From Here to There: Lessons learned over an evolving career

Meet Tosin Akande, YMCA of the USA.

Student feature of Tosin Akande with compass and growing tree

What do you want to be when you grow up?

It is a question we have likely all answered at some point in our lives, and our initial answers were probably presented in crayon. Here is a follow-up: Are you now a professional athlete? A famous actor? A ballerina? An astronaut? Probably not, and that’s okay!

The beauty of our lives and our careers is that they can evolve as we grow and learn. Our ambitions change and new opportunities are presented that may not have been in the picture before. According to the latest data, the average person changes jobs 12 times over their career. This can be deliberate based on your chosen field, a change based on life circumstances or positions in entirely different fields that have aligned with new interests you acquired over time.

We recently spoke with Tosin Akande (she/her), who completed the Center for Philanthropy & Nonprofit Leadership’s Leadership Institute for Nonprofit Executives (LINE) certificate in the fall of 2021, to learn more about how her career has evolved, and where her education and experiences have taken her. Along the way, we picked up several valuable career lessons from her experience.

Akande, like most of us, had a solid idea about what she wanted to be when she grew up: a counselor. This ambition led her to Georgia State University, where she finished her undergraduate degree in psychology, and immediately began looking at graduate degrees to continue pursuing her career goals. Through that process, she experienced what many of us do in our professional ambitions; she encountered a roadblock.

“I graduated at 21 and felt very confident about being a counselor,” Akande said. “So, I sat in on interviews for graduate school and kinda got the feedback like, ‘You’re very young, and you may not be mature enough to do a counseling program. We want you to get more life experience.”

Career Lesson 1
The shortest distance between two points may be a straight line, but that’s not always how life works. Don’t give up.

Heeding the advice to gain more experience and still in pursuit of her goal, Akande started an internship at Casa de Esperanza, a Houston area nonprofit that provides emergency and voluntary foster placements for infants and young children. It was there that she had her first real experience working in the nonprofit sector, which led to her next role in 2014 at Star of Hope, another Houston-area nonprofit serving individuals experiencing homelessness. At Star of Hope, Akande found her stride, eventually becoming the Manager of Children and Youth Ministry. At the same time, she also started her graduate studies at Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS). Over the next several years, through both her work and education experiences, she began to realize that, while her passions were similar, her goals were beginning to evolve.

“As much as I love interpersonal work, and talking to people about mental health, and working through experiences they had in their life, I really love doing that in the context of a system that was all about improving people's lives,” Akande said. “So, it was through the work I did at Star of Hope … that I was like, ‘I think I may need to pivot into making a career in the nonprofit space.’”

Career Lesson 2
You should always follow your dream, even when it changes direction.

A lifelong dream, an undergraduate degree and three years into graduate study, Akande was faced with shifting everything toward a new goal. Fortunately, she was able to transfer most of her credits to a different program at DTS, completing a Master of Education. And, she finds that those counseling courses that did not apply to the new degree program are still beneficial to her work today.

“I actually think that counseling [is] … definitely a necessary element to understand how people are coming into your nonprofit organization,” Akande said. “Whether your focus is on working with people, or animals, or communities. It's so foundational, and the things I learned in that counseling program are still part of how I interact and engage with folks now.”

Career Lesson 3
Education is the best investment and always produces a return.

Akande continued her career at Star of Hope, and the longer she served there, the more curious she became about how nonprofits interact with each other in service to different communities and causes. That curiosity gave way to a desire to work with different communities herself, and in 2019 an opportunity became available in Waco to work with youth experiencing homelessness.

“I went for an interview and they had me sit in on programming,” Akande said. “It was a very green program. When I got in for the interview, in my mind I was like, ‘this is not a great fit.’ But, before I left to drive back for Houston, the executive director said ‘We want you here. We want strong leadership.’ In my gut, I still felt like it wasn’t a great fit, but when people ask you for things sincerely, I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’ I should have trusted my gut.”

Two weeks later, after uprooting her life and moving to Waco, that same ED told Akande that it wasn’t a good fit.

Career Lesson 4
Trust your gut. Not every opportunity is the right opportunity for you.

Akande quickly made it back to Houston in November of that year and was fortunate to be able to stay with friends until she found her next opportunity. That next opportunity, however, didn’t come as quickly as expected.

“I was starting to make traction in finding employment in Houston, and then COVID hit,” Akande said. “I have never seen the job market dry up like it did that year. I remember [thinking] ‘I hate that I’m not employed right now because I know I have skills that would have benefited my community—not having a place to support my community and just being stuck with nothing to do.”

Akande didn’t allow herself to be stuck for long, though. In addition to volunteering at several nonprofits, she leaned into skills gained through her graduate education, writing an article about the impacts of COVID on the nonprofit sector, an already critical industry made even more so by the pandemic. She shared it with friends, on social media and with organizations where she was volunteering and interviewing, including the United Way of Greater Houston (UWGH). Eventually, those interviews led to a job with UWGH in October 2020 working with their mission and strategy team. Among the many reasons she was chosen, the hiring manager mentioned that the article “stuck with her.”

