Ask Ero: Answers for confused and baffled Idealists

Ero is Thoughtful Adjusted Cropped3In this series of blog posts, I’ll try to answer all your questions (regardless of how ridiculously unqualified I am to answer them.) Consider me sort of a tech-literate, bearded, Ann Landers, or a work-safe Dan Savage.

In the last installment of this series, I answered questions about editing for brevity, solving big problems, and listening to music. How were my answers? I hope you’ll tell me. Now, on with this installment’s question!

After recently losing a job, I’ve almost given up hope. I’m not getting call-backs, and it might be due to my age- I’m not fresh out of college anymore. When I do get calls, they’re for entry-level jobs. I’m also an artist, and appreciate a flexible schedule, so how do I know if I should be looking for freelance work or a full-time job? -Margo

This is such a great question that it deserves an entire post all by itself, so here goes!

First of all, why limit yourself to one kind of work or another? You may not want the commitment of a full-time job. But keep your eyes open for that anyhow, and apply for what sounds appealing. You can even go to an interview, get a job offer, then decide to turn it down.

But you won’t know what’s out there unless you’re looking for it. Your dream job might be just where you least expect it. It’s not unheard of, after all, to work part-time or contract gigs, and have a low-key small business on the side. Unorthodox work is pretty common for artists of all kinds, so I’d advise looking for everything at once. Your solution may be a combination!

Now, keeping your morale up is hard, especially after losing a job. It gets even more frustrating when you’re highly skilled and experienced, and the only call-backs that you do get are ridiculously low-paid. Low compensation can be a problem in the nonprofit sector (though compensation is a complex issue). But although you may not be seeing them now, well-compensated jobs exist. Keep up the search and don’t get discouraged.

As for age discrimination, this can be a serious problem, but usually there’s not much you can do about it unless you see it happen. When first applying for a job you can’t affect the behavior of people who read your resume– but you can adjust how you present yourself. Make sure your cover letter and resume really represent what you have to offer specifically for the job you’re applying to, instead of just showing years of experience.

Discrimination happens, but you may also be missing opportunities because you don’t seem like you really want a position. This is not at all to say that you should hide your age. But you want to be sure you’re presenting your strengths properly.

After all, what you really want is to find work that values you for what you are: skilled, experienced, and not at all entry-level. Plenty of other folks out there are in the same boat: it’s an aging workforce, and some will see you as a talented youngster who’ll liven up the workplace with your crazy youthful enthusiasm.

There’s also a truth that isn’t often expressed, which is that the jobs ecosystem is not a bag of rice, it’s a bag of extra-chunky granola.

Every single job is a different size and shape.  Some are startlingly well-paid, some poorly paid. Some need decades of experience and advanced degrees, some want someone with strange new ideas. Some want specific odd types of experience, or unique individual skills.

During the course of my work day I see a lot of job listings – has 10,470 right at this moment! – and almost all of them are surprising in one way or another. They vary a lot! 

You’re the obviously-just-right candidate for at least one of them. As a jobseeker your task is to find that opportunity, and then make sure to make your obvious-just-right-ness clear.

After all, you’re looking, not to succeed with all jobs…just ones that are right for you.The right work for you will come along if you keep looking, and keep putting yourself out there. (You can find lots of useful tips on our blog).

I believe in you. You can do it.

Have questions about anything I’ve said? Or about anything else (and I do mean anything)? Ask me.

Ask Ero anything (anything anything anything) at

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Diana's Big Move: The first job interview


Now we're moving. (Photo: Norlando Pobre, Flickr/Creative Commons)

I just finished my first interview!

I got the interview request a few days ago, and after weeks of stress-induced quesadilla dinners and panic, this was a huge reassurance. Someone somewhere thinks I’m doing something right! (If you need to catch up, here’s how I started my search and what I’ve been doing since.)

After finishing my celebratory happy dance, I got down to work. Here’s how I prepared and how I think you can make it through your interview with minimal stress.


Remind yourself why you’re a great fit for the position.

  • Back to basics. Re-familiarize yourself with the job description, the application materials you sent, and the organization’s website (specifically the role you’re hoping for and how it ties to their mission).


