So, You Want to Be a Nonprofit Organizational Leader?
Years ago, while growing up in West Virginia, I had a dream. My dream was to obtain a doctorate degree. I was focused on the quest to obtain the degree and not on how I would ultimately use the degree. While I was a graduate assistant at the Marshall University Graduate College, I befriended a professor who was completing his doctorate degree. He asked me to help him by key punching computer data. As he graduated with his doctorate, he received a dual position at the University of Louisville.
He was assistant professor of finance and executive director of development. When he landed on campus, he contacted and recruited me to be an assistant director of development. I was not looking for a career in a nonprofit. Once in the field, I found myself with many other colleagues aspiring to obtain some type of position as a nonprofit organizational leader, including being an executive director of a nonprofit.
The article, “What Does the Executive Director of a Nonprofit Organization Do?” states that an executive director wears many hats—this leader must share the duties of both leadership and management. Leaders have qualities of vision and need to be charismatic communicators. Managers are doers that manage people, property and assets. They are the busy bees of the organization that monitors the day-to-day operations. The executive director must also have strengths in the areas of fund raising and communications. Think of an executive director of a nonprofit organization as being the “jack of all trades and master of all.”
In the article, “How to Develop Yourself as a Nonprofit Leader,” the Bridgespan Group provided six senior nonprofit leaders who offered advice to mid-level nonprofit managers looking into senior nonprofit leadership roles. These senior nonprofit leaders suggest that those coming up the ladder volunteer inside and outside of your organization to acquire well-rounded attributes. If you feel you are weak in certain areas, volunteers with pros to learn while on their job.
Seek out both formal and informal professional development opportunities by obtaining advanced degrees or certifications, informal peer networking, professional networking groups and professional associations. Do not be afraid to think big concerning your skills and consider moving up by moving on with various nonprofits where continuous growth opportunities exist.
“How to Become Executive Director of a Nonprofit” is an article by Executive Crossing that emphasizes the fact that running a nonprofit organization can be one of the most rewarding positions you will ever have in your career. Landing these jobs may be tougher than you expect, and these jobs can be demanding. There are two primary paths to becoming an executive director for a nonprofit.
The most common is to be chosen by the organization’s board of directors, or you can find your own nonprofit group. More than half of nonprofit executive jobs are held by people with advanced degrees. They also have previous management experience. In addition to obvious leadership skills, an executive director needs to have good listening skills, the ability to be flexible and have time management skills.
In the article, “Four Ways to Create a Successful Nonprofit Career Path,” The Stanford Social Innovation Review states that in most industries there is a clear path to leadership positions in an organization. In many companies, you might start out as an assistant, then get promoted to manager, director, vice president, senior vice president and president. In nonprofits, there is no linear career map.
In order to create your own nonprofit career path, you should think about doing your job really well, by exceeding expectations and goals; becoming a rainmaker by bringing connections to your organization to assist in many ways; not being afraid to job hop as today’s employee will have at least 10 different jobs by age 38; and introducing yourself to a search firm and have both of you get to know each other.
The article, “How Will I Know If I’m Ready to Be a Nonprofit Executive Director/President/CEO?” cites 10 points where it would serve you well in becoming as expert as possible in the following areas:
- Become the most self-aware person possible.
- Organizational development theory that includes the life cycles of organizations.
- Fundraising and stakeholder engagement.
- Financial management.
- Board and volunteer committee governance.
- Identifying talent for hiring.
- Storytelling about the great impact your organization makes.
- Advocacy for your organization.
- Measuring impact.
- Asking for help and accept what is offered.
In many cases, you will be called to be a leader of a nonprofit either by external forces wanting you to apply or internally in the form of your personal drive that encourages you to take a leap of faith. In my experience, the first leadership position is always being the most difficult. Over time through trial and effort, you will understand organizations on a global basis and sense what needs to be done for success to occur.
Being a nonprofit organizational leader is not easy. At least once every month, a younger colleague asks me for advice on how to prepare for future leadership roles. I always say be proactive in all aspects of your life and talk to many colleagues in ranks higher than you and in organizations that interest you. The great thing about the nonprofit field is there are many areas to choose from. Always be grounded in the fact that you want to make a difference for others, learn from your mistakes and have passion.
“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” is a favorite quote of mine by Roman philosopher Seneca that reminds us that we make our own luck and opportunities. Start creating your own “luck” today.
Duke has extensive experience as a nonprofit practitioner, author, lecturer and consultant. He has been a contributing author to NonProfit PRO for the last 11 years. He has been a long-standing member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals where he was previously named the AFP Indiana Chapter Fundraising Executive of the Year and has held the CFRE designation for many years.
He received his doctorate degree from West Virginia University with an emphasis in education administration, master's degree from Marshall University with an emphasis in public administration and a bachelor's degree from West Virginia University with an emphasis in marketing/management. He has also completed post graduate work at the University of Louisville.
He is currently executive director of development for The Salvation Army Indiana Division in Indianapolis, Indiana. Contact Duke at firstname.lastname@example.org or 317-224-1029.