looking for Jobs and Volunteer Roles

Networking and Mentorship

  • Arts Tri-Mentoring/Engineering Tri-Mentoring
  • Joining Clubs/Student Associations (e.g Emerging Leaders Group)
  • Sharing experience with other volunteers
  • Me Inc. – Commerce Conference (external networking)
  • Parents and family friends
  • Volunteer in residence
  • Professors
  • Friends of friends
  • Mailing Lists/talking to people at fairs
  • Make use of relevant LinkedIn groups (Non Profit & Philanthropic Job Board) and Twitter contacts (via Andrea)
  • Research ideal potential employers and conduct an informational interview (check out a WLU informational interviewing booklet) (via Andrea)

Resumes, Cover Letter and Interviews

  • Research company before interview
  • Career services (for help)
  • Hook for cover letter – be interesting
  • Be specific to job description
  • Be unique, passionate (to certain extent)
  • Interviews –
  • be down to earth
  • practice potential q’s
  • confidence
  • Don’t’ answer questions in conventional way
  • Situation, task, action, result, transfer (technique for answering interview q’s)
  • Reveal your transferable skills
  • Be honest

Learning and Workshops

  • Mentoring Programs
  • Involvement Showcase (CSI)
  • Green Book
  • SLC 2010
  • Google
  • Events UBC Site
  • Career Days
  • Community workshops
  • Company workshops
  • Clubs
  • Go Global (Exchange)
  • Read
  • Community centers/resources
  • Research seminars
  • Research the rules are for the part of the sector in which you’re looking (do you need a specific degree?) (via mjfrombuffalo)

Things NOT to Do

  • Don’t pick something you don’t find interesting
  • Don’t lie about your passion
  • Don’t be inconsistent in your approach (e.g. volunteer work can be just as important as paid work)
  • Don’t have ANY visible content online that’s questionable. Always manage your online personal/professional brand. (via Andrea)
  • Bashing – don’t criticize another organization
  • Don’t name drop
  • No assumptions
  • Don’t ask about wages (to begin with, anyway)
  • Don’t be in it for the money
  • Don’t burn bridges
  • Don’t do it just for the sake of your resume

What a fantastic list! You can find more ideas for young nonprofit professionals in Metro Vancouver here, including common mistakes made by new-to-nonprofit job seekers.

Introducing a secret Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers Alliance

I’ve only been exploring Twitter and the blogosphere as they related to Millennials and the nonprofit sector for only a few months now – Twitter in March and blogging in June. I’ve learned a LOT in that short time and can’t believe I didn’t start sooner. And I hope I’ve contributed as well. It’s a perfect space to network for my introverted self.

So I was thrilled to be ask to be a part of an alliance of bloggers who flutter around the topics related to Millennials and the nonprofit sector. A big thanks to Allison Jones for getting the ball rolling.

Of Mutual Benefit

I first heard about the idea of a blog alliance through Problogger’s vague exposé on a secret blog alliance. The idea intrigued me, and apparently others were too. The alliance in Darren’s article was a

A small group of bloggers who’ve committed to work together in secret for the mutual benefit of all members of the alliance.

The mutually beneficial activities listed in Darren’s posts include things like commenting on and linking each others blogs, social bookmarking and tweeting, guest posts, and networking. Ideally we benefit by increasing the conversation around nonprofits and the Millennial generation by increasing readership and commenting of our blogs, as well as increasing the pressure to write well!


Well this alliance is not working in secret. Perhaps because we don’t blog for profit (on our personal blogs anyway). Maybe because of the open, sharing nature of those that work in the nonprofit sector. We haven’t really sorted out the fine details, but we’re all excited. I’m also thrilled to bring a Canadian perspective to the alliance.