Now that you have those talking points, learn them. Make flashcards, invent a color scheme, or cover yourself in sticky notes. Whatever it takes, know the key points that you want to cover.

Interview day

Get comfortable and be confident.

  • Go to your happy place. If you have a phone interview like I did, a happy place is both mental and physical. I squirreled away into an empty back conference room with a notebook, pen, bottle of water, the cover letter and resume I submitted, and a print-out of the job description. If your cell phone is as temperamental as mine, try to get to a land line. Get comfortable – if you are more assertive in a suit, wear one. Personally? I rid myself of the jitters by interviewing in flip-flops and blasting Eminem a few minutes before I knew the phone would ring. Oh, and did you remember to go tinkle? Do it.
  • If you have an in-person interview, look professional and approachable. If you’re not sure of the dress code, aim to be over- rather than under-dressed (but this does not necessarily mean wearing a suit). And bring a copy of your resume and a way to take notes, even if you don’t end up needing either.
  • Pump yourself up, do a mirror check, and review your notes, but do it all before you get there. Arrive a little early, walk through the doors on time, and be nice to the person who greets you. First impressions are crucial. When you step foot in the building, you’re on.


The hiring committee is looking for a good fit for the position and their office culture; you are looking for a position where you’ll contribute and thrive. All of this preparation is so that everyone can find out if it’s a good match. Take a deep breath and be yourself.

Extra reading:

This is obviously a well worn topic. Here are some resources that I consulted while preparing for my interview:

  •’s Career Center – We offer a rundown on how to prepare, what questions to ask, and even what to pack for your big day.
  • – Alison Green’s wildly helpful site, written from the point of view of a hiring manager. You’ll want to look specifically at her interview and phone interview posts.
  • – Tips on how to answer questions, what your body language is saying to the hiring manager, and mistakes to avoid. Thanks to Catherine R. of our LinkedIn group for the tip.
  • – Browse interview reviews from previous candidates to get an inside view of a company’s interview process.

Happy dances all around

We’re getting there! Congrats on any progress you’ve made this week. As always, feel free to share your experiences, horror stories, and funny anecdotes with me in the comments or at diana [at] idealist [dot] org. I’m cheering you on!

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Diana’s Big Move: The job applications continue…

Hi, Diana again. I checked in a little while ago about the beginning of my job search. I thought it might be time for an update and a few more insider tidbits.


What to do when you're waiting...and waiting... (Photo: Paul Downey, Flickr/Creative Commons)

I have sadly little to report: a few false starts, and one tiny spark of a lead that I hope to turn into a real possibility. I’m trying my best not to let my anxiety get to the best of me, and trying not to check my email fifteen times an hour (…I wish I were kidding). But, never fear. Let’s be proactive:

Keep the applications going and be patient.

It’s easy to feel burnt out when you spend hours on applications and you don’t receive positive feedback. Find your inner Dory, and just keep swimming. Don’t focus on the number of applications you’ve sent out, or the rejection letters (or lack thereof) that you’ve received. All you need is for one employer to think you’re a good fit.

While we’re on the subject of feedback: as tempting as it may be, in most cases you should refrain from following up on your resume. You’ve submitted your application, so the organization knows you’re interested; your cover letter and resume indicate your enthusiasm and skill set. One exception to this is if you have a substantial addition to make to your file. If you’ve applied to a job where Swahili is a requirement, and you’ve since become fluent, by all means, let the hiring committee know. (This tidbit comes to you from our very own HR team; for more insight, check out

Learn from your (mis)steps.

If you’re not sure about the content, tone, or general approach of your application materials, have a friend or colleague look everything over. As much as it may feel like one, your job search is not a cumulative exercise. The organization you contact today doesn’t know about the spelling error you missed on the last resume you sent out, or about the “joke” that didn’t go over so well in a past interview. Take your past stumbles and learn from them.

Take notes.

Every week, we receive a few calls from panicked job seekers who’ve finally landed an interview, only to realize they have no idea which position they’re being considered for. Don’t let yourself get ambushed – and please feel free to use this little chart I’ve made for myself:

Network. No, really, do it.

