Guest Post: Emily Shields on the Nonprofit Professional Identity

This guest post by Emily Shields, Executive Director of Iowa Campus Compact, is a follow-up to our March discussion group topic: The Nonprofit Identity.


I was excited to join in the latest YNPN Des Moines discussion group on nonprofit identity because it is something I have thought a lot about recently. I am fairly new to the nonprofit sector, having come into my current position nearly two years ago. I have, however, worked primarily in government and politics, which have many similarities. I have gotten to know many people who run nonprofits, manage volunteers and have other roles in our field. They are smart, ambitious, hard working and often humble to a fault.

In my experience, the view most have of a non-profit professional is someone who doesn’t make any money, is always overwhelmed, is completely altruistic and only working to further a specific cause and couldn’t “hack it” in the private sector. Entrepreneurs in business are courted, favored and often glorified in media and by economic development policies, while “social entrepreneurs” who see a social need and respond with a non-profit business are overlooked and unsupported.

We can blame the values of a larger society that pays basketball players vastly more than teachers, but we need to take responsibility too. Non-profit professionals first must see themselves as serious professionals deserving of higher salaries and greater recognition. Non-profit work is hard. It often means long hours and high-pressure situations. Most non-profit professionals I know are responsible for at least three roles that typically each have their own person in private industry. They have to be flexible, capable of multi-tasking and fight for their existence every day.

Others have coined a term I think aptly describes the unique leadership abilities of many non-profit leaders: “humbition.” This blend of humility and ambition can lead to great success. We need to capture our unique ability to lead today’s workforce toward solutions to our world’s biggest challenges.

As the next generation of non-profit leaders, we need to be more conscious of the public face we give our sector. We must confidently tout our accomplishments and negotiate with our leaders and boards for compensation that reflects the work being accomplished. While most of us have altruistic and intrinsic motivations for our work, we also have ambitions for our careers and goals for our lives and families. We need to be more purposeful and explicit in our efforts to achieve these goals and work together to change the perception of our industry.

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