Switching Careers at the Worst Possible Time

Edie Boatman left a for-profit career for fundraising  just as the economy crashed. With irony and humor her First Person Nonprofit essay reflects on her sense of timing and what she's learned so far.

August of 2008: Just one month before the economic meltdown . . . my first day begins on my new job as Director of Fund Development for a small nonprofit focused on arts and literacy with inner city kids. At 43, after a career in corporate marketing and publishing, I had to ask myself: What did I know about raising money? Nothing, outside of managing a few appeal letter projects. What did I know about the economy? Nothing, other than having a belief things would start to change for the better after the election.

If I had known then what I know now, would I have jumped into a job with no experience  during the worst slump in the economy since the 1930s? You betcha! And here are the top 5 reasons why:

1. More support than a Sleep Number Bed

In all my years in corporate marketing and publishing, I've never felt as supported as I have been since Day One in the nonprofit sector. A small grant from a local nonprofit fund allowed me to connect with a fundraising coach. She met with me regularly and coached me through everything from how to make a follow-up phone call on a proposal to the nuts and bolts of planned giving. I felt comfortable asking her all the stupid questions I would have been embarrassed to ask my boss.

I also benefited from one-on-one training in our fundraising software and generous offers from seasoned fundraisers to meet for coffee and advice. As a result, I became more productive and confident much sooner. (And I slept much better, too.)

2. No more awful corporate TEAMwork(TM)

At a large financial institution where I worked, break room banners proclaimed such hackneyed wisdom as "Together Everyone Achieves More!" And one of my bosses was always urging us to don our "collaborative corporate hats." This all felt forced and fad-driven, and usually failed to produce anything resembling teamwork.

Here in the nonprofit world, my colleagues and I regularly function as a team. Maybe it's because we're all just wacky idealists, but everyone is committed to what we are working for. To a nonprofit neophyte, the feeling is remarkable, refreshing, and rejuvenating. All these idealists in close quarters are bound to get carried away occasionally, but I like it so much more than trying to wear that uncomfortable "corporate hat."

3. Barbra Streisand was right

Barbra Streisand famously sang, "People who need people are the luckiest people in the world." I'd say: Fundraisers who need donors really are the luckiest people in the world. Every day in my job I get to meet some of the most interesting, giving people on the planet. Even if they aren't all interested in my particular program or project, they all want to use their money to make things better. Their stories are fascinating, and I get paid to get to know them better. (Heck, I'd do that for free, but don't tell my ED.)

Though the economy has cut the flow of money down to a trickle, I've found that potential donors are still willing to take the time to meet with me; many make some financial commitment or a valuable introduction. Times may be tough, but these giving people regularly restore my faith in others. Sing it, Barbra!

4. ROI is spelled Meaningful Impact on Lives

Measuring ROI (Return On Investment) was murky enough when I was trying to quantify the value for a client of garnering two column inches of publicity in the local paper. In my current job I get to measure the impact our program has on people's lives - in my case, children's reading and writing skills. How awesome is that?!

5. Having my say-so

As a rather opinionated person, I like to have a say. And in my new position, I get more than a say - I'm actually consulted (and not just because it's a small office and I ply my co-workers with brownies).

While the program is the heart of the organization, the ability to fund that program is crucial. My take on whether or not an initiative or project might resonate with our mission and donors is important. I have a voice in the direction of the organization and that makes me look forward to coming to work. After all, I wouldn't want to deprive them of my opinions.

Finally  . . .

The past year has gone by in a blur. I enjoy my job far more than I expected to, but not because it's been an easy year. Finding funds has been tough, but then again, this is my first job in fundraising, so I don't know how it used to be. Which brings me to Reason No. 6: After this past year, I have nowhere to go but up!

Edie Boatman is the Director of Fund Development for SHARP Literacy, Inc. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her previous marketing work has been with M&I Bank, Wisconsin Electric, and Wisconsin Lutheran College. She is a volunteer board member at the German Immersion Foundation and TEMPO Waukesha (a professional women's organization). She knows all the words to "People."

