Tag Archives: career

Doing good for a living

MN 1026

Tomorrow is my birthday.

If you’re like me, birthdays mean a lot of self-reflection.

I find myself thinking about where I’ve been, what I’ve done, and what’s next.

And I do a lot of pragmatic planning, prompted by the more existential reflections.

It was going through my calendar, for the mundane, that I came across a quote from one of my guest speakers from last spring’s class.

“I realized I could fight the good fight for a living.”

And that’s what I’m thinking about, during this birthday week:

How really, really, really lucky I am to get to make my living doing work that gives meaning to my life. Really, really lucky.

I mean, we all complain, sometimes, about having too much work or feeling under-appreciated. And I think that can be cathartic.

But I know that I never dreamed, when I thought about my career, that I could cobble together work that makes me feel connected and valuable, while still making it possible for me to dabble in lost causes and wrap up my kids in regular hugs.

So, I guess this is more of a birthday ‘cheers’, to those of you who have, similarly, found a way in this broken society to pay your bills while changing the world, and to those who are looking for a path through which to do the same.

They are good fights, and we need them, and you deserve to eat and rest and buy a new sweater or sit on the beach sometimes, while you fight them.

I vow to never stop being grateful that it’s possible.

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Guest Post: What a long, strange trip it’s been: The winding job search of one macro social worker

**Graduation at our School was about a week ago, and many of my former students are in full job-search mode. To both honor their accomplishments and equip them for the weeks ahead, I asked one of my favorite former students, whose job search I witnessed, to share his story with us. He has such passion and talent for social justice work, and I know that we’ll continue to see more of his impact on our world. I’m so glad he chose social work, and so glad that I get to observe his journeys. Thank you, Jason!

Several weeks ago, Melinda wrote a blog post with this piece of advice for new grads seeking work: Choose an organization that you’re excited about, not a job description that sounds good. No nugget of wisdom better sums up my experience job searching last year with a fresh SWAAP (Social Work Administration and Advocacy Practice, our School’s macro social work concentration in the MSW program) degree in hand and a social work job to find.

I was optimistic starting out (which never fully waned). I knew I would be moving to Chicago at the end of the summer so I figured I had all the time in the world. I didn’t. I was working part-time in Kansas City and I spent many of my days drafting cover letters and formatting resumes for positions as a Policy Analyst, Administration Coordinator, Outreach Manager. These jobs sounded wonderful, but I had little experience outside of class time, no connections, and little understanding of how Chicago social services work or look, apart from a couple informational interviews I’d done during a spring visit.
Applying for jobs in Chicago while living in Kansas City was tough. I think only one employer even gave me an interview. And they weren’t even hiring for the position any longer! It turned out that the hiring manager was Mennonite (my particular brand of Christianity) and recognized a denominational service program I had done. This was literally the only reason he (pre-) interviewed me. It went well and it was great practice. I kept in touch with him throughout my job search, but he never did have an opening.

I finally moved to Chicago in late August and for 2 and a half months I was in full job search mode. Most of the time. I never before knew how difficult it was for me to stay motivated on a single task. I had one purpose: find a job. But I felt completely unable to control that outcome. Though energy was much more frenetic than it had been in Kansas City and there were times of euphoria (an informational interview with the director of an advocacy group who had a position that was PERFECT for me and promised an interview; three interviews with one organization; completing my side project: running a marathon), there were also times of despair (the promised interview never happened despite my best attempts to seek follow through; the third interview was a complete nightmare; after the marathon I still didn’t have a job… or a marathon to train for).

In desperation I agreed to work for a friend’s friend’s Halloween store, which had me standing on a street corner dressed as a Smurf for a couple of late-October weeks. It was during this time that I received a second interview (the first had been two months prior, and I hadn’t been chosen for a second at that time) with Inspiration Corporation, a north-side non-profit specializing in job skills, a culinary training program, and services for the homeless. Though I’d initially applied for one position, that had been filled by someone internally, which led to my rejection. After a few weeks passed, another employee (who had the position I have now) decided to leave the agency, as did the person who received the job for which I initially applied and was rejected.