Introducing the Alliance

A. Lauren Abele A. Lauren Abele (blog)
In New York, there is so much vibrancy, energy, passion, and access to the best the country has to offer. It’s the perfect landscape to work with entrepreneurs, meet people who are changing the world, and develop my passions for philanthropy, social entrepreneurship, and nonprofit management.
Elizabeth Clawson Nonprofit Periscope
Keeping an eye on news of the sector. Read one of Elizabeth’s favourite posts: No money? No problem—three free media relations tools for nonprofits (and others)
Colleen Dilenschneider Know Your Bone
My thing? Creative community engagement in nonprofit organizations.
James Elbaor Notes From the East Coast
His first passion is the not-for-profit sector. He cares deeply about social justice and the importance of community activism.
Kevin Gilnack (Nonprofits + Politics)2.0
Some areas of interest to me include nonprofit management, leadership development, workforce issues, public policy, civic engagement, business partnerships, innovation… for starters.
Trina Isakson (that’s me!) the good life | by Trina Isakson
Good articles on nonprofit capacity, community development, engaged citizenship and education. Life stories about travel, photography, music, and musings. Read one of my favourite posts: Social movements, institutions and the Millennial generation: synthesis or breakdown?
Allison Jones Entry Level Living
The personal and professional insights of a struggling college grad.Read one of Allison’s favourite posts: Are you joining a sector or joining a cause?
Elisa M. Ortiz Onward and Upward
Keeping an eye on the nonprofit sector, from the bottom up. Read one of Elisa’s favourite posts: The new leadership crisis.
Ben Sheldon an internet backwater
Ben Sheldon is an author, thinker, facilitator, automator, mapper, artist, human and more.
Rosetta Thurman Rosetta Thurman (website)
Promoting next generation leadership for social change. Read one of Rosetta’s favourite posts: Why I Work in the Nonprofit Sector.
Tracey Webb Black Gives Back
A blog dedicated to Philanthropy in the Black Community.
Tera Wozniak Qualls Social Citizen
I am a nonprofit professional, social citizen, & community member. I blog to learn, express my interest & expertise in organizational development, expand my career, network, & discuss nonprofit leadership and community engagement.

Nonprofit sector recruitment: time for a tagline?

Today I was lucky to be invited as a guest to participate in an advisory committee meeting with the HR Council for the Voluntary & Non-profit Sector. I met great people from across Canada that work in the sector, learn in the sector, and support HR growth in the sector. A great table of people, with a great table of food a few feet away. Two of my favourite things.

Before I get into the fun stuff, let me preface this by sharing that there was a lot of very invigorating discussion and a lot of work was accomplished.

We reviewed and discussed research done by Decode about university students on their opinions about work, comparing the full data set to students who had indicated interest in the nonprofit sector. We went over questions for an upcoming online focus group about students’ attitudes towards work in the nonprofit sector. We went over possible knowledge dissemination venues for the results of the final research report, stakeholders, possible practical products of the research, the scope of the recommendations, and strategic themes of the recommendations.

But, back to the fun stuff.

We also got creative. The scope of the research discussed today relates to recruitment of new/young/recently graduated potential employees to the nonprofit sector. So we brainstormed messaging that could be tested in online focus groups.

“There are no bad ideas,” we joked, “until no one votes for them when we whittle down the ideas.”

The messaging ideas spanned facts, heartstrings, and humour.

NOTE: These are from memory. Actual ideas, which will be flushed out further by skilled people that actually do this sort of stuff for a living, may have been better or worse.

Facts/Realities of the work

  • Did you know there are 70,000 employers and over 1 million employees in the nonprofit sector? Where do you fit in?
  • IT. Media and marketing. Accounting. There’s an opportunity for you in the nonprofit sector.
  • Today I: helped a family, wrote a strategic plan, and met with business leaders. All in a day’s work in the nonprofit sector. (Umm…I think strategic plans take more than a day though, just sayin’.)


  • Every day is different when you are making a difference.
  • Use your talents for good – work with people who care. (This actually would have been in the awkward humour section before it was changed from “Use your talents for good, not evil.”)
  • Find work. Find balance. Find purpose.


  • Finally, a job you want to talk about at parties.
  • Want to go to work on Monday morning?
  • Dangit, I’m forgetting the funny ones. Can anybody else from the meeting help me out?

What tagline would you use to help recruit new employees to the nonprofit sector? Give me your facts, your funny, and your heart.

Staff are people, too.

At nonprofit organizations, staff members (or, often, volunteers) can be equated to the programs they administer.

Program coordinator = program.

Ergo, investment in program = investment in program coordinator, right? Right?


Think about it this way. If organizational leadership/management doesn’t invest in a staff member, why should a staff member be invested in an organization? Why should they be loyal to organization leadership/management? Sure, in a tight economy people may feel more tied to a job that usual. But, if you were leading an organization, would you want people working with you to achieve your mission only because they were afraid of unemployment as an alternative? Doesn’t sound like a happy place to work to me.

Millennials, among many other characteristics made through broad, sweeping generalizations, have been said to be loyal to people, not organizations.

So how can we treat staff as people, not programs? How can loyalty be built with Millennials, the next generation of nonprofit leadership? Here are some proposals that spring to mind.

Ask for their opinion

Staff have ideas. But if the ideas are not related to their programs, it may be difficult to find an appropriate place to bring up an idea. So ask. “In your position, you work a lot on ABC. However, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on our work with XYZ as well.” Who knows, you might get some inspiring ideas out of it. People bring diverse work and life experience to a position, so tap into all of it and not just the parts related to their job.

