Building a Nonprofit Career

The nonprofit sector here in Lincoln has many fantastic leaders doing great work. Some are executive directors and program managers, other are committed case workers and fundraisers. How can you be part of this cadre of people? Here are some beneficial tips to become a true nonprofit leader.

  • Commit yourself to your position. Even if it isn’t something you plan to do for the rest of your life, act like it is. Be fully present while at work, and especially while working with clients. Put your phone away and be truly interested in the people around you. Ask for additional responsibilities and ask questions to learn how the organization and your program works.
  • Find a mentor. Look for someone who has a role you aspire to and take them for coffee (or meet them on Zoom). Get their advice on how you can grow your career. Be sure to ask them about the challenges they are currently facing – you might have some ideas for them. Or look for multiple people to give you advice. You don’t have to have just one mentor.
  • Look for volunteer opportunities outside your work. Is there another nonprofit that has a mission that calls to you? See how you can get involved. You will see how other organizations work and learn new skills. Are you interested in learning about fundraising or grant writing? See who needs your help, and commit to volunteer regularly with that organization. Hoping to develop your leadership skills? Look for ways you can head up planning an event or joining a board.
  • Being a board member is a huge benefit for future nonprofit leadership positions. First, you will experience the perspective of being on a board. The relationship between an executive director and the board is critical for the success of any organization, and knowing what it is like on the other side will make you a much better ED. Second, you will make valuable connections with other board members, which can help you find positions in the future.
  • Get involved in local networking groups. These can be nonprofit specific, but they don’t have to be. Meeting up and coming leaders in your community will help you as you move up into leadership positions. Here in Lincoln, we have groups like YPG and YNPN-LNK that are great for making connections with others.
  • Join a leadership development program, such as Leadership Lincoln. Most major communities have similar programs that introduce you to the areas of your community you may not be familiar with, provide leadership training, and connect you with a class of people you can draw on for years to come.
  • Learn about finances. Ask about how your program is funded and how the budget works. Take an accounting course. In any leadership position, you will need to know the basics of financials.
  • Take a management or HR class. Local community colleges offer a variety of options. Ask if you can take on some management duties in your position. A large portion of any leadership position is managing the people you work with, so this is a critical skill to have.

I started my career in nonprofits as an AmeriCorps member. I worked hard and was promoted the next year to be a program manager. I didn’t have the experience I needed, but I had supportive supervisors, took management classes, and was responsible for my own budget. My supervisors helped me learn how to manage various situations with employees. When I was hired as the executive director of a small nonprofit organization, these skills were helpful, but I had a lot to learn. I no longer had a fiscal or HR staff to take care of those areas. My board was learning alongside me, although they helped as much as they could. Luckily I was able to slowly grow the organization and my skills at the same time. Not everyone will have this opportunity, so using the above techniques will help you prove yourself so you can advance your career.

What other advice do you have to become a nonprofit leader? Please your thoughts in the comments below.

Interested in exploring a nonprofit career? Contact me and let’s chat about how you can take the next step. I enjoy mentoring our next nonprofit leaders.

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