I rolled my eyes as much as the next person when it came to networking. But that lead that I mentioned? It came from a connection. I’m sending out applications and letters and resumes, too, of course. But you never know where your dream job will come from. We have so many great ideas on networking already, so I’ll leave you to peruse our resources. Suffice it to say, whether it be via social media, in person, or by carrier pigeon, networking: do it.


This is a struggle for me, too. Some of you have already reached out with your personal stories and experiences. Please keep these coming! If there are specific topics that you’d like Idealist to cover or if you have a never-fail tip, let us know. Drop me a line here in the comments or at diana [at] idealist [dot] org.

Liked this post? Here are others you might enjoy:

Five New Year’s resolutions for job seekers

Career Corner: Taking my own advice

Getting your career search on track

Diana’s Big Move: The job search  begins

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Got a new job? Eight tips for a successful start

January is typically the month when we see the highest number of jobs posted to, and this year is no exception. If you’re lucky enough to snag one of those gigs, here are some things to keep in mind as you begin. Thanks to Michelle Moran of YNPN-NYC for this guest post.


Good luck in your new role! (Photo: cogdogblog, Flickr/Creative Commons)

Once you have landed a new job it may seem like the hard part is over, but sometimes your first few weeks at work can be very challenging. Follow these tips to get off on the right foot and avoid making common mistakes.

1. Remember: you were hired for a reason. You beat out other qualified candidates for this job. That means the hiring manager believes you are the best person for the position. Have confidence that you will do a great job and can make important decisions on your own.

2. Learn from others. Pay attention to the ways that your successful colleagues and senior management approach their work, and leverage that understanding to be better at your job. Take the time to observe activities around the organization that may or may not be a part of your direct responsibilities. For example, if you are in fundraising, learn as much as you can about the program side of your organization.

3. Strike a balance between respecting what’s been done and making changes. Unless you are one of the first employees at an organization, there are certain norms that have been established for better or for worse. Don’t begin a new job thinking you are going to change things immediately. Instead, take time to understand why things are the way they are and how you can participate in your organization’s culture.

4. Meet one on one with everyone you will work with. From the intern to the top executive, never assume that you won’t interact with someone or that their advice will not be helpful. Everybody’s work (and opinion of you) matters, especially in a small office. If you can meet with them individually, ask what brought them to the organization, how they approach their role, and how you can best work together. Make sure to write a quick thank you note to everyone you meet.

5. Ask questions. Sometimes people can be so comfortable with a job or work environment that they forget to tell you important things that you need to know as a new employee. Take advantage of your newbie status to ask lots of questions.

6. Stay away from office politics. The last thing you want is to get involved in any drama. If people try to persuade you one way or another, simply state that you are here to do your job and don’t know anyone well enough to make judgments about them. Avoid the office drama queen (or king) as much as possible.

7. If you struggle in your new position, give it some time. You never know how things can change, and how responsibilities that seem difficult now may eventually be what you like most about your job.

8. Be yourself. Authenticity is key to not only winning over your coworkers, but also to doing a really great job in your position, and increasing your chances of a promotion. Ask: are you doing what you love? If your job isn’t what you expected, it might be worth a conversation with your manager.

What other tips would you add?

This is a slightly edited version of a post that originally appeared on the YNPN-NYC blog. The Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of New York City supports the professional development of the next generation of nonprofit leaders by providing opportunities for skill-building, information sharing, and networking. Visit YNPN-NYC online at and connect with them on Twitter @ynpnnyc, on Facebook at, and on LinkedIn at


From The Service to nonprofit service: Career resources for vets

By Amy Potthast.


U.S. Army 1st Lt. Anthony Buchanan gets a hug after reading to children on "Read with a Hero Day." (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Russell Kilka, Creative Commons)

In 2010, Daniel Finan separated from the Navy. He told us recently, “I was sure I was going to get stuck doing some kind of intelligence work or defense contracting because of my military background. Not what I wanted to do, at all.”

For veterans, the task of searching for a rewarding job—something in the civilian world that is as satisfying and selfless as service-to-country—has its complications.

