On Building a Nonprofit Career

Public health intern Yadira Herrera asks her supervisor, RoiAnn Phillips, for some insight into building a nonprofit career. Following is their dialogue.

YH: What makes working at a non-profit different than any other organization you’ve worked for?

RP: For 25 years, I’ve worked exclusively at nonprofit organizations – for women’s rights worldwide, for LGBTQ and HIV impacted people in the U.S., and now for the health of moms, babies, families and communities. If I compare my experience with nonprofits to the brief time I spent as a temporary secretary in the corporate world, I will say a big differentiator is that in nonprofits, employees come together for a higher purpose. There is a real sense of teamwork that emerges from that shared purpose, and a level of commitment — some would say “calling” — which often drives us to go above-and-beyond what’s expected. In the corporate sphere, I was surrounded by a strong work ethic, but it seemed to come without this sense of a greater purpose which I find immensely fulfilling in my work now.

I will offer a word of caution to others who – like me – want to throw themselves into nonprofit life with all they have: Self-care is vital to avoid burnout. If you burn out, you are no longer contributing your best self to the cause. Take the time to nurture your best self every day along the way, and you will be able to stay in it. Self-care is vital.

On building a nonprofit career: If you burn out, you are no longer contributing your best self to the cause. Take the time to nurture your best self every day along the way, and you will be able to stay in it. #nonprofitlife Click To Tweet

YH: As a communications director, what types of skills do you think are needed for effective co-worker connections and communications?

RP: Listening is just as important to communication as speaking. Whether you’re in digital space, in print, or face-to-face, you need to listen to understand your audience – donors, volunteers, your friends and family, your coworkers – and find a point of connection. Do you both like hockey? Do you have people in common? Is the sun shining on both of you at the very same time? Listen to what’s important to them. And enjoy them. Laugh. Also, tell them what’s important to you. Be clear. If you’re on a project together, tell them what you need, why you need it, and when you need it by. Offer to support their work, too.

YH: How do you see different coworkers echoing the message of Health Connect One in their lives (through volunteering, helping friends) and in every day communication?

RP: I have colleagues who share their breastfeeding experiences wherever they go, who give their phone numbers out to neighbors and to women at church, who support new moms at any hour of the day and night.

My colleagues also understand what it is to hold space for people, for challenge and trauma and confusion and pain – to hold space as a doula does during pregnancy, labor, and those early stages of parenting when everything is shockingly new. I see them do it for one another; they’ve done it for me. And every day, I see my colleagues stand up for their beliefs or share their own stories to make the people around them feel less alone.

I’m glad you asked. I feel privileged to be in their company.


To see Yadira’s blog post about her experience as an intern, click here.