By Shane Dixon
A few years ago, I decided to make a career transition, leaving sales to enter the non-profit/fundraising world. During a recent conversation, a close friend suggested that I share my story as he felt a number of people could benefit from my experience. As we approach the New Year, I figured I would take the time to write about this important phase of my life as it might help someone this year. Although I’d spent approximately 13 years in IT Sales, something always seemed to be ‘missing‘ from my career. When I made this decision, a few of my former sales colleagues were literally dumb-founded and their comments ranged from “Why’d you do it?”, to “I would just suck it up and get another sales job!”, to my personal favourite,“But……. you can make a lot of money in Sales!”.
My response was simple, I wasn’t happy!
**Blank stare*** (Eventually followed by “What do you mean you weren’t ‘happy’? What about the money?”)
It’s almost as if these people were simply content going through the motions of working at a job, like zombies, just for the potential of making money! It always boggled my mind how money seems to always trump happiness when most people make career decisions. What good is having a lot of money if you’re working ridiculous hours, losing valuable time with loved one’s, and putting your health at risk due to stress?! Don’t get me wrong, there are people who are fortunate to have both happiness & money in their careers, however, it seems to be rare these days.
I made the decision to find something that I was actually interested in, and, that could make me happy at the same time. Fortunately, I was in a position to be able to take time off of work, and focus on this career quest. Over the course of a few months, I did some research into careers that could be a fairly seamless transition, and allow me to leverage my sales skills (i.e. networking, relationship-building, customer service, project management, etc.). Since the bulk of my free time had always been spent volunteering for non-profits, I decided to explore fundraising roles at Universities, Charities, and Hospital Foundations. After a few ‘bumps in the road‘, my decision to move in a new direction finally paid off for me as I was offered an incredible management opportunity with Prostate Cancer Canada. Although I’m extremely pleased with how this all turned out, don’t be fooled, the process was tough & required the utmost of patience and perseverance!
Something very surprising happened when I moved back to Toronto for this new position earlier this year. I started receiving LinkedIn messages & emails from friends, and former colleagues, offering me praise, and, asking me for advice because they were in need of a career change. It was a relief to know that there were other people, like myself, that were fed up with the ‘status quo‘ and wanted to shake things up with their life! I’m always open to discussing this in more detail with people, however, I wanted to use this time to share a few tips/suggestions for anyone that may be contemplating a similar move.
1) It’s OK to be afraid!
When I first made the decision to jump to a new field, I went through a mix of emotions, ranging from fear, intimidation, and doubt. At one point, I even came close to settling, and returning to the world of sales once again. The reality is, if I hadn’t made this move, I would have just ended up floating from one sales job to another (something that happens with a number of sales reps!)! If you’re unhappy with your current career, whatever it is, don’t be afraid to make a move. Fear often holds people back from making changes, however, what they don’t realize is that stepping outside of their comfort zone can often result in some incredible, life-changing experiences. If you don’t like the next job, try something new, and keep going until you do find ‘the one‘ that makes you happy! It may take time, but, trust me, it will be worth it!
2) Patience is the key.
Brace yourself, it’s going to take time, as changing your career is something that won’t happen overnight! It’s important to set the right expectations on the amount of time it may take. If you think it’s going to take a year, give yourself a few extra months (at least), just to be safe. As fulfilling as this process can be, you’ll only hurt yourself more if you don’t give yourself adequate time to enact these changes. Stay positive, focused and good things will happen!
3) Be realistic.
I must emphasize, although I’m an advocate for change, I think it’s very important that you set your bar accordingly. For example, if you’ve never been good at science/math/biology, I wouldn’t recommend quitting your current job to pursue a career in neurosurgery! To minimize the risk, I simply assessed my existing skill set and then proceeded to explore careers where these could be best utilized. If you are looking at making a change, take the time and research all facets of that field (i.e. job outlook, education requirements, costs, length of time, etc). You may be surprised to find out how many options are available to you, but, you won’t know unless you start the process now!
4) Network, network, network!
If you’re interested in changing your career, I strongly suggest that you talk with as many people in that field as possible. You’re not going to meet people staying at home, simply researching from your PC, so get out there and explore! Every day I tried my best to line up coffee conversations, phone calls, and/or meetings with various people to learn and absorb as much information as possible. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your friends & family to see if they have any contacts in your desired field. You’ll be surprised at who you might encounter just by asking people that are close to you.
Not sure who to ask? Well, you’re fortunate to live in an era with so many resources at your disposal. Twitter, & LinkedIn are just a few of the many tools I used to meet contacts in the Non-profit/fundraising world. If you haven’t done so yet, I strongly suggest that you also check out Ten Thousand Coffees, it’s an incredible service that allows you to interact and meet with ‘subject matter experts‘ in various fields. During my time using Ten Thousand Coffees, I was fortunate to have met a variety of interesting & informative people, ranging from Senior Fundraising Coordinators, to Chief Development Officers & CEO’s of some high profile Non-profit Organizations. All of these people were kind enough to share information about their job’s, and each played an integral role in my pursuit for a new career. Keep in mind, although the world may seem big, it can be really, really small, depending on the field you explore! It didn’t take me long to discover that the more people I spoke to, the more they were all connected in some capacity. If you make the right impression, they’re likely to suggest other people in their network that you could reach out to. If you’re professional, and respectful, it just might reward you with a lead that could land you the ‘break‘ you need!
5) Find a mentor/coach.
Regardless of how many people you have in your corner, the road to a new career can often be lonely, tiresome, and very frustrating. As a result, you can never have too many people on your side, offering you positive support, advice, & guidance. During the early phases of my quest, I was fortunate to have met a non-profit expert that I had discovered on Twitter, Paul Nazareth. One of Paul’s many specialties was coaching people that were looking at making the transition from the Corporate world to the Non-Profit/Fundraising sector. Over the past few years, and countless coffee meetings, phone calls, and emails, he became a tremendous mentor to me! Using a Star Wars reference (sorry, I had to!), Paul was like Obi-wan when it came to the world of non-profits! In addition to being very knowledgeable, he was patient and always willing to provide me with solid (and sometimes harsh) advice. Despite the constant challenges I faced, he helped me realize that I was actually doing the ‘right things‘, and that I just needed to keep pressing forward. During your networking meetings, keep your eyes and ears open, and you just might encounter someone who can help you on your journey for a new career! Just remember, if you are blessed enough to find a mentor, don’t forget to thank them along the way, and pay it forward!
Anyways, those are just a few of the many things I learned when I decided to transition to a new career. I’m certainly not an expert, however, if you’re considering making a similar career move, please don’t hesitate to message me, and I’ll try my best to assist you. It’s not going to be easy, but, I’m telling you, it could end up being one of the best decisions of your life!
Something for you to consider as we approach 2016, if you’re unhappy with your career, do something about it, and make a change!
Shane Dixon is the Senior Manager for Events and Community Giving at Prostate Cancer Canada. After spending 13 years in the IT Sales world, he made the decision to move in a direction and transitioned to the Non-profit Sector. He’s a self-proclaimed ‘advocate for change’, and always willing to share his story with people that are looking at making a career transition.