This time I got the job, which I’ve now held for six months.

As a Career Specialist, I meet with 4-6 people every day, each of whom are either homeless or at risk of homelessness, to discuss their lives and provide support, advice, and guidance on their job search or quest for further training. Though it’s work I’ve done in the past (and doesn’t require my MSW or have a strong focus on policy or advocacy), I’m passionate about the mission of the agency and appreciative of the structure and initiatives it has taken to impact homelessness in Chicago. Inspiration has a stellar reputation and I work with the most passionate people I could dream of to deliver services to some of the most talented and underappreciated citizens of Chicago.

It’s not what I would have considered my dream a year ago, but it’s exactly the entrance to social work (and post-MSW professional life) in Chicago I need. My policy and advocacy interests are only strengthened by the exposure to people’s real lives I’m witness to, and I hold on to hope that I will be interviewed for the Policy Analyst and Outreach Manager jobs. Likely soon.

I know the job search isn’t easy, but there are ways to survive. I’ve compiled a few tidbits and learnings here. Some are obvious. Hopefully some aren’t.

● Have someone edit your cover letters, someone from whom you don’t mind receiving criticism. They will be stronger for it, and they’re not as easy to write as you might think. And read them out loud to yourself to make sure everything flows.
● Send your resume as a PDF and your cover letter as the text of your e-mail.
● Informational Interviews matter. Eventually someone I interviewed with told me they’d heard about me from someone else. It’s about networking, but it’s also about sanity. When I was down (and I spent a lot of time feeling down), a good informational interview snapped me out of it and re-instilled hope, knowing someone out there had made a life of doing the kind of work I wanted to do.
● It’s easy to dismiss “networking” as overblown and overrated, but it turns out I met the person whose position I eventually received after he received a job at another agency at a friend’s barbeque for the homeless group she works with during one of my summer visits. Pretty random, right? But those are the effects of making connections in the relatively small non-profit world (especially around issues of hunger, poverty, and homelessness).
● Don’t take it personally when you hear nothing back, even though that’s next to impossible. You’ll usually hear nothing back.
● Give yourself a break. Go to a museum. Find free events. Read a novel. Even watch some TV on Netflix or Hulu. Budget your time wisely, but give yourself some fun.
● Brush up on local licensure policies. I worked with kids in a residential setting in Kansas City, so I thought it’d be a no-brainer to apply for those jobs (and get them) in Chicago. I didn’t learn until much later that all of these jobs required a particular city-certification for child welfare that I did not have.
● Connect with Social Work PRN. They’re completely wonderful (and had I not received this job shortly after I connected with them, I’m confident I’d have received some temp work). They are more focused on the clinical side of social work, however.

Congratulations on graduation and happy job hunting!

My best career advice

Because there are comparatively few macro practitioners in social work education, and because I make it part of my job to mentor students with an orientation towards community organizing, advocacy, and organizational practice, I am often asked for career advice for students headed in that direction.

I’m quick to say that there really are jobs out there for social workers who don’t want to do clinical work, and that they can really make a living at social change, and that their skills (of policy analysis, and administration, and systems change) will transfer to this work.

Helping students sustain their dreams of a macro social work career is part of my mission, and, in today’s economy, it can be harder to keep that faith alive.

But when a student asks for help making a decision about what job to accept, or how to begin a career in a way that is likely to lead to a rewarding role in organizing or advocacy practice, I really have one main piece of advice, which has, to my knowledge, not yet failed them:

Choose an organization that you’re excited about, not a job description that sounds good.

Some students are reluctant to take a job with a dynamic organization working in their field of interest because it involves too much case management, or too much fundraising, or too little advocacy. Or, conversely, they are drawn to an organization with a poor reputation because the idea of being “Director of Public Policy” is just so appealing.

The reality, confirmed by my own first twelve years of macro social work practice and by the origins of the careers I’ve watched in my students, is that, while there are certainly positions that are poor fits for given social workers, a less-than-perfect job description at an organization you can really believe in is always preferable to the reverse.

