Need Fresh Ideas? Try A Job Swap

Looking to advance her career and her organization, one association professional spent two days learning the ropes in a similar nonprofit across the country.

What do you do when you’re having trouble finding professional development opportunities specific to your industry and career level?

One possible solution is to create your own, which is exactly what Taylor Strange did earlier this year. After coming up short in her search for traditional development opportunities geared toward senior-level staff, Strange, director of special programs at the Center for Nonprofit Advancement (the Center) in Washington, DC, decided to implement a job swap.

She’d originally heard of the idea through a local theater company that had sent a senior staff member to another arts organization to shadow someone in a similar position. She liked the concept and tweaked it to fit her role and needs.

Strange eventually coordinated an exchange with the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits (MCN) and having just returned from her trip, she spoke to Associations Now about her experience.

“It was fantastic,” she said of her time shadowing Shelly Chamberlain, MCN’s director of operations and human resources, as well as meeting many of the organization’s lead and senior staff members to learn more about their roles.

“When we got down to figuring out what I really wanted to learn, it made sense for me to meet with multiple staff members,” Strange said. “It also gave everyone a chance to ask questions of me and how we do things [at the Center], so it wasn’t just professional development for me and Shelly but really for their entire team.”

In meeting with MCN staff and observing how they operate, Strange came away with several significant, and some surprising, conclusions she hopes will benefit her work and the work of the Center.

First was the opportunity to learn from an organization that has such a large geographical reach. “We have public transportation and DC geographically is not that large, so it’s something that I never really thought about being in a state where you have nonprofits that could be six, seven, eight hours away from you,” Strange said.

But it’s an issue she and her colleagues are thinking more about as the Center now supports nonprofits throughout Virginia, so getting a firsthand view of the complexity of serving nonprofits that could be several hundred miles away was both relevant and valuable, Strange said.

Strange also took note of MCN’s staff structure and how it operates, including things such as how many times they meet as a whole staff or separately as senior teams, or how often they check in with their program teams—a relevant issue given the fact that the Center hopes to expand its own staff soon.

The two-day trip concluded with an MCN board meeting, which Strange said she was fortunate to sit in on. “A lot of organizations can get protective when it comes to their board, and so for them to feel comfortable and let me sit in on a board meeting and kind of put everything on the table was really helpful in the learning process.”

The experience was so rewarding that Strange hopes to take part in another exchange or to send another Center staff member on a similar swap in the future. And Strange’s experience is not over, yet. Shelly Chamberlain of MCN is scheduled to come out to DC in April to shadow Strange and meet with staff at the Center in a similar format and hopefully benefit as much from the exchange.

For other organizations looking to implement similar professional development programs, “don’t let funding stand in your way,” Strange advised. “This could get really costly, especially if you’re swapping with someone in an organization that’s far away.”

She suggested writing a formal plan to delineate all of the things you will get to do and take part in during an exchange because, as she said, “You’re going to see right away that the cost is worth it.”

And while some of the benefits may be evident in the big-picture takeaways you glean, some may be less outwardly obvious.

One seemingly ordinary event that left a big impression on Strange was an all-staff lunch she participated in. “When the bill came, they put a company credit card down and everyone around the table said ‘Thank you, Minnesota Council of Nonprofits,’ and they were all clapping. It was something so small but it really stuck out to me that everyone across the board was thankful to the organization that they worked for.”

Have you participated in a similar professional development program? Please share in the comments.


Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

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