  • Military service is more than a job — it’s a mission, it’s a challenge, it’s an identity, and it involves caring for the people you serve with. You can’t leave that kind of high-stakes job and be satisfied with just anything that pays the bills.
  • Over a million vets are unemployed, and their spouses (who move around frequently) are facing unemployment rates of 25 percent.
  • As sector switchers, vets entering the nonprofit sector must learn to translate their experiences and skills so that civilian employers get it.

After four months of searching and applying for positions he found on Idealist, Daniel landed a job at the Institute of International Education, as program manager of the International Visitor Leadership Program sponsored by the Department of State’s Educational and Cultural Affairs Division.

If you are like Daniel, hoping to transition from military missions to nonprofit missions, you may benefit from these insights:

1) Network. Your path to a satisfying public service career at home is paved with relationships. Relationships will help you figure out your new career niche, learn where to look for jobs, and familiarize yourself with the lingo and philosophies of the sector.

Resources to check out:

2) Volunteer. A great way to build relationships in the nonprofit sector is to volunteer with organizations that mean something to you. You should list your volunteer position and job duties on your resume — in line with paid positions. Search volunteer listings here on Idealist or refer to these other resources.

Resources to check out:

  • Mission Serve, a program of ServiceNation, connects vets and civilians through volunteering — often an entry point to careers in the nonprofit sector. Its blog is filled with stories of vets who have found meaning in service here at home.
  • AmeriCorps isn’t technically volunteering, but it is full-time, stipended service here at home. Opportunities exist throughout the States and Territories and service comes with an education award of about $5,000 to put towards school.

3) Lead with issue. Many sector switchers wonder, “what employer needs my skill set?” Coming from military training and service, it’s clear you have a strong set of unique skills that a nonprofit will put to good use.

But in the nonprofit sector, more important questions to ask are, what am I passionate about? What change do I want to see in the world? Consider the social or environmental issues that you are most concerned with, and find ways to work on them professionally.

Resources to check out:

Your turn to weigh in! Are you transitioning out of the Service? What secrets or success stories can you share?

Amy Potthast served as Idealist’s Director of Service and Graduate Education Programs until 2011. Read more of her work at

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Returnships: A win-win in the nonprofit sector?

Amy Potthast served as Idealist’s Director of Service and Graduate Education Programs until 2011. Read more of her work at

People face challenges in returning to work after a career break – especially parents of young children. The resume gap, rusty job skills (real and perceived), and the cost of childcare during the job search process are just a few of the bumps in the road.


On-ramp photo by Scott Hingst (Flickr)

Enter the Returnship

Returnships are part-time, paid internships for people “on-ramping” after a voluntary career break – not so much looking to launch their career as to jump back in. The concept offers these benefits:

  • The pay helps transitioning parents offset the costs of childcare
  • The professional experience allows them to renew and update work skills and habits, and add something recent to their resumes
  • The schedule gives them and their families time to adjust to a new normal at home
  • And the host organization’s supportive parenting culture offers career relaunchers a soft landing.

Family Forward Oregon, a nonprofit that advocates for a more family-friendly economy in my state, is currently offering two six-month Returnships that focus on fundraising and event planning.

According to Sharon Bernstein, the organization’s co-founder, one of the trickiest aspects of navigating the career transition when you have small children at home is setting up affordable, high-quality childcare during the job search process – before a pay check starts coming in. The problem is tougher with more than one child (greater expense; harder to find another stay-at-home parent to swap childcare with; etc.). While the Returnship stipend may not fully cover childcare costs, it helps.

Different from an internship

What distinguishes Returnships from paid internships may be more in branding and attitude than substance. Good internships, after all, are more about the intern’s educational needs than the organization’s productivity.

But the name Returnship invites a different segment of the intern market to apply; and organizations with cultures (not just policies) supportive of parenting are beacons of light for modern parents who constantly feel the double tug of family and work.

Is it time for more nonprofits to embrace the idea?

Returnships seem to have more of a history in the business sector. The Sara Lee company pioneered the concept which is now simply integrated into the company’s hiring process. Goldman Sachs has also developed a Returnship program.

