From Air Force Captain to Nonprofit Fundraiser

Keira Havens went from the Air Force to an education nonprofit. She has an enlightening First Person Nonprofit story, tips on hiring and integrating veterans, and at the end of this article, a link to a wonderful, wacky 1-minute video about her.

I spent four years in the Air Force working with nuclear missiles at F.E. Warren Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. This is not your typical beginning to a career in the nonprofit sector. But on the other hand, I don't have a typical set of skills.

After I left the military, I decided to take an internship at a local nonprofit. Global Explorers, a nonprofit student travel company that promotes global citizenship, has been a great way for me to transition from the rigid structure of the military to the much more fluid network of nonprofits.(For tips on making that transition, see Advice for Servicemembers and Veterans Looking at Nonprofit Jobs.)

I love working for a company that inspires its staff and its community to build a better world. It has also given me time to come to terms with the fact that I am no longer "Captain Havens."

Veterans' commitment to mission, work and service

Like many veterans, I bring a lot to the nonprofit table. It is not my expert knowledge of missile systems or my understanding of military strategy that made me the best choice for Global Explorers' outreach program. Regardless of our former specialties, veterans like me are an asset to the nonprofit world because of our attitudes towards mission, work ethic and service.

Furthermore, military personnel understand the importance of giving back to the community. Bases support holiday toy drives and encourage servicemembers to tutor at local schools. Soldiers run marathons and organize food drives. Veterans have been involved in community service beyond their commitment to defend the Constitution for the entirety of their careers. Should a retired military member apply for a position with your nonprofit, he or she is applying because your mission speaks to them.

Look beyond the military title

Like me, most military personnel have had countless hours of on-the-job training. We've developed highly specialized expertise in fields that are easily recognizable to civilian employers, such as personnel and finance. On the other hand, many other titles (say, Missile Combat Crew Commander!) might be more difficult for nonprofits trying to understand how our skills might translate. When you consider hiring a veteran, it is important to look beyond the specifics of our previous careers.

Service stamps military personnel in many ways - some less useful than others. The positive tendency to appreciate a clearly defined goal and move in that direction may also reveal itself in blindness to activities with less-obvious outcomes such as networking. Rank may rear its ugly head, frustrating employees working under an ex-colonel with good intentions but overbearing tones.

A brief functional report from a veteran may sound abrupt to the civilian ear, while the soft words of a donation request might seem patronizing to the veteran. Take the time to work through the inevitable differences of opinion. Your organization will gain a skilled employee dedicated to your cause and passionate about your future.

Orientation to cause

Military personnel have always known they were not going to get rich doing what they do. They did it anyway, because they believed in the cause they supported. Similarly in the nonprofit world, your passion for your nonprofit surpasses pay and prestige in a way that may not make sense to everyone. In both the military and the nonprofit world, self-motivation is a huge part of the experience. When you hire a veteran, you are hiring someone who understands the meaning of hard work for hard work's sake.

Reaching out to retired and ex-military is as simple as contacting your local Veterans Affairs office. It will be easier to attract veterans if your organization works for military families or somehow supports the troops, but the military, like any institution, is composed of individuals from across the political and ideological spectrum. Simply including "veteran preferred" in your job posting will encourage ex-military to apply for a position they may not have thought they were cut out for.

Veteran or civilian, new hire must be a good fit

It is good to be conscious of what mindsets a veteran brings with them, but the fact remains that you are still looking for a person that identifies with your nonprofit's mission. Just like every other interview, you'll want to get a good idea of who this person is, how they interact with others, and if they can do the job you need to get done.

A veteran brings unique qualities to the table and can improve your organization in ways you may not have expected. I truly enjoy working at Global Explorers, and I hope to see more of my fellow servicemembers working on this side of the fence one day.

Keira Havens lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, with her husband and two dogs. The military wasn't sufficiently exciting, so she left in search of adventure in August 2008. She hopes to travel to Machu Picchu with Global Explorers in 2009. See Keira in uniform and in civvies in a great 1-minute video: Keira Lin's Island.

See also by Keira: Advice for Servicemembers and Veterans Looking at Nonprofit Jobs

and Switching Careers at the Worst Possible Time (to fundraising)

Comments (4)

  • I love this contribution by Keira. Although many people don't think of it this way, Washington, DC, where I live - at least the metro area - is a military town, filled with servicemembers and veterans. They are engaged in all sorts of nonprofit efforts - from the Marines' Toys for Tots program to antiwar vets' groups. I have had great experience with folks who have recently left the service as staff members in the nonprofits where I've worked, but many groups never think of bringing vets on board. For lots of reasons, I wish that these two worlds collided a bit more. It's time for everybody to let some old stereotypes go by the board.

    Feb 17, 2009
  • I happen to be a veteran and do not see a difference in devotion to mission or work ethic between civilians and ex-military nonprofiteers.    This "Hire A Vet" piece would have had more depth/credibility if the writer had waited to set down her impressions after a bit more experience in the nonprofit sector, and in a role beyond that of intern.  And I think the advice to nonprofit employers to include "Veteran Preferred" in their job postings is not only naive, but probably illegal, for good reasons. 

    Feb 17, 2009
  • Seems you'd have a hard time attracting high acheivers by looking at the VA.

    Feb 18, 2009
  • Anonymous

    I second the comment about the VA. Hard to do.

    Feb 27, 2011

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