Involve them outside their program area

Especially in the beginning, nonprofit workers are often drawn to an organization because of a belief in a mission. However, their jobs often only related to one small piece of that mission. If there is an appropriate space for committee work – an event that spans the organization’s mission, for example – create a committee to work on it. Granted, we’ve all been on committees that are just huge time sucks; however, speaking from experience, committee work that gets me involved with people and ideas outside of my daily routine can be invigorating.

Cross train

This is kind of an extension of the last point, I suppose. Cross training provides value to individuals, AND organizations. If work is siloed, ie where very clear boundaries are drawn between what is your work and what is mine, it means that losing one individual can cause paralysis to a program. However, especially for young staff that are trying to build their skill and knowledge base, cross training can be invaluable. If a staff member is responsible for communications, but is given an opportunity to learn a bit of grant writing, and maybe facilitate a workshop for program clients, the staff member has gained in experience, and the other program areas have a new person to reach out to in times of staff loss or time crunch.

Make investments in their personal development

I don’t just mean professional development. I mean personal development. Ask where they want to be in 2 years, 5 years, 10 years. While some people are fine with stability and constancy, many are looking ahead to the next move. That might be within the organization, but maybe not, and that’s OK.  What can they get involved with, inside or outside the organization, that can help them on that path? Some people may view this as setting people up for leaving; I believe it’ll keep them around a bit longer than they would have otherwise.

Staff turnover costs an organization money. One step to keep down these costs, and to keep moral up, is to treat staff like people, not just programs.

So, how do you invest in your staff? Or, how have you felt invested in?

Social movements, institutions and the Millennial generation: synthesis or breakdown?

In my afternoon MBA Leadership class today (prof: Anthony Yue), we watched a 2005 TED talk video featuring Clay Shirky about institutions vs. collaboration. This is really a mindblowing talk, considering social media was in its infancy and collaborative technologies such as Facebook and Twitter were just barely (or not at all) in the public conscious. (Note: Ideas from this post are drawn from classroom discussion).

The main messages of the talk focus on the shift from institutions to collaborative, unmanaged networks. The question is no longer “Is (s)he a good employee” but rather, “Do I want this idea/image/contribution?” Institutions don’t allow us to fully benefit from the valuable contributions of those that would contribute ONE idea. However, collaborative networks such as Wikipedia, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs in general allow all contributions to have a chance to be valued.

Collaboration and Social Movements

So let’s say that you, as an individual, want to address an injustice. You want to alleviate poverty in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, you want to protect fragile and rare habitats for species of the Haida Gwaii, you want to draw attention to wage disparity along gender and ethnic lines in the nonprofit sector.

You want to be a part of a social movement. You don’t have any money to build an institution, but you know you could contribute at least ONE idea, and there must be others out there like you.

This is the power of collaboration over the internet. Very little money (or none at all) is required. No institutions are required (save some sort of virtual space to collaborate). Some people may contribute the majority of the ideas, energy and talent, but the contributions from those that just have ONE can still add value.

Recent online activity re: #iranelection or #pman (Moldova) demonstrate the potential upswell of energy that can come from an unmanaged, online network. Granted, the actual impact of these loose networks can be and have been argued, but they still allow for potential valuation of ONE contribution.

Institutions vs. Collaboration and New Infrastructure Synthesis

Our society has recent, but strong history building institutions with hierarchies. Want to organize people? Group people according to task area/project/interest, throw in a manager, and voila – you’ve got yourself organized. Even community organizing can lead to creation of these hierarchies, thus mirroring the same institutions the group is likely organizing against. (Note: Even the phrase ‘community organizing‘ is shout out to institutional responses!)

Credit: Adaptation from Clay Shirky/TED
Credit: Adaptation from Clay Shirky/TED

Since we have grown up with hierarchical institutions as models for organizational structure, it’s hard to visualize another model. But this is where social media has come in. The development of technological features such as #hashtags has allowed people with like interests to find each other and organize around ideas outside a traditional institutional model.

Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis of Infrastructure

Credit: Tony Yue
Synthesis of new ways. Credit: Tony Yue

So we have an old way of viewing the organization of people (thesis: hierarchical institutions). Now there’s a new way of looking at things (antithesis: unmanaged cooperative collaboration). We (as a society) are still trying to figure out how to navigate this (synthesis) to produce results. Ivan Boothe’s (@rootwork) recent guest post on Beth Kanter’s blog about how social movements require more than social media provides great insight into the difficulty we find ourselves in.

Millennials and Structure

Now here’s the problem (maybe). The Millennial generation, generally, likes structure. They value authority. They grew up with uber-scheduled lives, their parents have been hyper-involved in their lives. So where do they fit in to this new, collaborative, unmanaged, loosely (if at all) structured infrastructure? One benefit of this new model for Millennials is the collaborative nature. Millennials went through the school system working in teams. But the lack of structure may be a barrier.

