Jan. 29, 2015 - Alexandra I. Toma, Executive Director of Peace and Security Funders Group, addressed students and professors at the LBJ School for Public Affairs at The University of Texas on the topic of Turning Passion into a Profession: NGO Advocacy and Philanthropy on Nuclear Terrorism. During the event, which was part of the Global Civil Society Speaker Series, Alex presented her seven secrets for success in the NGO sector.
Find reliable mentors in your field and cultivate them. Choose mentors that are doing interesting things but still have room to grow—this is where you, the mentee, come in. Find ways to position your mentors for success as well, whether it be through facilitating introductions, nominating them for an award, or providing them with insights from your particular vantage point as a junior professional. For mentorships to work, they must be mutually beneficial.
- Write Well: Be Concise, Coherent, and Convincing
Keep your writing short (two pages or less) to ensure that it gets read. People, especially policymakers, are very busy, so learn how to communicate succinctly. On the other hand, avoid social media-like shorthand when writing policy proposals. It sounds obvious, but I see terms like ‘IMHO’ and ‘ICYMI’ come across my desk all the time. Developing your writing style takes time, so write often. Take advantage of readily available outlets such as Letters-to-the-Editor, op-eds or blogs. Building your profile now will make it easier for future employers to find and get to know you. Keep LinkedIn updated with your published writing.
- Know How to Read a Budget
Learn how to read and develop a budget. This will give you a major leg up in the NGO/nonprofit sector.
- Manage: People and/or Process
Find a way to manage someone or something, whether it’s people (interns, volunteers) or process (projects, programs). Start small; the team or task does not need to be large for you to develop the skill. The ability to marshal people and resources to achieve goals is critical.
- Expertise: Move from Generalist to Specialist
This is something I struggled with at the start of my own career. I enjoy thinking about many issues that fall under foreign policy and prefer to keep tabs on all of it. But one day a wise mentor told me, “Alex, you can’t just be a generalist; you must specialize. Pick an issue, something you are or can become passionate about, and become an expert on it.” I looked around and found that nuclear security policy was both exciting to me and an issue that had many “gaps” that I could help fill with my skills.
- People: Build Your Network
Start doing this now. It will pay dividends in your not-so-distant future. The people you see around you today are going to be working alongside you on projects sooner than you think. Tap into existing networks such as Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, Truman National Security Project, and your alumni chapters. Ensure that your networks are broad and deep.
- Be Nice: It’s an Undervalued Trait
D.C. is a very small place. Just before this talk, I was having a conversation with one of your professors who lived in D.C. for just a short time but knows 25 of the same people that I do. It happens all the time, so your intern may one day be your supervisor. (Really.) So, be nice. Help others when you can and don’t disparage or talk negatively about anyone.
Video: After the event, Alex sat down with RGK Center Professor Joshua W. Busby to talk about the role of philanthropy in addressing the threat of nuclear terrorism.