On Becoming a Leader is a biweekly advice column in which Allison Fine, an author, consultant, and expert on nonprofit leadership and strategy, answers your questions about nonprofit careers and leadership. Have a question? Ask Ms. Fine using this form.
Q: I’m a woman in my late 30s with two small children. I made a career change to fundraising about two years ago and was quickly offered a promotion. I accepted that promotion but about a year later resigned to have more time with my family. I’m currently working in fundraising but in a nonmanagement role. I’m not ready to take on leadership responsibilities at work again until my kids are school age (in about three to five years). How do I make the best use of my time at work now, and how do I decline advancement opportunities (if they come up before I’m ready) without disqualifying myself for future promotions? — Casey
A: As the mother of three boys, Casey, I feel your pain! This is a really difficult struggle for so many of us who want to work and raise a family at the same time — and do both equally well.
I could tell you that everything will be fine, but that doesn’t seem sufficient. So I shared your question with two experts on the subject of work-life balance: Samantha Ettus and Morra Aarons-Mele — both are also mothers of three children. Samantha’s latest book is The Pie Life: A Guilt-Free Recipe for Success and Satisfaction. She is also a columnist, speaker, and radio host. Morra is the founder of the digital cause-marketing agency Women Online and is also a writer and speaker. They know exactly how you should approach the next few years of your career.
The most important first hurdle, which you’ve already overcome, is staying in the game. Whether it is fair or not, the fact is that getting out of the work force is a lot easier than getting back in, particularly for people who aspire to leadership positions. As Samantha said, “You don’t want to throw the career out with the bathwater.” Where you are right now is what she calls the maintenance years, and by staying in the work force you are actually winning by not losing ground.
In addition, Morra and Samantha had the following advice for you:
Keep building your personal brand. The secret to success is to raise your visibility through personal brand building (which you can also do from home and during naptime). Set a goal of making, say, three to five new contacts a month. Staying visible means staying relevant in your field, and the beauty of social media is that it can be done in your own time and way. Morra says, “Set a writing goal and publish credible, interesting professional content that gets you noticed by peers and leaders in your field. This could be a guest column, thoughtful blog posts on your company’s site or another industry website, a smart Twitter feed, a LinkedIn Influencer page, you name it. Just a few pieces per year will show up in Google with your name — and give oomph to your visibility.”
Consider opportunities on a case-by-case basis. Don’t feel like you have to turn down every change in your job. If it is an opportunity that doesn’t significantly change your dynamic at home, you should consider it.
Own your niche. Think about a great niche within the development field where you can have particular expertise. What do you know that’s unique and desirable for other fundraisers to know? Drill down on your unique message and voice and own it!
Keep growing. Don’t pull back too far. Keep learning and stretching yourself intellectually. Stay abreast of research and information on fundraising (right here at The Chronicle, for instance!).
Your next phase, what Samantha calls the go-for-it years, are when you will be able to leapfrog forward and spend more time working. Rest assured, Casey, you will get opportunities in the future, and when the time is right you should take them. And until then, keep growing, learning, and staying relevant.