Younger professionals, here’s how to increase your influence and effect change at your org

[Image description: Three fluffy adorable little kittens in a basket. Two are white with blue eyes, and the one in the center has orange stripes. They are all looking up, probably at the photographer dangling something. At least that’s what I imagine. Maybe some yarn. I don’t know. I’ve never had a cat.]

Hi everyone, after six years on Twitter, I have finally figured out how to use it (apparently, tweeting only once a week was not a “best practice;” weird, because blogging once a week has been working fine). Anyway, follow me @nonprofitAF, but be warned, I am a lot more political and swear a ton more on Twitter. But there are occasional tweets with pictures of baby animals.

On to today’s topic. In my work and speaking engagements, I meet a lot of young people who are frustrated at the pace of progress and the lack of power they have at their organizations. One colleague, for example, told me her ED shut down her suggestion to include personal pronouns in email signatures. I get asked this question a lot: “How can I make change as a younger professional when I don’t have positional power?”

This reminds me of what I went through 15 years ago, when I first entered the sector and was similarly frustrated. Living paycheck-to-paycheck was one thing, but worse was having those with higher authority constantly doubt you and crap on your ideas and recommendations. A lot of the challenges included in these dynamics are systemic, including implicit biases, misogyny, ageism, racism, etc. While we deal with those, here is some advice, in no particular order, for you if you are a younger or less senior professional who is trying to make a difference in our world. Like your with your organization’s logic model, please feel free to use what’s helpful to you and ignore what’s not or what you don’t agree with; add your advice in the comment section:

Build your credibility by following through with high-quality work: Credibility is not the only factor to increase your influence, but it is an essential one. Always do the stuff you say you’re going to do, whether it is big (like submitting a grant proposal) or small (like telling someone in passing “we should get coffee”). And make sure it’s high quality. Your ability to make change increases as you develop a reputation for doing stellar work and being reliable.

Stick around: One of the lessons from grad school that stuck with me was from my professor of a course on community organizing. He said, “If you want change to happen, be willing to stick with a community at least five years.” Five years is not always feasible with the urgency of our work, but the point is that people and systems often need time to change, and you need time to move the pieces into place. I remember my first year working full-time at a nonprofit, a community leader literally told me, “We’ve seen young folks like you. You come here for a year, then you leave. What can you possibly do in a year?” When I stuck around for two more years, she changed her mind.

Create allies both inside and outside your organization: Spend time really getting to know folks. You may feel like these coffees and meetings, especially if they have no overt agenda, are a waste of time, but they are critical to developing a strong network that you can rely on for guidance and support. Read up on the usefulness of “weak ties,” which are these bonds you build between colleagues, neighbors, and acquaintances. Strengthen your relationship with the people at your organization, while simultaneously developing relationships with people outside your org.   

Use allies strategically to deliver the same messages: Because of the various dynamics, your points may be great, but you may not be the right vehicle for them. Figure out who among your allies might be. Perhaps a consultant or a colleague outside the org might be best. I remember one time getting yelled at by a community elder because I asked him for a letter of support for a grant proposal. He accused me of only applying for the grant so I could pay myself. I was pissed off, but instead of arguing, I apologized and then convinced one of his peers to ask him for the letter. It worked.  

Deliver the same messages multiple times: Getting people to try stuff they are not comfortable with is like getting toddlers to eat new foods: You often have to expose them to it several, like 8 or more, times before they’ll give it a shot. Yes, it’s annoying, and we shouldn’t have to treat people like children. But this is human nature. If someone says no to some idea—like personal pronouns in email signatures—our inclination is to never bring it up again. Sometimes that’s for the best. But think about negotiating when you could bring it up again. Say something like, “OK, but would it be all right if we reconsider this in three months?”

Examine if Imposter Syndrome is holding you back: Sometimes, I meet young professionals who are impatient to rise up through the ranks and gain positional power. But often, it’s the opposite: Young professionals who do not think they are qualified when they may actually be. This is especially true for women and people of color. A few months ago, a younger colleague asked me if I knew someone who would be good for the ED position at her org. I asked her, “Have you considered applying?” She looked surprised. “Wow, I never thought about myself in the position.”

Balance your impatience with appreciation: My colleague Nancy Long talks about the balance of impatience and gratitude. Oftentimes, we are so focused on the need for change that we forget to consider and appreciate the challenges that people often face, or the efforts they have already taken. Being able to genuinely feel and express sympathy for someone who seems to be in your way is a good skill to develop. Think of the people who are blocking your ideas or recommendations. Sure, lots of people are frustrating, but few are completely terrible. Likely there is something to appreciate, and your ability to do that can greatly strengthen your relationships and further your influence.

Learn to have courageous conversations: Courageous conversations and radical candor are good tools/frameworks to practice. You can get your points across better while preventing the various forms of resistance that often accompany these difficult conversations. It is hard at first, especially since few of us are trained in discussing difficult stuff, so we tend to default to less effective means of communications, such as triangulation, where you talk to other people about the issue instead of the person who you should be talking to. The more you do practice these skills of having direct, honest conversations, the easier it gets.

Have people think it’s their ideas: Yeah, this is a little Machiavellian, but it’s a strategy to consider. People are more likely to implement ideas if they think they’re the ones who came up with it. Here’s an article that talks about how to do just that. But promise to use your new mind-manipulation skills for good, like getting your org to disclose salary ranges in job postings, not evil, like banning the monthly 90’s-themed karaoke get-together, OK?

Consider walking away: I know, this isn’t always practical, considering rent and food and stuff. But sometimes, after you’ve put enough energy into trying to make a difference at one place and going nowhere, it may just be better to leave and find a place where you may be more effective. Organizations have various stages and cycles and leaders. Maybe you weren’t able to create the change you want to see, but perhaps you laid the groundwork that allows someone else to do so.

I know it can be challenging and frustrating being a younger professional and not taken seriously. But keep at it. Your work is important, and important work is rarely easy to accomplish.

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