For the nonprofit host, Returnships could attract people who were once established in their professional roles and may bring more expertise than a less-experienced intern. Returnships could also offer organizations a way to connect with a broader, more diverse workforce—highly ambitious people who may want to work part-time—ideal for some nonprofits looking for top talent on a tight budget.

Have you participated in a Returnship (even if it wasn’t called that)? Does your nonprofit offer opportunities for people on-ramping after a voluntary career break?

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Career Corner: Don't throw away that thank you note!

Amy Potthast served as Idealist’s Director of Service and Graduate Education Programs until 2011. Read more of her work at

From Flickr user stopnlook (Creative Commons)

I know you probably didn’t enter mission-driven work so that you could tally up your good deeds, but collecting and tracking information and evidence will help you in your current job and during your next career transition.

Documenting your work can help you quantify and illustrate your work to your current employer; evaluate the success of your projects, programs, and performance; increase the likelihood of success for the people coming after you; and help hiring and admissions teams evaluate your potential.

Let’s think about that last point. Imagine you’re on a hiring team and sizing up candidates. Whose application will be stronger — the person who tells you she has achieved many things but ultimately wants you to take her word for it, or the one who shows examples of her past work so you can see for yourself?

Here are seven things to collect:

  • Numbers — anything from clients served and volunteers recruited, to social media impact. If you can quantify it, do!
  • Media attention — press clippings, audio and video interviews with you, screen shots of blog posts, list of media mentions.
  • Kudos to you — thank you notes, recommendation letters, positive comment cards and performance evaluations.
  • Work samples — writing, curriculum units, screen shots, event materials, volunteer position descriptions — whatever makes sense for your job.
  • Project management evidence — agendas and planning.
  • Photographs — of you in action, of people engaged in your programs.
  • Communications — emails, promotional materials (social media releases, flyers, public service announcements), volunteer recruitment ads, newsletters, or blog posts you authored.

…But don’t save them to your work computer!

Many people work on their organization’s computer and when they leave their job, don’t take the time to save work samples and other important documentation. Don’t let this happen to you. Here are some alternatives:

  • Save documents to your own computer if you have one.
  • Send documents to your personal email account (try something like Gmail, which has a lot of storage capacity and is free and accessible from anywhere).
  • Upload to a flash drive or burn to a CD.
  • Upload to a document server like Google Docs,, Dropbox, or
  • Upload photos to Flickr or Picasa.
  • Upload video to Youtube or Vimeo.

When posting things online, choose to set privacy options where possible, and/or password protect your documentation.

Have you put together portfolios of your work? Or do you have a horror story to share about what happened when you didn’t save your work? Share your experiences by leaving a comment!

Browse all of the Career Corner archives here.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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Career Corner: Taking My Own Advice

Posted by Steven Joiner, whose last day as a Career Transitions Director at Idealist was Friday. Thanks, Steve, for all of the memories…and all of your thoughtful advice columns.

From Leah Tihia (Flickr/Creative Commons)

When I finally made the official decision to move from Portland, OR to Kansas City, MO and therefore to also find new work, I found myself thinking, “Well, you’ve talked about how to make career transitions for years now. Looks like it is time to follow some of your own advice.” I admit that I had these nightmarish visions of doing all of the research, networking, and job developing that I advised others to do… only to have it all go awry.

The good news is that the tips and tools in our Idealist Guides to Nonprofit Careers and our workshops seem to be working out quite well for me!

There are two chapters in particular in the Guide to Nonprofit Careers that framed the first steps of my career-transition approach: Networking and Tools for the job search: Researching all the opportunities in your chosen location.

This is how the information from these two chapters looked in action:

After I created a list of the organizations and individuals with whom I most want to talk, I started emailing folks and setting up informational interviews during a week-long trip to Kansas City. This meant that while I was delivering my cat to my new home, I could also get myself on folks’ radars so that they: a) knew I was moving to town and b) knew the kind of projects I’m interested in working on. I found that this approach was incredibly effective since, after 5 such meetings, I found that I was hearing the same names over and over. That is always a good sign.