I suspect that Millennials will create their own ‘formal’ institutions as a solution. They may use informal, collaborative networks to find their peers, but then shift towards having more structure. Though current institutions may already exist, they don’t offer opportunities that they find meaningful and relevant. Again, Millennials will create their own institutions.


So how will this all play out? What will the new infrastructure facilitating social movements look like? I don’t think we know yet, but Clay Shirky predicts 50 years of chaos before it’s sorted out. If Millennials focus on creating institutions to facilitate social movements that come out of online collaboration – great. However, if these new Millennial institutions draw away from human and financial resources of the current nonprofit and social change sector, the current way of doing things is going to evolve (for a time) into chaos–struggles for sustainability and sector fragmentation will result.

Perhaps the calm out of chaos will come not from organizing people, but organizing institutions. Hierarchical institutions and collaborative, cooperative networks finding each other and working together towards common goals.

I really don’t know. Do you?

<end of murky personal academic musings>

The rush to create group volunteering opportunities

Group volunteering is high in popularity thanks to both corporate volunteerism, stemming from trends in corporate social responsibility; and the Millennial generation’s propensity for group activities, stemming from their history of group work and cooperation in the K-12 school system.

I remember the volunteer coordinator at the last nonprofit I worked for asking if I had anything I needed doing suitable for a corporate group of professionals. The call would go out to various programs once in a while, and I always found filling this role to be awkward. On one hand, corporate volunteerism might lead to corporate donations, so nonprofits often jump to sort something out for these potential donors. However, precious resources may get used up, taken away from working with clients, running programs, etc., just for a group of corporate volunteers to spend a day doing a ‘meaningful’ task.

Nonprofits may also start jumping to create team opportunities for Millennial volunteers, though this trend might take a bit longer. It may be hard to change the way volunteers are engaged if the current model has been working for so long. However, if your organization is only offering individual opportunities, the current model is not going to work forever. Secondly, nonprofits will soon (and many already have) start to realize that their aging donor base isn’t going to sustain them forever and new donors are going to have to be cultivated from this Millennial generation.

Some of these group volunteer opportunities may last a day. Others a year. Here are some ideas for creating group volunteer opportunities that may be suitable for either corporate or Millennial volunteers.

  1. Stock up. Doesn’t it always seem that when you need people you don’t have them and when you have them you don’t need them? Even though the timing may not be ideal, save your donation sorting, activity room painting, or garden planting for when you get that call. Better yet, initiate contact with prospective group volunteers or donors and offer the opportunity. Ahead of time.
  2. Create a group of mini-skilled positions. Maybe you want your website or brochures translated into other languages. Maybe you need a bunch of documents realigned with your new branding. Corporate and Millennial volunteers can be a skilled bunch, so set aside some small skilled tasks, have a potluck, and get a work-party on!
  3. Re-brand individual activities as group activities. I don’t mean calling a duck a swan–some legitimate changes need to happen. For example, if your organization holds multiple events per year that requires volunteers, create a “Crew” opportunity. Give them chances to meet and greet each other outside of event times, offer some value-added training, and provide them with some unique chances to be engaged in other ways, and be sure to communicate with them as a “Crew” throughout the year. The SFU Student Development department is great at this branding. The orientation volunteers are the “O Crew”. The Week of Welcome volunteers are the “WOW Crew”. The volunteers are a team.
  4. Get Professional Development. Both corporate volunteers and Millennials may have backgrounds that could be beneficial for your staff or clients to learn from. Corporate volunteers from an audit company may be able to deliver a workshop to program managers about demonstrating a program’s return on investment. Millennial volunteers in a university HR program may be interested in leading a workshop for community centre clients on resume building. For example, SFU Career Peer Educators have work as a team before to deliver just such a workshop. It was valuable for the participants, and a highlight of the year for many Peers.
  5. Bring together individuals or small groups of volunteer together for special opportunities. I am currently working with two fantastic segments of student volunteers at SFU Volunteer Services. Two students scout and write stories for our ENGAGE blog; another team of volunteers is helping plan a Volunteer and Civic Engagement Week on campus this fall. Both groups are working in teams already, but bringing them together for special development or social opportunities could a) reinforce how each group contributes to our mission, and b) build social connections and a larger sense of team.

How have you engaged groups of volunteers at your organizations? How have you been engaged as a group volunteer?

Tapping Into the Millennial (Blood)stream

I recently wrote an article for Vantage Point, an issue-based online publication of Volunteer Vancouver. The issue this time: generations.

Featured authors include Peter C. Brinckerhoff, Kathi Irvine, Colleen Kelly, Brian Fraser, and….me!

My article summarizes a variety of data and trends related to traits of the Millennial generation and delivers practical implications for the nonprofit sector. Check it out here and tell me: agree or disagree?