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How to excel at being “between jobs” in the social sector

Craig Zelizer

July 19, 2017

Finding yourself unemployed can be stressful and lonely. In western society, and particularly in American society, we tend to attach a great deal of our identity and self-worth to our work. Whether that’s appropriate is probably best left for another blog (hint: it isn’t). If you work in the nonprofit sector and you’re driven by a desire to make the world a better place, being between jobs can be doubly disappointing because you may find yourself without an income and without a purpose to which you can contribute your time and talent.

That describes my last experience being between jobs. In 2013, I chose to support my husband in pursuing a professional opportunity. Doing so meant that I resigned from a job I enjoyed at an organization I admired and moved to another country where, as a spouse, I wasn’t granted a work permit. My husband’s salary covered the bills, so I wasn’t stressed out for lack of income. But I had student loans to repay and I’m a pretty independent person, so it chafed me that I wasn’t earning an income. Even more frustrating was struggling with this feeling that I wasn’t doing enough to contribute or be useful. So, I was in new territory...I was unemployed in a foreign country.

But, we don’t like to say “unemployed” because that implicates a characteristic of a person. For this article, we’ll use “between jobs” because it reflects a situation is fluid and will change. Unless you’re retired, if you’re not working, consider yourself “between jobs.” It really helps to keep an optimistic frame of mind. So, at 35 years old I found myself “between jobs” for the first time in my career.

Big life changes bring both challenges and opportunities. I firmly believe that a good attitude and an ability to be flexible are essential to personal and professional development. Reflecting on writing this article, I identified the behaviors that guided my way from “between jobs” to being part of the talented team I currently work with at the Central American Healthcare Initiative.

Cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude

You’re thinking “Is she serious? Gratitude for being between jobs?” Yes. I’m serious. Attitude is everything. I was between jobs, which was not something I could simply choose to change, but I had a choice about my attitude. I could choose to be pessimistic and afraid (we all have moments of those feelings) or I could choose to be optimistic and grateful that this life change was giving me the chance to grow and learn.

Don’t be Boring!

You never know when you’ll meet the next person you’ll be working with. When you do, wouldn’t it be great to have an answer for “what do you do?” that isn’t limited to “looking for my next job”?

Living abroad required an update to my Spanish-language skills, so language study took up much of my time while I was job-searching. I learned that you don’t have to pay a lot of money to improve foreign language skills—and language skills always improve your prospects in the job market. I used free online tools like Duolingo and made new friends to practice.

I took the time to brush up on some other professional skills as well. I took free online courses through Coursera in a range of topics, including Latin American culture, the philosophy of change management, nonprofit governance, and design thinking.

I prioritized time for hobbies too. I focused on photography and eventually got one of my photos published in the online edition of a local newspaper, which helped to diversify my digital footprint and highlight a skill that could be of interest to a future employer. Any hobby that engages your talents and interests will make it easier to have more non-boring conversations, and you never know when one of those conversations will lead to your next opportunity.

Connect with Colleagues

Colleagues and professional networks can be a wonderful resource for connecting us with new opportunities and keeping our spirits up. But this depends on us making the effort to stay in touch even when we don’t run into each other at work anymore.

I felt isolated when I moved away from my professional network, so I made the effort to reach out and stay in touch with my colleagues. It wasn’t always easy or natural for me to do that, especially when I felt like I didn’t have much to share professionally, so I asked for advice instead. I got a lot of support from former colleagues encouraging me to join new networks and connecting me to new people.

In addition to the obvious networking on LinkedIn, I joined the Freelancers Union to learn more about the possibility of launching my own consultancy and joining the gig economy, I joined a local network of bilingual business women to make new connections, and I signed up for free membership with the PCDNework, among a variety of other steps. In the end, the method of connecting wasn’t as important as feeling that I was part of a professional network, which helped to combat feelings of isolation and loneliness that are a normal part of being between jobs.

Volunteer to Help Others

Being of service to others helped me to keep a healthy perspective and pushed me to find ways to contribute to the common good even if I wasn’t getting paid. I didn’t have extra cash to donate, so I volunteered at a few local fundraising events to fund books and school supplies for local primary school students. I used Idealist to find virtual volunteer opportunities that would allow me to apply my professional skills while donating my time and talent to a good cause. Idealist led me to volunteer with Kiva through their review and translation program in 2015, and I received the President’s Volunteer Service Award for my first year as a Spanish-to-English translation team leader. Volunteering for Kiva has been an incredibly rewarding experience as well as a solid resume-builder. Being of service to others, even in the smallest of ways, helped me to appreciate my self-worth in a way that wasn’t connected to my career.

Open Up to New Possibilities

It is too easy to define ourselves and our options narrowly based on previous job titles and job descriptions. That didn’t serve me well when I needed to find the opportunity that would fit my unique circumstances. I was creative about applying to jobs that, in the past, I wouldn’t have considered a natural fit with my interests and past experience. I decided it was more important to consider each prospective opportunity by asking the question “what can I contribute to this organization’s mission given my talents and strengths?”, instead of focusing on job descriptions and titles.

I was looking for an international or virtual position with a U.S.-based organization, that would allow me to live abroad. I paid for a one-year subscription to FlexJobs to search for virtual opportunities. I also frequented non-profit job boards, including Bridgespan, Nonprofit Quarterly, and PCDNework. The process of preparing and keeping my resume up-to-date was worthwhile even though ultimately it did not lead to employment in my case. These platforms allowed me to see the full range of opportunities globally instead of limiting my searches to a specific location within a commuting radius.

These approaches prepared me for the moment when opportunity knocked, which unexpectedly happened through a chance meeting on an airplane with the founder and board chair of the nonprofit I’m currently working with. I’m grateful for the journey, for the opportunity to practice persistence and learn resilience, and that, at least for the moment, I’m not between jobs.

Happy job hunting!



Shivaugn Marie Ahern is the Director of Communication & Development for the Central American Healthcare Initiative (CAHI). Before joining CAHI in 2016, Shivaugn was a program director with the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association where she coordinated a coalition to raise awareness about the health and environmental impacts of U.S. farming practices.

Her previous experience includes serving as a translator and editor of web content and a coordinator of volunteer Spanish-to-English translators for Kiva.org, grants portfolio manager as Assistant Director of the Great Lakes Fishery Trust, and public policy consultant with Public Sector Consultants.

Throughout her career, she has worked in public policy, stakeholder communications, government relations, community development, and environmental protection.

Shivaugn has a bachelor of science in environmental studies, with a specialization in environmental economics from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. She also holds a law degree from Michigan State University College of Law.

She lives in Costa Rica with her husband, Rob.


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