Career Profile: Jamie Smith, AB’07
Smith reflects on her experience in the nonprofit sector and shares her insights for new and soon-to-be graduates looking to enter the field
Jamie Smith, AB’07, looks back on her time at the College in terms of how the experience affirmed her desire to work in a field in which her work would have both a breadth and depth of positive effects. “There were people coming to the campus to talk who had meaningful, impactful careers… so it was really the place where I learned how the rubber could hit the road of a purpose-driven career,” she said. Now, Smith serves as the Communications and Network Engagement Director at the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN), where she coordinates the organization’s branding and messaging in conjunction with providing a portfolio of resources and training to YNPN volunteers. At YNPN, Smith’s dual-role of communications officer and volunteer manager serves a valuable purpose for the virtual organization: “We are a really small staff--we are only three people in the national office--but we’re supporting a network of 42 chapters and 60,000 members. So the only way to be able to build those relationships is through effective communications.”
Prior to her work in nonprofits, Smith contemplated attending law school to prepare for a career in public interest law. While working for a law firm after graduation, she began to take on writing and communications side projects, finding that the field had much in common with what she liked about law: “precision about language, thinking deeply about ideas, explaining ideas and forming arguments,” Smith notes. “The biggest thing that helped me make that transition [from law to communications] is side projects and freelancing.” Through these smaller projects, Smith was able to gain diverse set of skills and experience in areas such as web development and graphic design, proficiencies in which have proven valuable in today’s communications job market. Smith continues to focus on developing skills outside of her full-time position. “Always being curious and having things that I was working on outside of a full time job has been a real asset, because our full-time jobs don’t always give us the opportunity to play around and learn new skills [in the same way as freelancing]. With many of these tools being so accessible now, we don’t have to wait for permission or for someone to give us the professional development budget to do it. We can just do it ourselves,” she emphasized.
Smith credits her time at UChicago in part for instilling a desire to learn new skills and gain insight into different fields. Of her years at the University, Smith shared that the education she received at UChicago, along with access to new ideas through the alumni community, has been “valuable in developing that ability to be constantly looking for new perspectives, engaging new ideas and thinking really deeply about what we are trying to accomplish with our work.” This mindset has bled into her work with YNPN, as she notes that, “the nonprofit sector is trying to tackle some of our nation's most intractable problems. These are complex problems, they are problems we have been dealing with for decades, and essentially what’s required to address those problems are new perspectives, innovative ideas, and an openness to be constantly learning and evolving.”
While Smith has had an opportunity to become a thought-leader at YNPN, she has also faced professional challenges. Her primary challenge, which she also characterized as an accomplishment, has been learning to give up control in order to allow for engagement of other people and their ideas. Being a self-proclaimed “type A” person, Smith said that people with this personality type, “tend to like to have control, we want to keep things very structured, and we have some pretty high standards for what success looks like. We often go into a project or our work with a pretty clear vision of what we want to get out of it. I think that my biggest professional accomplishment that has come through my work with YNPN has been letting go of those ideas a little bit. It has been recognizing that giving up some of that control and replacing it with trust and engagement of other people and an appreciation of their expertise and the value that everyone can bring to a project that has made the results exponentially better. I would say that, for me, the biggest changes that I’ve seen in my time at YNPN is my ability to recognize the value in engaging diverse perspectives and ceding some of the control.”
During her time at YNPN, Smith has had an opportunity to examine current issues and themes in the social sector by writing for the organization’s blog. In an entry published in April 2015 entitled “The World of Tomorrow: Independent Sector’s Threads,” Smith extrapolated on nine trends that an organization called Independent Sector, a coalition of organizations dedicated to charitable and philanthropic causes, identified as affecting the social sector in “profound ways.” Of the nine, Smith highlighted two that she thinks are most important for recent and soon-to-be graduates interested in the social sector to be aware of: “swarms of individuals connecting with institutions” and “disruption from inequality and environmental degradation.” When it comes to so-called “swarms,” Smith says that trends are showing that individuals are connecting with organizations rather than through organizations. “We saw this with the Occupy movement, we’re seeing it with the Black Lives Matter Movement,” she said. “It’s more of a movement--it’s more nebulous--and less defined than some of the organizational work and movements we’ve seen in the past.” Because technology continues to be more readily accessible to a greater number of citizens, in addition to there being fewer “gatekeepers” to news and political figures, Smith predicts that swarms will play an increasingly crucial role in how social change occurs. Swarms, Smith advises, are “going to require organizations specifically to adapt to how they reach and mobilize individuals.” Additionally, inequality and environmental degradation demonstrate that “what’s been happening in America in the last few years has made it clear that we can no longer ignore inequality and racial injustice,” Smith said. These longstanding issues make it obvious to Smith that the social sector cannot continue to work in the same system that it has been up until this point.
What these two primary issues facing the social sector mean for new graduates looking to enter the field, according to Smith, is that they demonstrate that the leading edge of the nonprofit social sector is more entrepreneurial than ever before. The qualities that will help people be effective social change makers are cultivating wide skillsets, resilience and flexibility, and being able to think entrepreneurially even within the structure of an organization. Similarly, Smith notes that “adaptive leadership and leading through change” are key areas for someone interested in the industry to cultivate as individuals. “The sooner that you can become familiar with those ideas and find opportunities to practice... those will be skills that will really serve you well if you want to advance in the nonprofit sector or if you want to have impact from any level.”
To contact Jamie Smith for more information on careers in the nonprofit social sector, please email email@example.com.
Final Note: Smith fondly remembers three UChicago professors as champions of diverse perspectives
“One of the things that I remember from taking courses with her and working with her is her ability to open up discussion and to create a space for people to learn.”
Clark Gilpin’s Religious Studies class:
“My memory of this class is the expensiveness and the joy of learning about things for no other reason than the joy of learning about them. He took a class that was pretty niche and made it interesting for folks who are not well-versed in study of religious history. I remember thinking that was such an exceptional skill to be able to do that and to bring people into the joy of the subject that you love regardless of what level of passion or interest they are coming to it with.”
“I found his ability to be incisive and get to heart of the matter to be refreshing. He was in-depth and thoughtful, and counter to the stereotypes that we often have of academia of being pretentious and circuitous.”