10 Tips for Your Rookie Year

rookie year

The first year on a job can feel like a crash course, with the most valuable lessons often resulting from mistakes. This can ring especially true in the world of nonprofits, where many organizations are strapped for resources and employees grow accustomed to wearing several hats. Advice from seasoned pros, however, can make a world of a difference, so I asked a few nonprofit professionals to share the wisdom they believe their greener counterparts should know in their rookie year.

  1. Be flexible. “This applies first to your expectations and second to work responsibilities,” says Martha Carrigan, President and CEO of the Big Shoes Network. “Non-profit organizations make the most with limited resources. You may need to do unexpected tasks. It can expand your mindset and your skillset.”
  2. Find a mentor. “I cannot place enough emphasis on the influence of experienced individuals in the workplace,” says Hannah Fogarty, Linkage to Care Specialist at the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin. “Seek out people who have work styles that you admire. Engage them in conversations about why they chose the particular field they are in; and what they would have done differently if they had to start their careers over.” In addition to long-term guidance, “these individuals can be great resources when you have the inevitable ‘I have no clue what I’m doing’ moment,” Fogarty says.
  3. Become comfortable with ‘making the ask.’ “Regardless of your position within a nonprofit, you will be asking people to give to your organization,” says Samantha Rowland, Volunteer Coordinator and Office Manager at Gilda’s Club Chicago. “Asking people to donate their time, money or expertise can be awkward, but it doesn’t have to be! Remind yourself how flattering it is to be invited to do something. And practice makes perfect.”
  4. Do your homework. When preparing for a job interview, “research the organization and the person you’ll be reporting to,” says Mark Rosati, a strategic communications consultant for nonprofits. To avoid a position that churns through staff, be sure to ask if the position is new, and if not, why it is open, Rosati says.
  5. Grow your professional network. “Connect with other like-minded pros in the non-profit and for-profit world,” Carrigan says. “You’ll get inspiration, commiseration, collaboration and connections for the non-profit organization and for your future.” I suggest aiming to have a couple meaningful conversations at any conference, networking lunch or happy hour you attend, and always keeping business cards on hand so you can keep in touch with your new connections.
  6. Hold yourself to high standards. Your work environment may ebb and flow, but having a code by which you consistently conduct yourself is a way to improve your work. “Get to work early. Stay late,” Rosati says. “Be your own worst critic. And, remember, the more you write, the better a writer you’ll be—in every medium.”
  7. Master objectivity—and respect. “No matter the situation, your ability to objectively evaluate a scenario and/or an individual is key,” says Tamara L. Reed Tran, Chief Advancement Officer at Oral Health America. “But so is your ability to treat those around you with respect. Remember that everyone is valued and brings value to the table. Learn to appreciate their value and grow from it.”
  8. Redefine your successes. “You are not a failure if you don’t change the world in a day,” Fogarty says. “If you’re too rigid on what you view as an accomplishment, I can almost guarantee you will be disappointed at some point. Take the time to appreciate small achievements along the way.”
  9. Stay close to your alma mater. “Your college career office and alumni network are excellent places to get leads on good places to launch your career, or find mentors,” Rosati says. Keep tabs on events hosted your alma mater’s regional chapter to build and maintain relationships. “Remember, you will always be judged in part by the caliber of places at which you work.”
  10. Always say “thank you.” This one comes from my own experience. I’ve found a little gratitude goes a long way in the nonprofit sphere. Make a point of saying thanks to anyone who gives you 20 minutes of their time, contributes to an assignment of yours, or includes you in a meeting purely to benefit you with the experience. It’s not just about recognizing what others do for you; it’s about reminding people that they matter.



Bridget Gamble is a Chicago-based communications professional who specializes in nonprofits that care for underserved communities. Since graduating from Marquette University in 2012, she has worked in public affairs at one of Chicago’s largest health systems and now specializes in communications at La Rabida Children’s Hospital in the South Shore neighborhood. When she’s not at work, Bridget likes trying new recipes, taking road trips and reading anything and everything in sight.