“When I left Star of Hope, this was the exact thing I wanted to do,” Akande recalled. “To understand how nonprofits in Houston connect with each other to create an ecosystem that develops people and supports our community.”

Career Lesson 5
When you aren’t where you want to be, don’t get down. Get busy.

Among her many responsibilities at UWGH, Akande worked on the education team with their “Out 2 Learn” program. During one of their quarterly meetings, she learned about a scholarship opportunity, offered through Bank of America, for Rice’s LINE program. Still hungry for education and connection in the midst of the pandemic, this felt like an opportunity that was perfect for her.

“For me, the LINE program wasn’t just about learning new information and being better at my job,” Akande said. “It’s about connecting with people who have shared values and shared desire to really do good and impactful work in this city … It gives you a holistic perspective of nonprofit work. It connects you to people who care about how nonprofit work is done, not just through your cohort, but through the instructors … and through the people who run the program at the Glasscock School of Continuing Studies. And then, finally, it’s a good time. It’s fun!”

Akande also recognizes that the “shared values and shared desire” to do good went beyond those in the program. It was also shared with Bank of America, who provided the scholarship.

“I would’ve honestly paid out of pocket and figured out how to save somewhere else to be in the program,” Akande said. “But, I think getting the scholarship from Bank of America helped me delight in the learning that I was doing rather than feeling overly burdened by cost. I appreciate Bank of America’s commitment to knowing that when you empower black and brown people … you’re investing in community voice.”

Career Lesson 6
Surround yourself with passionate peers and organizations who support you and propel your progress.

For Akande, “the LINE program wasn’t just about learning new information and being better at my job,” but that is exactly what happened. Through the program, students are required to complete a practicum project, utilizing lessons learned in class to complete a comprehensive strategic-level project for an existing nonprofit organization, whether at their current place of employment or elsewhere.

“Because I was newer at United Way, I did not feel confident about what I could do in the project space,” Akande said, recognizing that the UWGW already had extensive and robust project support.

However, Akande did have an existing relationship with a local nonprofit called Plant It Forward (PIF), which empowers refugees to develop sustainable urban farming businesses, securing land, training and mentoring farmers, and facilitating sales to local markets. Fortuitously, Akande’s help came at the perfect time for PIF.

“It was supposed to be just a marketing project, but they were in the middle of their strategic planning as an organization for the next three years,” Akande said. “[My project] turned into a strategic planning facilitation for a whole organization. I was like, ‘I’ve never done this before, but I’m happy to try.’”

Combining her existing knowledge and skills with the new content and support of the instructors in the program, Akande received the highest rating possible on her practicum project and successfully completed the LINE program in October 2021. More importantly, the work she completed for PIF was essential for the organization to move into the next phase of impact for their work.

Career Lesson 7
Confidence and competence are not requirements for trying. In fact, they are typically both a result of the effort.

After being at UWGH for just about a year, Akande realized that she was reaching a ceiling in terms of her current role and where it would allow her to grow professionally. Through her previous experience and knowledge gained through the LINE program, she identified her strengths in the areas of strategy and project management and wanted a role that allowed her to use those skills while leveraging her passion and experience in the nonprofit sector.

“Through the LINE program, there were aspects of nonprofit work that were revealed to me that I was like, ‘I want to have my hand on this,’” Akande said. “I want to flex these muscles because if I don’t work the skills I learned in the LINE program, there is a likeliness that they will atrophy.”

Through connections both at UWGH and the LINE program, Akande began searching for her next opportunity. In May of 2022, she was hired by the YMCA of the USA as the Manager of Movement Engagement. In this role, Akande leads collaborative projects across the United States to improve the YMCA of the USA's understanding of how to support local YMCAs on issues such as workforce equity initiatives and youth workforce development. Essentially, the role combines her skills in strategy and project management, her passion for helping multiple nonprofits collaborate, and her experience working with youth, the workforce and toward equitable leadership development. That’s a win, win, win.

Career Lesson 8
If you’re no longer growing where you’re planted, it’s time to uproot for more fertile ground.

Today, nearly a year into her new role with the YMCA of the USA, Akande doesn’t feel as though her career has finished evolving. She is currently expanding her skills and has her eyes forward toward what is coming next.

“I’m always like, ‘What am I going to learn next?’,” Akande said. “I’m working towards getting my project management certification … these concepts are so beneficial for nonprofits. My 10-year dream is that I would love to get my doctorate.”

Through all of the degrees, certifications, professional development and multiple job roles, Akande presses forward not just for her own enrichment, but with the understanding that her growth will help her facilitate the growth of others.

“The work that nonprofits do and that the LINE program does, it’s all about community,” Akande said. “At the end of the day, we are working toward the betterment of our community. That’s the thing that motivates me. I just like helping people.”

Career Lesson 9
Improving yourself also means improving your community and vice versa. Never stop learning and growing. Ultimately, it serves everyone.

The Center for Philanthropy & Nonprofit Leadership provides professional development instruction and consulting for nonprofits as they strengthen their leadership, staffing, governance, finance and fundraising capacity. We offer online and in-person courses for individuals and customized engagements for nonprofit organizations. Learn more at

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Rice University Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies - MS-550
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