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Plot Your OWN Course to the Top

We caution you to understand that—if you want to make a living by making a difference—you’re unlikely to find a career ladder that you can just keep climbing. Why? Because, so far, there’s largely a lack of dedicated attention to professional advancement in this sector, and you’ll therefore need to be even more savvy about your career choices. Think about what you’re trying to achieve and define a path for yourself to the end. The sooner you realize that you’ll most likely have to navigate your own way forward, the better.

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The future belongs to those who see possibilities before they become obvious. 

John Sculley

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If you already have a position, we recommend that you first try to make a career advancement plan within your organization. Ideally, you’ll have goals to which both you and your supervisors are held accountable. Your performance reviews can then be considered not only in terms of the job you do for the organization, but also in light of your own professional development. This doesn’t necessarily mean that your only future potential is to move into a management position. You may have an entirely different path in mind—to move from program work to research, accounting, marketing, or communications, for example.

Whether your next move is lateral or vertical, you can start by requesting shadowing, cross-training, or mentorship opportunities so you can learn from your coworkers in other positions or departments. You should also leverage any “stretch assignments” that you’re offered, in which you can go above and beyond your day-to-day tasks, explore new things, and prove your worth in other areas. You might even consider ways to add value to the organization by making thoughtful, informed suggestions that could strengthen your organization through team-building, activities related to talent, and leadership development. Try to negotiate time off for classes or workshops, or travel expenses to go to a conference.

If you are not yet employed—or you’re in an organization that doesn’t or can’t commit sufficient time, energy, and resources to professional development—you can look for opportunities on your own via continuing education, attending training workshops and online webinars, and learning from your peers. To advance your career, it’s extremely important to continue working with mentors and networking your way forward by creating connections to other people and organizations.

By searching online public records, you can check the financial statements of an organization to see if it funds professional development. For example, for nonprofits and foundations, this information should be listed at Guidestar.org. State government websites also have much of this information. Some organizations even promote themselves as having a strong “talent brand,” in which case they’ll highlight what they do for their employees on their Website—but, unfortunately, that’s still relatively rare.

Beyond the hard skills you need for a job or profession—the technical abilities and applicable knowledge—soft skills are also important. Why? Because having the perspective to understand the story behind the numbers—beyond the facts on paper—is especially important in compassionate careers. If you listen well, bring people together with diverse viewpoints, and know how to build consensus for collective action, you’ll undoubtedly be highly valued. Indeed, taking the time to be reflective, involving a wide variety of people in this process, and being willing to openly learn from both successes and failure is essential to progress of any kind.

Essentially, if you find yourself in an organization that does little to develop you professionally, you have four choices:

  1. You can stay in your position, do nothing, and hope that things will get better.
  2. You can wait for your next best move to fall in your lap, which it may or may not.
  3. You can be bold and take a shot at moving sideways, upward, or elsewhere.
  4. You can be deliberate about thinking ten steps ahead, and acting accordingly.

To begin the journey toward finding your optimal compassionate career, we urge you to read Compassionate Careers: Making a Living by Making a Difference!

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