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Comments

Edie - Welcome to the Light Side! If you survived this past year, I'll wager you're going to become a lifer in nonprofits. You have the right attitude and have already learned to appreciate all the upsides to working in this sector. SHARP Literacy is lucky to have you!

thanks, edie...i am forming a new non-profit geared toward helping displaced children, their families and the "love" givers that take them into their homes. sometimes i feel overwhelmed about what i think i don't know, but your article inspires me that it will be alright.
the compassion that brought me here, and the passion that fuels me will be all i need to to be effective. to paraphrase something the late tim russert was told by a new boss..."you can learn what they know, but they don't know what you know." i remember that each time i feel like wow...because i know someone needs what i want to provide...and that is enough to help me keep going!
you are right...this world of wanting to help makes working in it a lot easier. non-profit workers seem to be the coolest, lest bothered people on the planet...and i want to be a part of that crowd!
thanks for your words and keep up the good works!
respectfully,
kim
the phoenix foundation cooperative, inc.
atlanta, ga

Great attitude and a timely reminder to those of us "seasoned" non-profit fundraisers. Thank you for the fresh look and renewed energy. The best of everything to you. Dramatic Results, Long Beach, CA

Wow Edie! We are kindred spirits! I left a publishing job in the fall of 2007 where I'd been general manager and had marketing, finance and operations responsibilities. I have NEVER looked back! My wonderful non-profit had already won my heart before the ED position became available. That first fall we lost a big funder, found out we'd have to move from our in-kind space to rented space within the next year and one of our strongest corporate supporters decided to retire. Then our national office thought it would be a great time to come down and do an organizational assessment! Needless to say, it was anything but boring! But the community, my staff of 4, our incredible board and my colleages in the non-profit community gave me so much talent, encouragement and nurturing. Best of all, every single day, multiple times throughout the day, I SEE the impact we are making. Aren't we fortunate to have made it to the other side?--ED in Alabama

Edie,
Sounds to me as if you have all the experience needed to be successful in your new found work. Your writing clearly conveys the "people skills" you have honed throughout your life. If you can be genuine with others, a careful and empathetic listener, and not shy about showing people how they can truely help, you've got all the talent you need.
I've worked in the nonprofit sector for more than 40 years (ouch!) - a social worker by training, administrator by choice, and a fund raiser out of necessity, and I never cease to feel validated and somewhat amuzed (in a nice way) by the business contrasts observed by for-profit crossovers. Yes, nonprofits are businesses that produce amazing products and services, without nearly enough capitalization. I am confident your arrival at SHARP Literacy will change that dramatically.
Good luck, and keep laughing!
Steve Dillon, North Carolina

Wow! Thanks for all the wonderful comments. It further proves my point about the wonderful community of support that nonprofit colleagues provide. To do good work you need good workers, and I doubt you'll find any better than those who work in the NP sector.
Edie Boatman
SHARP Literacy, Inc.

Dear Readers: One inquiry went directly to Edie asking for tips on entering the job market. Her reply was so thorough and helpful that we'll publish it as a follow-up article in our next issue. Cool! Jan

Edie
What a wonderful story. And what a wonderful outlook. Blessings on all that you do in 2010. You brought a ray of sunshine to a very gloomy December day in Michigan.
Sam

Edie - This is such a good summary of what it feels like to start a new job, and you are right, the nonprofit sector tends to be incredibly welcoming and understanding! Congratulations!
Abbie

Thanks for the article Edie! I'm still in the corporate rat race and trying to cut the chord and enter the nonprofit world. It is unbelievably scary to imagine leaving my comfortable paycheck behind but, as you describe, there are so many other invaluable benefits to look forward to. Your article got me one step closer to the door, and hopefully I'll be writing a similar success story a year from now!

Edie, how did you find a good fundraising coach? SC, New York

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