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Importance of Career Goal-Setting in the Nonprofit Sector

Those who work for nonprofits rarely hold the same motivations as employees in the for-profit sector. Generally, the greatest driver for nonprofit professionals like yourself is the desire to do good work in the world. However, this admirable ambition is often accompanied by discomfort when it comes to searching for self-advancement opportunities.

Nevertheless, career goal-setting in the nonprofit sector is just as important as it is in the for-profit world. Nonprofit professionals have the chance to achieve higher personal satisfaction and to increase their impact on the community by advancing their own skills. 

Even if it might seem uncomfortable or unnatural to put yourself first (nonprofit professionals are characteristically selfless people), setting your own professional goals is incredibly important to give a boost to yourself and your mission. By pursuing opportunities for self-improvement, you acquire an enhanced skill set to become a more effective contributor to your cause. 

In this guide, we’ll take a deep dive into the impact that career goal-setting has on professionals in the nonprofit world. Goal-setting contributes positive benefits such as:

Stay tuned at the end for some actionable steps you can take to set your own goals. Let’s dive in!

Job Satisfaction

Career goal-setting is a vital aspect of job satisfaction, no matter the industry. Setting goals, identifying the necessary steps to reach those goals, and ultimately checking items off the list is therapeutic and leads to happier professionals. This is because it shows how you are advancing

You’ve heard the term “dead-end job” before. This term refers to jobs with no opportunities for advancement or improvement. These jobs are generally discussed in a downtrodden tone by unhappy individuals who will eventually leave their work for something more satisfying. 

On the other hand, professionals happy in their careers often have an idea of where they want to go and have identified the steps it will take to get there. 

Opportunity for advancement is by no means the only measure of job satisfaction. Other common elements include compensation, stress levels, work-life balance, job security, workplace relationships, and access to professional development opportunities. With this extensive list of potential job satisfaction elements, keeping advancement opportunities in mind can be challenging, especially in a sector where your mission dominates your main focus. 

Let’s consider Knox, a professional fundraiser working with an organization to help homeless veterans get back on their feet with well-paying jobs, housing, and more. He has worked at the mid-sized organization for a couple of years, helping raise millions of dollars in total. He’s by no means a newcomer to the industry, but he’s not entirely sure where his career is going. He’s performing well in his regular routine of making calls and building relationships with supporters, but he’s looking for opportunities for variation in his daily tasks

Instead of looking for a new job opportunity, Knox decides to talk to the HR department about additional opportunities and responsibilities within the organization. He learns that the next natural step in his career path is to become a major gifts officer, but he still has several skills to develop before reaching that level. He starts making a list of steps to take in order to achieve that goal, including seeking educational opportunities for professional development, specifically focused on enhancing communication strategies. Having something to work toward has greatly changed Knox’s outlook on his job, revitalizing his dedication to his position and the mission. 

One element of this story that we’d like for you to keep in mind is the phrase, “instead of looking for a new job opportunity.” Knox was in danger of leaving the organization if nothing changed in his current position, but finding a new opportunity to advance his career helped keep him on board. This retention is key to helping nonprofits avoid spending the funds and effort required by the hiring process and to retain a skilled workforce for the long run.

Organizational Efficiency

Efficient organizations are by definition those that are able to accomplish more in a shorter time period and usually with fewer resources. This means that the organization gets the most out of staff members, funds, and time. 

When nonprofit professionals such as yourself start taking steps toward reaching career goals, you’ll end up learning and advancing your skills in the sector. Nonprofit leaders often (and should) reward individuals who learn new skills that will help them succeed.

Your organization may provide opportunities through internally designed programs presented in a learning management system or pre-built courses from another provider. Some organizations, especially smaller ones with fewer resources, may even leave it up to the individual to find these growing opportunities on their own, but this isn’t the recommended approach. 

As individuals learn more about the sector and start improving their own skills, they’ll discover they’re able to complete their jobs more efficiently. This creates a ripple effect throughout the organization. As more and more people learn to become more efficient, the entire organization will be better equipped to accomplish its mission. 

