Elsewhere in this issue, Keira Havens makes a case for nonprofits to bring veterans on staff. In this article she addresses herself to servicemembers and veterans thinking about going to work in nonprofits.
I didn’t have a career in mind when I left the military, but I knew that I wanted to work for a purpose.
I found a great nonprofit job, but peeling my identity away from the military is an ongoing process. At my first meeting I realized that I was no longer just briefing the boss, I was part of the discussion. I don’t debate unless I hold an opposing viewpoint. I want a quick decision once the facts are on the table. It frustrates me to be part of an endless conversation of “things to consider” without any direction as to how to consider them. Still, learning how to blend my action-oriented mindset with the day-to-day operations of a nonprofit has polished the unique set of skills I arrived with.
Here are a few things I’ve learned on my journey to the nonprofit sector:
1. You, not your rank, is what people see first. Invest in yourself.
The stripes have been retired and the bars and birds have been left behind. When you present yourself, no one will know the position you last held by what you are wearing. Your style of dress, your manner, and your confidence will speak for you instead of your rank. Take the time to find business attire that fits you well and that makes you feel comfortable.
2. Lose the jargon and practice the new language.
Every business has its own vocabulary and the military as a whole is notoriously incomprehensible to civilians. You know that look spouses get at a dinner party, when you realize you have done nothing but talk about work all night? That is the same look you will receive when you tell your prospective employer that you were the “Section Chief of Training and your efforts in utilizing and evolving command and control simulation capacity directly contributed to the first ever outstanding rating for the unit.” Were you a supervisor? How many people did you manage? Were you an instructor? What sort of material did you teach, to how many, and what classroom skills do you have? The best advice is to run your resume by a civilian friend and see what needs to be clarified. Practice answers to some common questions as well to learn what phrases you no longer need to use.
3. Speak your mind. But don’t expect to be obeyed.
We have all had days when the commander has decided to move ahead with a ridiculous idea. This is not unique to the military. For junior enlisted and officers, “Speak Your Mind” could be the most important practice you embrace. Any supervisor is capable of succumbing to his own brilliance. However, in the civilian world, you no longer need to rely on others to speak on your behalf. It is now your responsibility to address issues and participate in discussions.
With higher rank, the expectation of obedience becomes automatic. If you sign on as executive director, the adjustment will not be “speak your mind,” but “listen to the reply.” If you have selected your staff well, your ideas will be met with critical thought and perhaps challenged by an excellent point that needs to be considered. You may disregard the input, but keep in mind your requests are no longer orders and that this time around, the staff can quit if they feel they are not being treated with respect.Â Â
4. Be patient. This is a new world; you’re starting at the bottom.
You may have supervised a hundred men and women in one of the most dangerous parts of the world, but your director will feel uncomfortable at first letting you speak to a potential donor on your own. Telephone calls and relationships are the tactics and strategies of the nonprofit sector. Unfortunately, there is no standardized training on this side. Ask questions, learn from the experienced people around you and take a deep breath when they ask you to check the 2000 donation request letters to make sure the company logo is facing the reader when the envelope is opened.
5. Be proud. You have done this country a great service.
Those you work with now may not understand how much you sacrificed or even why you chose to serve your country, but they will honor your service. You are a testament to the soldier’s strength and dignity. This is an opportunity to take up new challenges, and to gradually educate new people about the role you and so many of us veterans have played.
Keira Havens transitioned from Air Force captain to nonprofit fundraiser at Global Explorers. She lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, with her husband and two dogs. The military wasn’t sufficiently exciting, so she left in search of adventure in August 2008. She hopes to travel to Machu Picchu with Global Explorers in 2009. You can meet Keira in and out of uniform in a great 1-minute video: Keira Lin’s Island.