From a BA to the AHA
How a History Degree Prepared Me for Nonprofit Work
"But what are you going to do with that?" is the all-too-familiar question that most history majors will hear at some point in their academic careers. As a double major in history and women's studies, I received skepticism about my career prospects from all sides. I knew that when I entered the job market, I probably wouldn't be hired for my knowledge of midwifery regulations in 17th-century Germany. Instead, I would be hired for the research, writing, and critical thinking skills I picked up while completing my history degree. As the pieces of my postgrad life began to fall into place, I quickly realized that a trajectory was forming: a career in nonprofit work.
In my senior year at the University of Mary Washington, my adviser suggested I seek an internship, saying, “It may not get you a job, but it’ll get you closer.” She was right—and it did lead to a job. I started a five-month internship in January 2017 at the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF), a multi-issue 501(c)(3) women’s rights nonprofit based in northern Virginia. The internship led to a full-time position after graduation. I felt the need to be part of a movement and to put my time and skills to use in a way that could benefit other people and, admittedly, I felt motivated to do something positive in the wake of the 2016 election.
My BA prepared me for my position at FMF, and now my current position at the American Historical Association, in a number of ways. Critical thinking was an enormous takeaway from my years as a history major that is also necessary in my chosen profession. Asking questions, considering cause and effect, constructing arguments, and presenting information in a concise yet detailed manner are all vital skills. Specifically, my degree helped me with two major aspects of my job at FMF: nonprofit administration and feminist advocacy.
I worked on several projects as an intern. I helped organized FMF’s annual National Young Feminist Leadership Conference. I drafted social media and blog content about current events and feminist issues, and I attended rallies and press conferences to represent the organization and show solidarity. I also designed an email fundraising campaign that included original copy and graphics.
The internship also brought me professional and personal connections. I built professional relationships with many of the staff at FMF, including president Eleanor Smeal. Ellie showed an interest in my studies and over tea and coffee in the communal kitchen, I told her about my senior thesis on midwifery in the 17th century. We talked extensively about midwives, childbirth, doulas, and maternal healthcare in Europe versus the United States. About a month later, she hired me as her full-time assistant. For the next 18 months, I worked at FMF and the Feminist Majority, its sister organization and a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, as assistant to the president, internship coordinator, and administrative assistant for Ms. Magazine.
Asking questions, considering cause and effect, constructing arguments, and presenting information in a concise yet detailed manner are all vital skills.
Across these positions, I gained experience in development, program management, communications, volunteer management, and event planning, learning a great deal about nonprofit administration in the process. Within my first few months on the job, I assisted with grant reports and proposals that required research, data analysis, and extensive writing. I learned about project management by running the internship program, assisting with events for the Campaign for Afghan Women, and working on the Feminists Fight Back campaign.
There were some skills I brought to the job that I didn’t even realize I would need. My historical training gave me an intuitive need for context, which pushed me to seek out institutional knowledge that could be used for future programs, events, and advocacy campaigns. With a team of interns, I sorted through FMF’s archives to digitize photos, fundraising letters, and news articles that could be used for marketing and social media content and campaign inspiration. I was always interested to know what approaches the organization had taken in the past, and what could be done to improve how we plan events, communicate with our audience, and streamline existing processes.
The ability to make an argument, and do it well, was essential to the advocacy work of a women’s rights nonprofit, where taking a stand and advocating for policies is an integral function of the organization. I evaluated sources and collected information, opinions, and evidence to create strong, cohesive arguments. These skills were critical to tasks like writing press releases, reporting for our news blog, or making fundraising appeals. We used the feminist movement’s history to our advantage when launching advocacy and fundraising campaigns, reminding supporters and lawmakers of how far we’ve come, what there is to lose, and the work that we still need to do. By applying historical context to current events, we helped people to understand the impact of policies and legislation, and my training as a history major helped me frame the organization’s efforts in an impactful way.
The ability to make an argument, and do it well, was essential to the advocacy work of a nonprofit.
I chose two degrees that seemed to lack a clear career path or a predetermined career trajectory. I was always confident in my decision to major in history and women’s studies at the University of Mary Washington. I had always found both subjects interesting and important, and studying the two simultaneously enriched my entire college experience. In my opinion, you can’t study history without studying women and you can’t study women’s studies without historical context. Ultimately, my understanding of the world widened, which is a critical part of any education.
My BA in history prepared me in other ways I couldn’t have anticipated. I left the University of Mary Washington in 2017 with a working knowledge of WordPress and basic HTML, an asset when I became responsible for updating websites. Because of my coursework, I had the ability to narrate organizational goals in an exciting way for funders and donors. I could read basically anyone’s handwriting after a semester of transcribing journals from the 18th century. Now, as program associate at the AHA where I support our grant-funded programs and the AHA’s Teaching and Professional Divisions, I find myself using these skills and more in my everyday work (and I even get to talk about historical content from time to time).
My history degree uniquely prepared me for a career in nonprofits by equipping me with versatile and adaptable skills. These traits are essential in the nonprofit world, where everyone finds themselves wearing multiple hats and completing “other duties as assigned.” With a BA in history in my back pocket as I navigate the DC nonprofit landscape, I know that I will always land on my feet.
Megan Connor is program associate at the AHA.
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