Rosie Stafford Smith on Cultivating a Nonprofit Career

It takes much more than a passion for giving back to cultivate a successful career in St. Louis’ nonprofit industry. One of the many young professionals who moved to St. Louis to receive a graduate degree, Rosie Stafford Smith understands how to balance passion with action. After receiving her Master of Social Work, Rosie left St. Louis to work for a short while in India. She soon found herself drawn back to the city where her career started.

If you’re interested in taking your passion for helping people and putting it into action, read on to gain inspiration from Rosie’s experiences of building a meaningful career, finding a mentor, and knowing when it’s time to take her next step professionally.

How long have you lived in St. Louis?
“I’ve lived in St Louis since 2009, except for six months when I lived in India for a job. I moved here from Washington DC for graduate school and thought I would leave St. Louis after graduating.

After my time in India, I had to think about where I really wanted to live in the states. I realized that all of my connections were in St. Louis and all of my friends were in St. Louis. I saw a really great opportunity to make an impact in a city this size, so it was a pretty natural decision.”

You’re the Director of Executive Initiatives & Investor Relations at United Way of Greater St. Louis. What do you do?
“From managing relationships with larger donors to incubating projects within our organization, I get to wear several different hats in my work.

My job has really evolved as my boss learned more about me and how I can contribute to United Way. She saw my skills and strengths as an individual and plugged me into opportunities to utilize them.”

What is your favorite part about your work?
“I love the flexibility and its innovative nature. No day is the same – every day I get to look at a challenge from a different perspective. I get to help figure out the best solution to many different problems.”

After graduating from Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work, you moved to India. What was the most challenging obstacle you faced while working abroad?
“The most challenging part was coming in direct contact every day with my limitations – the language barrier, the lack of cultural knowledge – and still having to put one foot in front of the other to get my job done. I was outside of my comfort zone, working in a very rural environment, and it was completely otherworldly in every sense.”

How did working abroad impact your career?
“It gave me a lot of confidence that I could achieve more than I gave myself credit for. Taking that short-term contract position and moving to India was something I initially considered out of my reach and beyond my skill set. Being able to dive in and succeed when the situation was difficult taught me a lot about myself and how to face a challenge when I didn’t have all the answers.”

Why did you decide to build your career in St. Louis?
“While I was in India, I was thinking about my next move. When I considered the opportunities in Washington, D.C. against the ones I found in St. Louis, I realized that the ones in St. Louis would be so much richer in terms of experience and leadership potential. When I combined that with the great network of people that I have here, it became obvious that St. Louis was the place for me.

When I moved back, I found a job within six weeks and met my husband only nine days after arriving in St. Louis. Building my career in St. Louis was a combination of all of these forces coming together. Before I knew it, I had cultivated a life here.”

You’ve experienced many different workplaces. What did you always look for in a company once you decided to change jobs?
For me personally, a company has to be grounded in a mission. That doesn’t mean that I’m looking for every organization I work for to have the same mission. I look for heart. It’s important to me that people show up to work for more than a paycheck.

On a more personal level, I look for a supervisor who is willing to fit me into a role that makes sense for my strengths and personality. When an organization looks beyond just what the job description states and looks at a person, it brings the best out of people.”

What influenced you to go to school for social work?
“Growing up, I saw my parents modeling giving back to the community through their careers. Because of them, I had the early influences of wanting to do something that helped. My career path has really been a process of listening to my gut to know when take the next step and trying to find a way to make an impact.”

Do you have a mentor? How did you find him or her?
“Yes, I do. I actually met her when I was still in high school. She is an attorney and, at the time, worked with the youth group I attended. When I went to college, I remember grappling with the struggles you face when you leave home for college. I knew I could call her for advice or help, and those calls were the beginning of what’s been a 15-year mentorship.

She’s a person I can call before a salary negotiation to practice my pitch. She sends me books every year for the holidays, particularly books on women and careers. She’s a woman with two children and has really modeled what I would like to do, which is not pretend to have it all but build a really strong career and family life.”

Do you have a saying that helps guide you professionally?
“Next to my computer, I have this saying posted: Remember your audience of significance. It reminds me that I can’t necessarily make everyone happy or be understood by everyone. Instead, what’s important is that I do the right thing, work hard and remember who matters. All the other things can be distractions.”

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Emily Knippa

Emily Knippa is a St. Louis-based marketer and writer who focuses on content marketing, career development, and personal finance. She enjoys meeting people pursuing inspiring career paths. She’d love to meet you at the next United Way event. Say hello to Emily on Twitter at @emilyknippa.