The next step was to earnestly roll out the power of my network. Why did I do all this research before talking with my network? Well, I wanted to get the lay of the land and to therefore be able to target the “asks” I was making to my network. It is a lot more productive to say to a contact, “I’ve been talking with X organization, as well as doing some research on Y organization, all in the context of exploring my professional interest in Z area. Do you know anyone there whom I should contact?” than to say, “So, yeah. I’m moving to Kansas City. Know anyone?”

Turns out that just about everyone I’ve contacted in my network knows someone in Kansas City—either connected to my target organizations or my areas of professional interest—and everyone is eager to pass those names along. The result is twofold:

1. I have a huge list of people (over 30 at this point) to email and meet with once I get to Kansas City.

2. As I reach out to this list, I get a variation of the same sentiment: “It’s really great that you’re moving to Kansas City! Get in touch once you’ve settled.”

The second statement, let’s talk when you’re officially in town, reminded me of the advice we give in the guides: you usually need to be local in order to “close the deal.” So, while I don’t have any guaranteed work lined up, I feel really confident that I’ve set myself up well for taking the next steps on my career journey. It was also very affirming to see that this method for job development (rather than job hunting) is effective no matter how near or far you are looking.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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From Serving Your Country to Serving Your Community

Announcing our latest resource for career transitions: From Serving Your Country to Serving Your Community. This booklet is free for download, and is an introductory companion to The Idealist Guides to Nonprofit Careers.

One of our Career Corner columnists, Steven Joiner, created this resource for soldiers on active duty as well as veterans who are interested in transferring their talents from service in the armed forces into a social impact career in the nonprofit sector. Topics include setting yourself up for success during your service; making the switch from service to social impact work; and adjusting to your new work after your transition.

Also of note: today Service Nation launched Mission Serve, “a network of 36 initiatives partnering civilian and military service organizations to meet the critical needs of our nation, troops, military families, and veterans.” To learn how you can support military families, help veterans find meaningful employment, and otherwise get involved, visit the Mission Serve website.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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Career Corner: Paying Your Dues

By Meg Busse.

I was on a panel a few weeks ago at a retreat for Executive Directors (EDs). The panel was focused on supporting emerging leaders in the nonprofit sector and featured four people to speak to our experiences as 30(ish)-year-olds in leadership roles. The other panelists were fantastic: Matthew Bennett and Michelle Cote of the Purpose Project and Fahd Vahidy, ED of Public Allies Connecticut.

One of the most interesting moments of the session came at the very end when one ED commented that young hires don’t want to pay their dues. This created a bit of a hubbub in the room — the audience seemed split as to whether they strongly agreed or disagreed.

I’ve been thinking about that idea since then. I’ve heard that that sentiment is out there, but had never run into it. I’ve been lucky to have jobs where ‘paying my dues’ was never part of the job description, either because of organization philosophy or the fact that there was just too much to do to waste time on a dues-for-dues’-sake routine.

My current job is a perfect example. Russ is the Associate Director of Idealist and is my direct manager. From the beginning of my work at Idealist, Russ has gone out of his way to put me in situations where I can learn. I’ve sat in on interviews with big newspapers, participated in committee meetings so I could get to know the players, and traveled to conferences that would provide professional development, networking, and even practice in talking about Idealist and my work. Sure I do stuff that could be counted as paying my dues that I don’t love, but that’s just a fraction of my job. Those mundane tasks are balanced out by a host of incredible opportunities that Russ is constantly throwing my way. These opportunities are great for me and great for Idealist — a win-win situation.

There are lots of thoughts out there on why to pay dues, why millennials won’t pay dues, and who thinks dues paying is still important (hint: generally people already in leadership positions). These perspectives are not sector-specific, but seem to apply to nonprofit organizations.

My two cents?

  • The average time a younger employee spends in a job is down to around sixteen months these days. Why spend valuable time paying dues instead of doing real work?
  • Competition for talent within the nonprofit sector as well as between the sectors is fierce; great candidates aren’t wooed by dues-paying job descriptions
  • Most importantly though, the issues that we’re all working on are too pressing and too huge to not throw everything we have at them.

…Basically, I’m for fewer dues and more interesting to-dos.

What do you think? What has your experience been?

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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