Part of this stems from my belief that there are multiple ways to integrate macro practice into one’s social work career, if the organizational support for a radical orientation is there: case managers can get their clients involved in advocacy to address root causes, fundraisers can go after money to support community initiatives, and administrators can weave advocacy into the organizational culture.

Part of it, too, is connected to my own experience working at an organization in a position that, initially, was anything but ideal: me, the person who still can’t read a balance sheet (and, okay, honestly, doesn’t even balance her checkbook), was supposed to create a financial literacy program from scratch? But I believed in the organization’s work, and in the vision of the leadership, and I was allowed, in pretty short order, to create the job I wanted and, in the process, to transform our advocacy work with clients.

I wish I could tell this year’s graduating class that the perfect job description at the perfect organization working in the perfect “niche” is waiting for you (oh, and it comes with full benefits and a company car!).

But your job search to date has belied that.

So, instead, when you’re weighing a job description that sounds kind of “eh” at an organization you keep hearing great things about versus one that sounds textbook (that could be because it is!) at a mediocre agency, choose the former. Be as honest as you can with your supervisor about where you see your career headed, and look for opportunities within the organization to chart that course. Learn valuable skills while you’re there, and make connections with people who have great reputations, and take advantage of the opportunities that come with association with a stellar entity.

That’s my best career advice. What’s yours?

My Work Search

So, I’m looking for some more work. Kind of. Not a job, really, because, with two now-toddlers and a preschooler at home, I’m still not in a place where I am ready to take on a full-time job. I still 100% love teaching, and I’m really excited about some of my plans for my classes in the year to come, but I am ready to get back ‘out in the field’, so to speak, more, and I am now trying to figure out what that means for me.

As part of this process of discernment/work search, I’m meeting with a lot of people, both contacts from my years of nonprofit work prior to the kids’ arrival, and newer contacts from the past couple of years. I also sat down this week to read through the <a href="Idealist.org guide to nonprofit work for ‘sector switchers’“>, which, of course, I am technically not, but it includes an emphasis on “re-careering”, which, I learned, I am doing, so much of it was still applicable.

Rather than run through the highlights of it as a tool (and, if you’re looking for a job and haven’t already made a habit of checking Idealist.org’s job listings and general advice for job-seekers in the nonprofit world, you should), I thought I’d try to give some insights on my own journey back to social service-type work in the hope that that might provide some help for my graduating students (all of whom are going to get fabulous jobs VERY soon, I just know!), committed ‘volunteer’ advocates who are thinking about turning their passions into a full-time gig, or others who might be reading this and thinking career development. I realize, though, that I am in a very, very, very lucky position: I don’t need to provide our family’s primary income (or at least very much of it), I already have a terrific part-time job with the university, and I had a prior job that was all about getting out of the office and building relationships, so I have a deeper and broader network than many re-careering social workers. Take all of that as a caveat, and please know that I don’t take it for granted. But hopefully there’s something here you can use.

One of my biggest challenges right now is figuring out where to land, or what Idealist refers to as the ‘lens’ through which to enter the nonprofit arena. Even though I’m publicly identified with immigration (and immigrants rights are VERY important to me), there are so many issues about which I’m passionate: child and family poverty, health care, early childhood education, women’s rights, labor, human rights, family violence, housing, civil rights…you get the picture. If I think in terms of organizations as an entry point, it’s not much easier; there are literally dozens of organizations I admire here in the Kansas City area. Role-wise, it’s a little easier; I know that I am interested in advocacy (um, obviously), organizing, and management, but I can also imagine some direct service positions that would allow me some advocacy work that I would find stimulating.

One thing that I liked about the Idealist guide, and that I know is a crucial factor for me, is the importance of organizational culture. I know a lot about the cultures that don’t work for me–I don’t work tremendously well in very structured bureaucracies and tend to prefer smaller organizations, but I need to prioritize the elements of organizational culture that matter most to me. It also recommended using Guidestar to learn about organizations’ financial portraits, to get a sense of where their funding comes from and how stable they are. I’ve never done that in a job search context before, but I like the idea.

