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20 Career Tips in Honor of AmeriCorps 20th Anniversary

by Michael Omenazu

As a national leadership development program which engages more than 80,000 Americans in service at nonprofits, schools, public agencies, and community and faith-based groups, AmeriCorps has consistently attracted and developed generations of mission-driven talent. In celebration of the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps, we asked a number of program alums from our networks to reflect upon their terms of service and share some career lessons learned along the way.

1. Find what you love and then build your skillset. Development is a career path I never would have found without AmeriCorps. During my service year, I had to do everything in a small development department, such as meet donors, manage volunteers, write grants, talk to the press, engage companies, and manage marketing projects. I draw on that broad base of experience every day.

2. When looking for a job, apply to positions at organizations where you have some sort of contact or network. I’ve sought out positions where the hiring manager was an AmeriCorps alum.

3. Practice "The 24 Hour Rule” in the workplace. Whenever I receive an email that I have a strong reaction to, I wait 24 hours before responding. Always allow yourself some time to process and think through the best approach to a difficult situation. 

4. Assume good intentions of your colleagues.

5. Don’t just look at if you’re a good fit for an organization. Make sure the organization should be a good fit for you. Culture fit is a huge part of thriving at a nonprofit.

6. Volunteer for the small things.

7. Don't feel guilty if you don't know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn't know what they wanted to do with their lives in their twenties. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don't.

8. Follow the advice of civil rights leader Howard Thurman, “Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive."

9. Don’t forget to network!  It's not what you know, it's who you know.

10. Pay attention to the parts of your job that you love. What are you doing when you just lose track of time because you're deeply enjoying the work?

11. As judo master Carlos Gracie Sr. said, “Be so strong that nothing can disturb the peace of your mind.”

12. Someone once told me, “Don't tell everyone that you're smart; let them figure it out on their own." It’s the best advice I ever received.

13. Learn hard skills that will make you valuable to a range of nonprofit employers. Get very good at programs like Excel, Access, PowerPoint, and Salesforce, and hard skills like data analysis or grant writing.

14. Take care of yourself, mentally and physically. If you burn out, how can you devote yourself to the mission of your organization?

15. In the words of the immortal Steve Martin, "Be so good they can't ignore you."

16. Don't be afraid to ask questions or ask for help…at work and in life.

17. Arrange informational interviews with individuals in interesting positions to pick their brains about their career paths. Seasoned nonprofit professionals remember the help they had along the way and will be happy to pay it forward.

18. Surround yourself inside and outside of work with things that make you happy. Remind yourself that work is not the end-all-be-all. 

19. The best advice I ever got was from Dan McAllister, VP of Employee Relations at City Year, who said, "You won't ever get what you don't ask for." What I took away from this was that you have to be your own biggest advocate when it comes to advancing your own career.

20. If I could go back and give advice to my younger self, I’d say “Be a better listener.” And “Buy Google stock.”

Commongood Careers would like to thank the alums who contributed their insights including:

Megan Baker, City Year San Jose/Silicon Valley ’10 & ’11
Chris Bentson, VISTA ’08
Ellen Daoust, VISTA ‘10-‘11, NCCC ‘11-‘12, Mass Promise Fellow ‘12-‘13
Matthew English, MountainServe ’01
Moira Mannix, Massachusetts Campus Compact ‘03
Angela Martano, NCCC Denver ’09, ‘10
Jamie Minton, VISTA ’10
Michael Omenazu, Highland Street Corps Ambassador of Mentoring ’10-11
Jennifer (J.J.) Javier, City Year Boston, 2011-2012
Kim Bohling, Generations Incorporated ’08-’10, AmeriCorps State

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