Consider the various aspects of your nonprofit’s strategy you might impact by becoming a more efficient employee. Organizations with effective strategic plans provide measurable elements for their planning processes. You can use these measurable elements to show how much you’ve accomplished for the organization and prove your own efficiency as an individual contributor. For example, consider the following nonprofit department goals and how individual efficiency can achieve these organization-wide goals: 

  • The development team has a goal to recruit 100 new supporters by the end of the quarter. Sally, a member of the development team, takes a course about communication with supporters in order to learn how to communicate more purposefully and persuasively. She tests out a few variations of emails to new prospects, then creates a template to use and customize based on the most effective ones. She shares this template with the team, saving everyone time that would have been spent endlessly crafting emails and ensuring the effectiveness of messages. By the end of the quarter, the organization has recruited 150 new supporters, surpassing the team’s goal. 
  • The programming team has a goal to build ten new homes for disadvantaged families in the next six months. It takes 20 hardworking volunteers to build a home in the timeframe of three weeks. Jessie, one of the programming team members, figures out that if they had 25 volunteers and can get volunteers up-to-speed faster on the building procedures, they could build a home in two weeks instead of three. Therefore, he works with volunteer recruiters to spread the word about the opportunity and develops a standardized course to teach them about the build process and safety procedures. By the end of six months, the team built twelve homes! 

A willingness to learn and share with the team is at the heart of efficiency improvements. Consider how becoming more efficient in your own position will help drive the entire team forward at your nonprofit. 

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many nonprofit organizations started working remotely and many professionals used newfound time to advance their own skill sets and take advantage of learning opportunities. As you return to in-person work either now or in the near future, keep professional development in the forefront of your mind. You don’t need a national pandemic to find the time to learn. 

Continue seeking opportunities to learn how to become a more effective and efficient staff member. This helps you and your organization increase your impact on the community and your mission. 

Community Impact

As you and your organization as a whole become more efficient, you’ll increase the impact you have on the community. We saw this in the examples listed in the last section, and the same principle is true for your nonprofit’s projects and processes.

Therefore, when you start considering how you’ll set goals in your own professional career, be sure to keep in mind how your continuous development and leadership at the organization will create the impact you want to see on the community. 

This focus on the larger impact will help you keep your eye on the prize and maintain motivation for achieving these goals. 

Let’s consider one more example to further explain the idea of community impact through the eyes of professional development: 

Phil is a major gift officer at the same organization as Knox, focusing on providing for homeless veterans. While he’s an effective major gift officer, he understands there are always opportunities for improvement and does some research on the different skills that he could develop to become even better at his job. He realizes one area he can improve is his written communications. Phil takes a writing course and dives deeper into best practices for email messages. He immediately sees his open rates among major prospects increase. 

As more major prospects read Phil’s messages, they become more and more acquainted with the organization’s mission. Then, when Phil calls and invites them to give, more of the prospects are on board with the idea. In the end, Phil raises 10% more than he had in the past simply by improving his email skills. This money goes toward helping 100 additional veterans during the year, all thanks to Phil’s desire to learn and improve his skills. 

Getting Started

By now you understand the importance of setting career goals and taking steps toward achieving these goals. The next question is, how can you get started? 

First, consider where you want to be in the next two to five years. This will become your overarching goal for your career. If you’re not sure what it is you want, consider talking to your HR department or your manager to discuss the options. 

Then, consider the skills that someone in that position needs to succeed. Do they need awesome written and verbal skills? Persuasion? Organization? Planning? Write out a list of all of the skills someone in that position needs to be successful. 

Next, analyze your own experience and development of those same skills. Where are you already strong and how can you exemplify these strengths within your current position? What are your opportunities for improvement? 

Finally, seek out development opportunities that will help you improve.

When you actively show that you’re willing to put in the time, effort, and work necessary to reach the ultimate goal, you’ll be much more likely to get there. Openly communicate your goals to your manager, then explain the steps you’re taking to get there. Good luck!