Tips on Building a Career in Philanthropy

By Stephen Alexander, Program Manger, Exponent Philanthropy

For career-minded professionals working in philanthropy—whether in program or administrative roles at foundations, philanthropy support organizations, consulting firms, or academic centers—the field can be a difficult space to navigate. Career paths tend to be limited and unconventional, and, although funders are making great strides in going public with their giving, the field has yet to overcome its tendency toward anonymity.

Last month, I had the opportunity to participate in an open and honest conversation with Kathleen Enright, CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, on building a career in philanthropy. Many thanks to EPIP DC for organizing the program.

Here are my takeaways—some offered candidly by Kathleen and others from my personal experience.

How do I pursue a career in philanthropy?

The answer isn’t what we might want to hear. Job openings are rare, and a direct approach—zeroing in on a specific organization—isn’t necessarily fruitful or wise. So what steps can you take?

  • Map out your network and ask to be connected to people of interest. Introductions and recommendations from a trusted source, particularly one working in philanthropy, go a long way.
  • Build relationships with well-connected people throughout the philanthropy and nonprofit fields early on, especially if you foresee a potential geographic or job transition on the horizon.
  • Seek out mentors; several of them! They will be your advocates going forward if you put in the time and effort.
  • Play up your skills. Philanthropy professionals come to this work from varied backgrounds (business, marketing, technology, social sciences, human resources), and, regardless of your degree, you are certain to have skills and talents that apply—not to mention passion.
  • Brush up on philanthro-speak. Philanthropy is full of terms and jargon; some useful, some overdone. It can come in handy during conversations to demonstrate your understanding of the nonprofit universe and key philanthropy organizations and terms. Make a hiring manager’s job easier by drawing direct connections to your skills using language people in the field understand.
  • Consider education. To kick-start your career, perhaps consider the educational options: university courses (e.g., Indiana University, University of Denver, Stanford, University of Maryland), online courses (e.g., Learning by Giving, Giving 2.0), or programs and conferences offered by nationwide networks (e.g., Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, Net Impact). 

It can be difficult to break into philanthropy, but, once you’re in, it can start to feel like a relatively small field.

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What qualities do employers look for in aspiring leaders?

Consider these points carefully. They can help you stand out among job applicants and succeed in a future leadership role.

  • Strong self-awareness and high emotional intelligence—Seek out training and use assessments (e.g., Myers–Briggs, Enneagram) to up your self-awareness and your sensitivity to others’ styles.
  • Boardroom experience—Seek out experience in a boardroom—as a staff member or board volunteer—before you have to work with/answer to a board in a leadership position.
  • Competence in your current position—With some exceptions, it pays off to master your current job before moving on to the next.
  • Humility—You never have to have all the answers, and you don’t have to advance as a professional alone. In fact, you are certain to need the help, support, and guidance of others at every stage of your career. Don’t hesitate to ask.
  • Responsive leadership style—Responsive leaders are able to read and react to the needs of others around them. Hone your responsiveness by getting to know the people you work with—What motivates them? What are they passionate about? What are their strengths? How can you adjust your working relationship to play to their strengths—especially with those around you who can be difficult?
  • Lead by example—Model the behavior you value and want to see others put into practice.

What qualities would you add?

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Finding a Rewarding Career in Philanthropy (Community West Foundation)


Program Manager Stephen Alexander designs sessions for Exponent Philanthropy's educational programs and coordinates content production with the goal of delivering the best service possible to the Exponent Philanthropy community. Stephen currently serves on the board of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network’s DC chapter and is a member of EPIP DC's steering committee. Follow Stephen on Twitter @salxndr and Exponent Philanthropy @exponentphil.

This blog originally appeared on Exponent Philanthropy's Blog, PhilanthroFiles.

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