In addition to that thinking, I have some homework to do:

  • Some kind of self-inventory of my skills and interests, to try to narrow this whole thing down a little bit, maybe by scanning available job postings to see what really leaps out at me. This is all made more difficult by the fact that I’m really not looking for a job job, but rather some way to make some money for getting a little more involved in social change work/social service.
  • Figure out if there are gaps in my experience or demonstrated commitment to certain issues that I need to fill to get the job that I want, and then figure out how I might fill those–some additional Board service or new volunteering gigs, maybe some certification or continuing education courses? It’s hard to figure out when I’d fit this in, given my current commitments with the kids, but that calculation in itself might tell me that I really want to delay this ‘re-careering’ a bit more than I had thought.
  • Part of that gap analysis has to deal with relationships–which relationships can I leverage today, and what new relationships do I need? This likely means doing some informational interviews and some additional networking, at least informally.
  • I need to do some market research, because I’ve been out of the field just long enough to not have much of a sense of salary ranges, either for full or part-time work or for the kind of consulting work that I’m currently doing (mostly by guessing at what to charge). I’ve started combing through these nonprofit sector employment data; look for another post at some point discussing what this means for social work students. It’s harder for me, perhaps, than some social workers, to figure out what I’m “worth”, since I really haven’t ever done what most employers or social workers would consider social work (even though I, of course, DO!) throughout my career. My salary was typically in between what a direct practitioner and a professional lobbyist would make, but I’m thinking of heading in a slightly different direction, which likely means a different scale. One of the pieces from this Idealist.org guide that resonated the most with me was a discussion about salary negotiation as “self-advocacy” and encouragement for nonprofit professionals to see this as a demonstration of how they will stand up for those they are representing. When it’s framed that way, it’s easier for me to see why it’s important to stake my claim, so to speak.
  • Equally challenging for me is determining a long-term strategy/career plan. Truly, I’ve never had one. My social work practice has always been more about responding to emerging needs, getting wrapped up in exciting campaigns, rather than planning out a trajectory of the titles I want or the positions I covet. That’s good and bad, I think–for me, I’ve only sought credit where it can enhance the power that I need to move causes, which can lead, admittedly, to sometimes drifting, realizing suddenly that 3 years have gone by without a raise (or a vacation, but that’s a whole different story). Now, I need to think in terms of what makes sense long-term for my family. I honestly don’t see myself going back to a ‘full-time’ job (which, for me, probably means like 50+ hours/week) for several years–I want to be able to participate in the kids’ activities and run our family more actively than that would facilitate. But I do have some goals about where I want to be; I just need to figure out how to get from here to there.

    I’d love to hear from others who are either seeking new social work jobs, have landed terrific jobs and want to talk about how they got there, have great resources for social work job-seekers, or, even have specific advice for me related to any of the above challenges. I’ll keep you all posted as I work through this journey and trust that I’ll find the right way, somehow, to match my skills and passions to some kind of work where they can be helpful (and I can have a lot of my kind of fun!).

  • Change (.org) your Job!

    I got an email about this last week and just had time to check it out today, and I’m really excited about it! I hope that it continues to grow and can be a great resource for both job-seekers and employee-seekers in the nonprofit world. Here’s what I like most about it:

  • Tons of job categories within nonprofits, including organizing, public policy/research, marketing, finance, social services, computer management–I love that, pretty much no matter what it is that you want to do, you can envision a way to do it within a social change context.
  • And I looked–there are real, as in ‘we are hiring now!’ jobs on there, in the categories (which you can also search by geographic location, years of experience, and other parameters), and in their ‘featured jobs’ section.
  • They have these career advisors, who are basically people with experience working in social change, who write articles about job-seeking and career development in the social change arena, and who are also available to answer questions (which you can post). I checked it out and posted one, and I got a pretty decent answer in a very short time. You can also browse the archived answers. They are planning to add more advisors, including one for graduate students. I also found the articles pretty interesting, and the whole content area on Sector Switchers is helpful, especially in today’s economy, when many people are thinking about a leap to nonprofit work.
  • They have a whole topic area on political and advocacy jobs–I love that these are here, instead of only more direct-service work.
  • You can follow it on Twitter or sign up to receive job alerts, helpful for those whose limited time is occupied by the job search process.

    Jobs for Change