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Message to New Nonprofit Fellows: Tips and Reflections

July 29, 2011

(Today is the last day of Reilly Kiernan's year-long Project 55 Fellowship at the Foundation Center. In her last post, she looked at how Millennials are changing the face of philanthropy.)

Good_luck It's hard to believe a year has passed and my fellowship at the Foundation Center is at an end. Over the past twelve months I've learned a tremendous amount about philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. But before I embark on the next stage of my career in public service, I'd like to share a few tips with new nonprofit fellows looking to get as much as possible out of their fellowship experience:

1. Recognize that you have a lot to learn. As a fellow, you're probably just starting out in a field where your experience is relatively limited. Don't be afraid to ask questions and acknowledge the limitations of your experience. When I started my fellowship at the Foundation Center, I knew very little about the world of organized philanthropy. I was eager, however, to soak up as much knowledge as I could, and I knew that being honest about my own ignorance would pay off in the end. I was also lucky to be assigned to the Educational Services unit here. By being involved in the events and classes the center offers, I was exposed to and absorbed much of the content we teach to grantseekers. What's more, the lessons I learned weren't restricted to course content. I also gained experience working in a large, established nonprofit and grew to appreciate some of the dynamics of that kind of environment.

2. Recognize what you have to offer. Even though you may be new to an organization and unfamiliar with its work and culture, you still have plenty to offer. Indeed, your insights can be invaluable -- especially if you approach the work with fresh eyes. Don't be afraid to speak up, share your opinions, and engage with co-workers. I know my colleagues here at the center will attest to the fact I had few reservations about speaking up during meetings. Thankfully, I quickly learned that the organization welcomed my opinions and ideas. For instance, I was more social media-savvy than many of my colleagues, and so it made sense for me to assume responsibility for coordinating the social media efforts of the center's New York library.

3. Do whatever you're asked to do...with gusto. In the early days and weeks of your fellowship, you probably won't be given the most interesting tasks. It's hard, at any organization, to find work for a new employee that doesn't require certain specialized skills and experience. That doesn't mean your initial contributions won't be valuable or appreciated. If you're asked to populate a spreadsheet, proofread a letter, or even stuff envelopes, do so enthusiastically. Recognize that until you get your feet under you and are fully up to speed with the organization's work and culture, it takes work for your supervisor to provide you with work. And even if you're eager and prepared to help in more substantial ways, he/she simply may not have the time to train you on specific tasks right away. Jumping up and volunteering to take on any task is a great way to demonstrate that you care about the organization and are serious about its mission and your ability to contribute to that mission.

4. Don't be afraid to show initiative. Although it's important to do whatever you're asked to do -- however mundane it may be -- it's also important to to show initiative and find projects for yourself that are both worthwhile and fulfilling. I know, this can be a challenge. But having an honest discussion with your supervisor is a great first step in making sure you get assigned to tasks that are challenging, take advantage of your particular skill set, and allow you to contribute in truly meaningful ways to the broader work of the organization. My job over the past twelve months has involved a nice mix of recurring tasks (like helping out with classes and events), short-term tasks (proofreading materials, writing blog posts, editing video), and longer-term projects (planning my own event to introduce the "next generation" to the Foundation Center, coming up with a social media strategy for the NYC office, working with a colleague to develop a series of videos featuring user testimonials and class content). By making sure to balance my various responsibilities, I was able to stay busy and, more importantly, take ownership of my daily and weekly schedules.

5. Don't forget about the future. Time flies so quickly that if you don't take the time to think about the work you're doing, the things you're learning, and how your future plans are materializing, it's quite possible that twelve months will pass before you've had a chance to take stock of your fellowship experience. I've been fortunate to have been embedded within the center's professional development infrastructure, which facilitates this kind of reflection on an ongoing basis. For one thing, I've been able to contribute to this blog! I've also had regular structured meetings and performance evaluations with my supervisor, was assigned an unofficial "mentor" who shared great advice and served as a supportive sounding board for ideas, and was able to participate in the center's professional development group, which brings together entry- and mid-level employees from across the organization to talk about their work and hear senior managers speak about their own career paths. I'm incredibly grateful the center provided these avenues for me, and appreciate more than ever how valuable this kind of reflection can be.

It's been a pleasure to contribute to PhilanTopic, and I'll continue to follow it as I forge a career in public service. Until we meet again, thanks for reading.

-- Reilly Kiernan

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