Too Young to be an Expert?


Earlier this spring, as part of YNPN of OKC’s mission to provide affordable professional development for young/new professionals in the nonprofit sector, our organization sent Nicole Sukenis and me to an Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits training. It was titled “Claim Your Expertise: A Breakfast Event with Zeba Khan.” I went into this training hoping to gain knowledge to help our chapter advocate for the needs of the nonprofit sector’s newest members, but I ended up with thoughts on how each of us as individuals can find our own voice to share our knowledge with the world...

The first point Ms. Kahn made was that a claimed “expertise” could and even should be narrowly defined. For instance, I would never say that I am a “fundraising expert” at this young point in my career, or maybe even ever. However, I could be an expert in stewarding online donors who give to universities (for example).

Once your expertise is defined, you must position yourself so that the world around you knows that you have that knowledge and are willing to share it. Going back to my example of being an expert in stewarding online donors who give to universities, I would blog on this topic, perhaps write some editorials in the newspapers about the need for universities to better communicate their use of donations, particularly in an accessible format like online. If a scandal broke out where a university was accused of misusing money donated online, I would want to make sure all news outlets knew that this is an area I am comfortable speaking about and that I have credibility in this topic. Another point that Ms. Kahn made that I had never considered before is that credibility starts “snowballing” once you begin gathering it. After one news agency, newspaper, or website features you, the general public and even other news sources will begin looking to you for your knowledge.

So this all sounds fine and acceptable in theory, but here’s the question: what are YOU an expert in?

How did you feel when you read that question?

When the speaker asked us I, like most people in the room and probably most of you reading this, thought “I’m not an expert in anything.” The idea of telling people that I am an expert made me feel shy, scared, and completely unqualified for anything and everything.

From talking to other YNPN members, I think these feelings are particularly common amongst young professionals or people new to nonprofit work. We think “well, I don’t have as much experience as this other person in my organization or office so there is no way I can be an expert.” Ms. Zahn specifically brought up this line of thinking during her training and asked us to consider the definition of the word “expert.” For this blog post, let’s look at this one: “a person who has special skill or knowledge in some particular field.” When I hear or read the word “expert,” I picture someone with far more years of experience and maybe an advanced degree in that area. But when I look at the definition of “expert,” I think “well, I do have special knowledge in this particular field. I could talk about that.” This reframing of the word expert really helped to wrap my mind around the possibility that I could one day, maybe even soon, be seen by others as an expert.

In addition to looking at the definition of “expert,” it is important to remember that the world we live in currently is different than anything former generations have experienced before. Technology is advancing so rapidly, as are the possibilities for our organizations that come along with it, that you could be an expert in a new idea or technique just by virtue of being the first to work with it extensively, regardless of your age or experience in the sector.

While this knowledge is illuminating and can help us as individual professionals, I think where it is crucial is in our advocacy for the causes of our organizations. Proclaiming ourselves as experts in our causes is not just for personal gain, but imperative if we want to make strides in accomplishing the goals of our mission statements. In our next blog post, Nicole Sukenis will explain that even if you still do not feel comfortable taking on the title of “expert,” your organization or your cause needs you to be.

In the meantime, consider the below questions. Share your thoughts in the comments below or on our social media.

  1. What topic are you or could you soon be an expert in?

  2. What holds you back from calling yourself an “expert”?