Finding Your Niche at a Nonprofit

Tracy Gnadinger

If you had asked me then where I saw myself in 10 years, I might have said I would be the lead evaluation specialist for education and training programs at a children’s hospital. But if you had told me I would one day lead social media initiatives for a health policy journal, I would have probably asked, “What’s social media?” 

Although I have worked in nonprofits for the past seven years, I have changed job roles multiple times. And each time I started a new position at a new organization, I immediately looked for opportunities for development and growth. But I never thought I would be a Twitter aficionado or participate in implementing an organization-wide digital media strategy. 

I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in creative writing and publishing. After I graduated from my master’s program, I was working in a contractual position in a university communications office. From school, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in electronic publishing (the way of the future, of course), but I also knew my current position was not going to turn into a full-time position. So I started looking for anything related to publishing or communications. I knew I could sell my degree or my work experience. 

Taking Initiative

Eventually I found one with both. I was hired into my current position to help organize and manage submissions and communications for the organization’s ever popular blog in addition to assisting with numerous editorial projects. Coming from a communications department, I recognized the need for more social media engagement.

We had a Twitter following of more than 70,000 users, yet there was no one person dedicated to managing its content. I’ve learned that working in nonprofits enables you to often wear many different hats. This can be stressful, and at times you are working beyond your capacity, but this can also be an opportunity to gain experience that you wouldn’t otherwise have. I made a few suggestions and with my supervisor’s support, took a few extra minutes each day to increase user engagement and attract more visitors to the variety of content we had to offer (digital and print).

And like that, I became the Twitter “expert.” The only reason I ever discovered Twitter was because I have always been the youngest person in the office and so must automatically understand social media. I never corrected them. I just pretended like I knew what I was doing. It didn’t take much effort, and I was told they would eventually hire on a full-time social media person. At the time a colleague suggested I apply for the position. I thought about it, but then realized I didn’t want to do social media full-time, and I had no real background in social media strategy.

However, I continued to own and develop this new role. And as I became more involved in social media management, I became interested in digital content as a whole. Most of my job responsibilities entailed working on the web, but I wasn’t sure how to explain to my supervisor that I only wanted to focus on online content going forward. Then a couple of months ago when I attended the YNPNdc Annual Leadership Conference and learned that digital media strategies existed and questioned why our organization didn’t have one, I realized I had found a niche for myself within the organization.

Not only have I taken on management of our Twitter account (now with more than 100,000 followers and growing), but I have been given more responsibility in terms of managing other digital content. I’ve provided input on a website redesign and participated in the implementation of a new taxonomy. And after speaking with my supervisor, it’s become clear that my role at the organization has changed.

But did I know this when I walked into the door two years ago? Of course not. My journey through the nonprofit world has never been clear. I never intended to only work in nonprofits. It just happened that way. But now that I am here, I’m glad.

Asking for Support

I could not have accomplished this new direction without some help and foresight. I fortunately have a very supportive supervisor who advocates on my behalf and sees the organization going in the same direction as I do. I have always been honest with this person, letting them know when I’m frustrated, overwhelmed, or excited.

I always offer whatever support I can give in the hopes that not only will I gain more expertise, but a stronger leadership role. When I started my current position, I was fortunate in that I was able to work on many different projects.

As I got a feel for the organization and the many different hats I could wear, I realized I couldn’t keep up with this multi-tasking. I was burning out. So when my supervisor asked to sit down with me and discuss my future role with the organization (alas in preparation of that forever loved performance review time), I knew I could only manage a few projects going forward, and if I was going to grow and take on more of a leadership position, I needed to pick a few projects to move forward with.

I didn’t know if I would get what I wanted. And even if I did, there could be other challenges I didn’t foresee, but as I’ve always been taught, especially as a woman in the working world, it never hurts to ask. So I did.

And now I not only get to be a part of this organization’s first digital media strategy, but my own, as well.