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In a Walled Garden

Some Thoughts on Professional Development in the Nonprofit Sector After Our Career Retreat

Hope_elizabeth_and_danielle_2 Yesterday was the "Take Back Your 9-5" Career Retreat that Rosetta Thurman and I began planning for a few months ago. Quite simply, it was amazing. Just incredible to be in a room with 18 professional women, most of them in their 20's and 30's, taking a day for themselves to really explore where they were at and what they wanted to do. It became much bigger than talking about careers. It was about how do you build a LIFE that's interesting and satisfying and that helps you feel like you're making a difference.

Things are still a bit jumbled for me, but I wanted to blog this while it's all fresh. Moments/thoughts/themes that stood out for me. . .

Women need a place and space of their own for professional development. One of the reasons that I originally approached Rosetta about the retreat was because I've had a feeling for a long time that women need a space of their own for career and professional development planning. Our needs are the same as men in many ways, but we approach things differently and place value on different things. We're also more likely to be juggling work/life balance and we still (sadly) fight all sorts of discriminatory attitudes and behavior in the workplace, including the things that we do to ourselves. What was amazing about the retreat was the positive, supportive energy in that room and the ways we were able to bring together a group of relative strangers and end the day feeling like we'd done something huge, both for ourselves and collectively. One of the overriding themes was that it was necessary to do this as a group of women because it brought new and different insights from what occurs in professional development venues that include women and men together.

This space to think and plan for personal development is particularly important in the nonprofit sector.  All of these women are incredibly dedicated to both their causes and to their profession. As we discussed, the difference between working for a nonprofit vs. a for-profit is that non-profit staff tend to have a sense of zeal about their nonprofit's mission that can lead to burnout quickly if not moderated by other things. This is compounded by the lack of resources in many nonprofits that has staff performing many different and important functions that will quite literally make or break the organization. That's a lot to be dealing with and these women do it day in and day out without getting the opportunity to take a step back and see what's working and what isn't. I think a lot of people yesterday saw places where their lives needed to get more into balance. It's like we discussed, you can't help anyone else until you put your own oxygen mask on first.

Jee_before Visual tools can bring some amazing insights. Most of the group were hardcore left-brainers. They've had to be because it's the logical left brain that is generally most valued in the work that we do. But the problem with the left brain is that it's the "judging" part of the brain--the part that has everything figured out already and isn't interested in understanding what you REALLY want to do. It's also less creative, less able to see new solutions to old problems.

Pictures help bypass that left brain, so we used them a lot in yesterday's session. Everyone LOVED Christine Martell's VisualsSpeak tool for exploring their career visions. For many, they gave some fresh insights into what they'd thought was well-traveled territory. Most also elected to use collage to develop their mission statements. What was wonderful was seeing how the hard-core wordsmiths took to using visuals and their excitement in seeing how it brought them fresh perspectives and new options to explore.

Reflection is CRITICAL. Probably the biggest thing that stood out at the retreat was the value in taking 8 hours of uninterrupted time to explore these questions about career and life. We probably could have taken more, but just this one day boosted many of these women past what had felt like hardcore obstacles in their paths. By taking the time to truly reflect and explore some different questions, they got much greater clarity and understanding about ways to move forward. This doesn't happen when you take a piecemeal approach.

Img_1262 So is a support group. People spent a lot of time on solitary reflection, but we also took time to share what we were learning about ourselves and to give advice and support to each other. I also think that there's something to be said about engaging in solitary activity in a group setting. There's a certain energy in the room that makes you realize you aren't alone in your quest--energy that isn't available when career and professional development planning is done alone or with just one another person like a supervisor or career coach. One-on-one and alone time are certainly necessary parts of the overall equation, but I think that group support is a critical piece too.

Build It and They Will Come. The final big insight/thought here. My belief is that while we can all benefit from feedback and advice from others about our growth and development, in the end, we're the ones who have most of the answers that will work for us. I believe that if you provide people with the right space, the right tools and the right questions, they will take those things and use them to transform their understanding of themselves and of their world. This retreat proved that to me.

In my career, there have been a few transformative experiences that have changed my direction and path. This was one of them. I actually did the retreat as another one of my personal learning experiments, to test my hunch that there's a need for this kind of career and professional support done in a group environment using tools and processes that aren't the usual "take this interest inventory" kind of approach. The reaction and feedback I got yesterday told me that I'm very much on the right track with this. Not only is there a need, there's a way to have impact on people's lives that is powerful and exciting. And who DOESN'T want that?

One more thing--huge props to Rosetta for all of her help in planning and organizing this. She was amazing. Also, thank you to Maryland Nonprofits who rented us the space for the retreat.  And, of course, the biggest thank you of all to the women who participated in yesterday's retreat. You were a HUGE inspiration for me on a lot of different levels and it was wonderful to meet and spend time with such a pool of amazing women. Thank you!


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Heartily agree with the 'if you build it they will come' spirit...I've had people tell me I'm insane for forging ahead with all aspects of Shaping Youth sans proper funding/infrastructure...and I've found that the people I'm needing to meet, I'm stumbling across on the way. (your '31 days' series has guided me more than you'll know, I just need to get my organizational redesign figured out a tad more!)

Wanted to also add a take-away from our summit for Women Leaders for the World: "lead from the top of the mountain" If you look up from the base to the pinnacle you can't see your way and it all seems insurmountable, whereas if you find your way down from the top, you can see all the multiple paths and switchbacks in clear view...with the lesson that there's "more than one way to get there." (we did several exercises along these lines, which I found to be invaluable)

Sounds like an inspiring retreat; thanks, as always, for sharing your wisdom!

Thanks Amy--and I love the "lead from the top of the mountain" aspect. You're right that there's definitely more than one way to get there, although sometimes the challenge is to figure out what you mean by "getting there." Success can be defined so much by the outside world and it can be hard to find your way to your own definitions that make you the happiest. That's definitely a challenge!

Love your blog. It was the first one I started reading, and I've gotten a lot of great links and info from it so...Thanks! Do you have any suggestions for finding a job at a non profit. A lot of times it seems all they have are volunteer oppurtunities, but not many paying jobs.

As one of the participants in this excellent retreat, I have to give major kudos to Michele for an engaging, interactive experience that frankly left me worn out! My head was spinning with all that I had learned about myself in a day. I kept saying "I'm not this" and "I'm not that," only to find out that "this" and "that" just needed the right environment to emerge.

I wholeheartedly agree that community is important for these kinds of activities as the listening to the feedback and experiences of the other women sparked things within me. And you're right, I don't think I've ever taken 8 hours of interrupted time to think about anything! Which is a sad state of affairs.

In any event, I definitely appreciated the retreat and I hope to meet you again soon in the same or a different capacity :)

Thanks for the kudos, Danielle. I know that we had an intense day. I was SO impressed with how everyone engaged with the process and materials and the sense of community that formed very quickly. And I love your point about how you'd decided you weren't "this or that" but then just found that you needed to change your paradigms a little for those things to emerge in you. That's one of the most important things that can happen for anyone, I think--to get a wider sense of our own possibilities. That alone makes it a really successful day! :-)

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