Guest Post: Approach your nonprofit career like a creative entrepreneur

Guest Post: Approach your nonprofit career like a creative entrepreneur

Image credit Hugh McLeod

This post originally appeared on YNPN NYC's blog and was written by YNPN NYC member Eleanore Whitney.

As an emerging nonprofit professional do you see yourself as an entrepreneur? Not just a social entrepreneur who is working to implement innovative ideas to enact social change, but yourself? Do you view your own career an entrepreneur would a start up?
I recently read a slew of books aimed at creative entrepreneurs, including Creative, Inc. by Meg Mateo Ilasco and Joy Deangdeelart Cho, which is a practical guide about how to launch a freelance creative business; and Birthing the Elephant by Karen Abarbenel and Bruch Freeman, which sells itself as a woman’s guide to launching her own business (and has a terrible name, but is full of good advice).

Though I work full time for an arts non-profit I found myself inspired by the ideas and strategies these books presented. As someone with a steady paycheck sometimes I feel I have lost track of the fact that I, and I alone, am responsible for my career advancement and professional development. This is not to say that nonprofits should not opportunities for employee growth, but I realized that we as young nonprofit professionals can empower ourselves by thinking about our career like an entrepreneur thinks about their start up.

The bottom line is that we do not have to wait for the organizations we work for to give us permission to be pro-active and entrepreneurial about our careers. Based on my reading for creative entrepreneurs here are some ideas I have gleaned:

  • Have a personal mission statement
    • Businesses, both not and for profit, use a mission statement to guide what they do. A good mission statement outlines the purpose and scope of organization’s work, as well as their values. Adopt a similar approach to your professional life. What is your purpose for doing the type of work you do? What are your core values? What are you working to achieve?
    • Brainstorm, craft and refine your statement. You don’t have to show it to anyone, but being clear about your purpose will bring clarity and confidence to the work that you do.
  • Develop a vision for your career
    • A vision is an extension of your mission and is the larger picture that you are working to make a reality in your life. If you implement your mission statement by working purposely and in line with your values, where do you dream that work will take you?
  • Set goals that are measurable and attainable
    • Entrepreneurs approach their projects as a series of goals and actions steps. Approach your career in a similar manner. Develop your goals based on your mission and vision for your professional life and break those goals into smaller steps, such as learning a specific skill or volunteering to get experience in a certain kind of organization. The blog Design Sponge ran an excellent article about goal setting and planning. Read it to help you make your goals a reality.
  • Reassess often
    • If you are not meeting your goals or you are frustrated with a job turn it into an opportunity to reflect and reassess. Are you still on the path to realizing your vision? Has your vision for your career changed? Use what’s not working to diagnose what you need to 
  • Market yourself
    • You are your own best advocate. Drop false modesty and speak with confidence about what you would like to achieve in your career, what you are working on and what you would like to learn more about. Your enthusiasm will draw others in and help you make connections and open doors.
  • Adopt a brains before bucks mentality and invest in resources wisely
    • Be honest about your finances and do not over invest in goods, products or services that will make you feel more successful, but are a financial stretch. If there’s a skill you want to learn or an experience you want to have, find a way to make it happen for less money. Barter, volunteer, or arrange a skill share.  Investing sweat equity is better than going into debt!

While this is a small introduction to a huge topic, the key here is to shift your thinking to see yourself as an entrepreneur of your professional destiny. With this thinking you are empowered to dedicate yourself to achieving your vision whether you work full time, part-time, freelance or are staring your own organization.

Overall, thinking of your emerging professional career entrepreneurially means going beyond being proactive in your professional life. It requires you bring focus, drive, and a desire to innovate and achieve a vision for yourself as a nonprofit professional. You can harness these qualities by crafting a career mission statement, clarifying your vision and goals, reflecting on your practice often, advocating for yourself and wisely seeking out additional resources.

What have you done to approach your career entrepreneurially? What are your favorite resources for entrepreneurial thinking that you have found are most applicable to you in the nonprofit world?  And what entrepreneurial step will you take next in your nonprofit career? 


Eleanor Whitney is a writer, musician and arts administrator and project manager making it happen in Brooklyn, NY. She is currently the Program Officer for External Affairs and Fiscal Sponsorship at the New York Foundation for the Arts and received her Master’s in Public Administration from Baruch College. Read all of Eleanor’s posts for YNPN-NYC.

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