Build Experience, Not Repetition, By Asking For New Roles

By Phil Gérard

Originally published in Canadian Fundraising and Philanthropy
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Job candidates often emphasize how long they have been working in the field as if that alone was a badge of honour. Is experience counted in years really relevant if it is not diverse and progressive? Employers are looking for experience, not repetition.

Consider this example: Candidate A claims to have 20 years of fundraising experience. A closer look at his CV reveals that he has raised funds fairly consistently. The gift size, however, has always been in the same range. He has not managed a diverse menu of projects, nor has he managed a team.  Candidate A seems like a solid fundraiser and adding him to the team would likely bring some value to the organization. His manager can be reasonably assured that this candidate will reach his annual goal.

Candidate B has fewer than half the years of experience of candidate A, but she has built an impressive track record showing an increased amount of responsibility and project complexity. Furthermore, the gift size has increased in her relatively short career from five to seven figures. Candidate B also quickly advanced from an individual gifts coordinator to a manager of fundraisers.

Who would you hire as Director of Development of a small team?

Track record trumps experience

As a recruiter I do not get too impressed by the years of experience a candidate has to offer, and as a career advisor I encourage ambitious fundraisers to get into a frontline fundraising role as quickly as they can and start building a track record. Education and years of experience are important elements, but nothing is more important than your track record. Employers do not care how much you know in theory if you cannot back it up with hard numbers. What I wanted to show with the above example is that when managing our career we want to make sure that we do not get too comfortable and stay in one area of expertise. I know this is easier said than done. On the one hand, we want to demonstrate our consistency to employers by holding longer tenures and not leaving an organization or position every other year. On the other hand, we want to show progress and diversification. How can we achieve progressive experience while staying in the same organization or even in the same job?

Ask for opportunities!

Harvest Gen Y enthusiasm

A few years ago I met Jason Dorsey, alias the “Gen Y Guy,” an interesting young man who published his first book at the age of 18. Jason is considered an expert on Gen Y and has delivered over 2,000 international keynote speeches (http://www.jasondorsey.com). One story in his presentation on managing across generations stuck with me.

A young engineering graduate started her first job as a receptionist in a firm. She accepted this entry-level position because she wanted to start working in her field, and she had heard that the firm’s CEO believed everyone should be given opportunities to show their talents. A proposal to an important client for an even more important job had to be submitted. The receptionist thought she had an excellent idea and pitched it to the CEO at a staff meeting. The CEO encouraged her to craft a draft proposal. Not only was the proposal excellent, the CEO submitted it, the firm got the job – and the receptionist an account manager position.

Jason explained that one of the characteristics of Gen Y workers is that they expect to be in positions of high responsibility quickly. While many roll their eyes when hearing another story about unrealistic Gen Y career advancement expectations, I think we need to find ways to harvest this kind of energy, enthusiasm, and drive.

Take the shortage of frontline fundraisers for instance. If you come across an aspiring fundraiser who is just dying to prove himself and get out there to make calls and work on philanthropic gifts, why does he have to wait for years in order to show what he can do?

Seek growth opportunities

Asking for opportunities is a great way to add additional responsibilities without leaving your current organization. Ask your supervisor to give you a special project to work on, collaborate with other units, cover a leave replacement or interim position, or have the opportunity to supervise (maybe a co-op student or a volunteer).

Collaboration with other units will likely expose you to areas of responsibility you have not experienced before. Maybe your current focus is in face-to-face fundraising but you would like to learn more about developing strategy or stewardship plans. Maybe there is an opportunity to be involved in a special project where you can work with different units to gain this additional experience.

In larger charities there may be the opportunity of secondments to another position or department to gain additional experience and add a different specialty. At one of my previous positions, the organization revamped its database system dramatically and struck a special project team for the development and implementation phase. Representatives of different units were seconded to serve on this special projects team. What a great opportunity to gain new skills without giving up the security of your current job!

Other opportunities include parental or other term leave replacements. In some organizations it is possible for employees to take a leave to accept another interim position and return to their previous position at the end of the term.

Young, eager employees who have leadership aspirations can ask for the opportunity to play an acting manager role in the absence of their supervisor. In addition to the experience gained the employee can also find out if a leadership role is really for them.

Consistency is crucial in our business of relationship building. Finding ways to discover and hone new skills while continuing to master current responsibilities is a double advantage for our CV. We will demonstrate longevity in an organization while also showing that we continue to be energetic, motivated, passionate and driven. It shows that we will not rest on our laurels but consistently push ourselves to succeed in new endeavours.

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