This series is a space to share real life career switches. These are the stories of people who have had the courage and creativity to turn left or to create a new career path. It’s a space to focus on the skills you’ll need to open new doors and what it is really like to navigate taking the plunge into a new career.
In this edition we are chatting with Sherrill Nixon, the Director of Donor Relations at Schools Plus. After taking the leap from journalist and editor at The Sydney Morning Herald, through to fundraising for schools in disadvantaged communities, she shares some of her insights and what is takes to make the leap into the not-for-profit space.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? What do you love to do on your days off?
Like most people, I wear a few different hats – the two main ones being fundraiser for schools in disadvantaged communities in my ‘day job’, and partner/mother of two children in their tween/teen years. On weekends, you will usually find me at the side of a cricket or soccer ground, preferably with the newspaper and a thermos of tea.
What is the simplest way to describe your transition?
I had been in the media for 25 years when I felt the growing urge to move into a different sector. I took redundancy from a shrinking newsroom and joined a new not-for-profit, Schools Plus, in its start-up phase. I strongly believe that journalism plays an important role in supporting democracy and civil society, but I wanted to make a contribution elsewhere, particularly in the area of education equity.
What did you do?
I was a journalist, editor and newsroom manager, most recently for many years at the Sydney Morning Herald.
Can you describe a working day in that role?
Oh, there was rarely a slow day! In my last role, I led a team of reporters covering rounds such as state politics, transport and planning, health and education. Each day, I’d work with them and the print and digital editors to prioritise stories and liaise with photographers and graphic artists to get accompanying photos and graphics. Over the years I was at the Herald, the way we worked changed a lot as readers increasingly accessed our journalism online and the newsroom adjusted to a 24/7 world.
What do you do now and what excites you the most in this role?
As the Director of Donor Relations for Schools Plus, I have the pleasure of getting to know people who care deeply about education and want to do what they can to ensure every child can succeed at school. It’s exciting to see the long-term impact that a little bit of targeted funding can have on a young person’s life. There have definitely been examples of students at risk of dropping out of education or well behind in their literacy or numeracy skills, who’ve found themselves back on track thanks to a project funded by a Schools Plus donor.
Can you describe a working day for you?
I spend my days communicating with our existing supporters – individuals, or people from corporates or foundations – and also connecting with potential new supporters who value education. If I’m fortunate, I get to spend some time in a school meeting students and teachers – I have the utmost respect for our teachers and the difference they can make to their students’ lives.
How did you find the transition between these roles?
I was lucky – the Schools Plus job was advertised just as I decided to take redundancy. I had spent over a year thinking about what I wanted to do next, and this leapt out at me as the Right One even though my background didn’t fit the job description exactly. It was incredibly challenging and exciting right from the start – lots of brain-stretching time spent figuring out how to bring the organisation to life from a piece of paper. I hadn’t had much experience in that so it was a steep learning curve!
What resources, tools or people were helpful through your career transition?
Self-confidence and a willingness to back myself – many people said I was ‘brave’, but I was confident my skills were transferable. A partner who supported me to take the leap (in fact, he made a similar transition at the same time). A career consultant who coached me in job-searching skills after being out of the market for so long. A fledgling network in the philanthropic sector that I’d started to develop in anticipation of the career switch.
What skills have been really valuable for you throughout both careers?
Relationship-building and communication skills. In both careers, I’ve relied on my curiosity about people and a desire to create an authentic connection beyond the story or the donation. Communication skills are obviously important as a journalist – you spend your days absorbing tons of information and then filtering it in an easily-digestible format – but these skills have also been crucial in building and promoting Schools Plus.
What skills do you wish you had spent more time building earlier on?
There weren’t many opportunities in the newsroom to build my longer-term strategy development skills, so that was a new area for me. Likewise, my data analysis and Excel skills are still, um, emerging. I blame my 25-year focus on words!
What development would you say has been the most helpful for you (a course, a degree, a mentor you’ve had, etc)?
I did a Certificate in Fundraising course through the Fundraising Institute of Australia which helped me understand the technical aspects of the fundraising cycle and strategy. But it’s the people I’ve met (in NFPs, our supporters and the teachers and principals we work with) – and especially our CEO Rosemary Conn – who have helped me develop my understanding and thinking about working in the not-for-profit sector and about education equity more generally.
Any final tips for those thinking about making a career transition?
I can definitely recommend a switch to the not-for-profit sector for those so inclined. While it does offer the rewards of ‘giving back’, it is not all warm and fuzzy. I’ve had some of my greatest career and development challenges at Schools Plus and know I still have plenty to learn.
A final note.
This year has been especially hard for students and schools in disadvantaged communities, with a compounding series of crises – drought, bushfires, flood and COVID-19. If you would like to know more about the lasting change you can make by giving to disadvantaged schools, please check out Schools Plus’ recent Impact Report.