After almost nine years working in finance for the state of North Carolina, Tameka Davis wanted to work in a more dynamic, mission-driven environment — one that gave her room to grow and let her do good in her own community. “I was kind of at a standstill at my career,” she says, looking back. “There was no room for advancement and I wanted to learn more. I wanted additional responsibility.” As a lifelong advocate for social justice, Davis was interested in exploring the nonprofit world. There was just one problem: she had no idea how make that leap.
The reality of moving into an entirely different kind of organization — one with a different set of processes and practices in place — can be overwhelming, even for someone like Davis, who had experience volunteering with nonprofits.
And, Davis hadn’t really been back in the job market for almost nine years. Though, she’d advanced within the North Carolina state government, she hadn’t had to craft a resume or write a cover letter in a long time. Thankfully, her career counselor, Sharon McCormick, a mentor at Everwise, helped her write a resume and cover letter, and recommended the platform to help her make the leap. “I didn’t know where to look for jobs, how to transition, or what to expect,” she says. And while her mentor did help with all of these things, she also helped Davis stay on track.
Making a big change in your career trajectory is likely to come with a lot of rejection. For Davis, the exhausting process of sending out resume after resume and getting “no” after “no” wore on her. But with a lot of hard work, some clever networking, and the support of a great mentor, Davis made it happen.
Today she’s working at North Carolina Conservation Network, a nonprofit in Raleigh that works to keep the state’s citizens healthy through environmental activism, and happier than ever. Her work has a driving force, a purpose behind it that her roles lacked in the past. We spoke on the phone with Davis about her transition: how she managed to make such a big leap while working full time, what she learned from her mentor, and the other tactics she used to make such a big risk a little less risky.
How does your nonprofit work differ from previous roles? Why did you want to make the switch to nonprofit work?
When I was working for the state government, I was just going with the flow of things. You have to. But working with a nonprofit, it’s more mission based. My work really matters and it’s really helping people. It puts things in perspective for me. I want to make sure the others know what’s going on in the U.S. today. In North Carolina, if you live in one part of town you might have clean water and clean air, but in another part of town you might not.
So why mentorship? Why Everwise?
I was leaning towards nonprofit work but I didn’t know exactly which area to go into. My friend, who mentors with Everwise, told me about the program. I knew I needed someone to guide me and keep me on the right track because looking for a job really is a full time job.
What did you expect from the experience? Were there any surprises?
At first, I just expected someone to be there for me, to set goals and keep me on the right track. Once I got into the process, it turned into more like a friendship because I could really relate to Sylvia and she could relate to me. She worked for nonprofits for several years, so she could tell me what to expect and how a nonprofit is totally different from the state government. We still keep in touch. I could text her now if I needed something. That was the surprise.
What else did you do, outside the mentorship, to prepare?
I did some networking. I found a couple of people to help guide me and show me a little bit more about nonprofits and what they do differently.
Was that through networking events or through friends?
Both. I have some friends who know nonprofits, and my friend who introduced me to Everwise. My current supervisor, when I first started, she took me to a couple nonprofit events. There are so many different nonprofits in the area and you build connections. That’s how you build a network.
What did your mentor, Sylvia, tell you about making such a big leap?
Sylvia and I clicked immediately. She’s in San Diego, California and worked in nonprofit HR, it was perfect. She gave me some websites that might help me figure out a job title, because I didn’t really know where I was going to land. I knew I was going to keep working in finance, but nonprofits have different positions than the government. I didn’t know which ones to apply for so she gave me information on that, and how to research different roles and different openings in the area. And then we set goals, weekly goals and bigger ones, like where I want to be in five years.
Making such a big change can be overwhelming. How did you keep yourself focused?
I had a set number of jobs to apply to each week. I had a spreadsheet. I would enter each job in and then I would do follow-up calls later. There were plenty of nights I was just too exhausted to apply to jobs and then other nights I would do it for hours. I was eager to change the change jobs and I knew I had to do it now or wasn’t going to happen. That’s what kept me going.
Did your mentor help you help you stay the course?
Oh yes, totally, totally. When I set those goals she told me just pick it and stick to it. She said, “You might hear ‘no’ a hundred times, but then you might hear one ‘yes.’” And that’s exactly how it was. I was sending out my resume all over, getting rejection after rejection, and finally one person said “yes.” But before her I didn’t know if I was doing it right. I had no idea where to even look for jobs.
And what was the transition like for you when you started your current job?
State government and nonprofit are totally different. The government is all about following regulations and keeping the same procedure. At nonprofits, things change fast and you wear five different hats all the time but things are more open. A month within starting my new job, I was feeling overwhelmed. And Sylvia told me to be open with my supervisor and talk about it. If there’s something that you don’t understand or is moving too fast, she said, just sit down and talk about it it. I’m used to holding everything in, just dealing with it, but I took her advice and it really helped.
Oh, it was relief. And you know, she could relate to me. She told me some of the ways she dealt with it. She said, when you’re wearing multiple hats, stick to one hat at a time. If you need two hours to work on numbers, spend two hours working strictly on numbers. That’s it. You can’t work on numbers and jump to logistics and then go to meetings. That’s really kept the stress level down for me.
So do you always use time blocking?
Oh yes. Definitely. I’ll decide for three hours, this is what I’m working on. I have my task list ready to go, and my calendar with what I’m doing each hour. It’s all organized.
Do you think the more team-based style of nonprofit work has affected how you approach networking and the social side of work?
Yes, it’s that and it’s also teaching me leadership skills. Here we switch off leading meetings, we’re on committees and we have projects. So, it’s more teamwork. When my supervisor isn’t here, I’m in charge. That’s new to me, suddenly being in charge of 13 people. It’s really forcing me to take a stand.
What would you advise to readers who might be thinking a big change in their careers?
When you’re doing a big transition, you have to watch out for the scare factor. You don’t know the outcome, so it’s very normal to feel that way. But you have to set your goals and keep pushing. You will feel nervous, you will feel scared. You’ll think: What if I fail? Or: What if I do the wrong thing? You have to keep pushing. Because you will get there if you keep pushing.