Tips for Aspiring Nonprofit Leaders

Tips for Aspiring Nonprofit Leaders

Graduation season is upon us. Graduates everywhere are packing their bags, turning their tassels, and taking on their next big adventures.

In honor of those receive their diplomas this month, we sat down with our president, Jeffrey Wilcox, to see what advice he has for those aspiring to work in the nonprofit sector. Here’s what he had to say.

What tips do you have for graduates seeking jobs in the nonprofit sector?

Follow your passion.  Truly successful people in the nonprofit sector have blended their education and experiences with their value-system.  It’s one thing to take a “job” in the nonprofit sector, it’s quite another to consider a “professional career” in making the world a better place.  It requires an alignment between the head and the heart.  It also requires a career strategy.

Unfortunately, the nonprofit sector isn’t quite as advanced in creating career pathways that extend beyond a particular organization.  Finding a mentor early on is important, building a circle of colleagues who are equally passionate about doing work that leads to doing good is also crucial.

What are some challenges specific to the nonprofit sector to prepare for?

It’s especially important to recognize that the nonprofit sector has a few differences with business that can be especially challenging if the professional isn’t willing to get into the game.  The first challenge is understanding the importance of volunteers, working with and recognizing volunteers, and building skills and areas for advancement for volunteers to remain enthusiastic and involved.

Because volunteers aren’t employees, it requires a different kind of “teamwork” that is present in the for-profit workplace.  The nonprofit sector is heavily dependent on fundraising.  It can be especially challenging to people who equate that to the business sales proposition.

It’s not.  It’s about developing a community of contributors that provide sustainable support not about closing a bunch of transactions.  Knowing how citizen-based boards work, what it means to advocate, and recognizing the importance of being an example of celebrating human diversity and inviting inclusion are fundamental.

Once some of these basics are in place and the learning curve grows, the challenges become more exhilarating than scary.

Do you have any tips for finding good mentors?

Excellent mentors in the nonprofit sector are fairly easy to find because much of their success was created by their visibility in the community.  Reading the newspapers, looking at blogs, and looking at connections on LinkedIn will pretty much point to those leaders who are making things happen in a community.  A nonprofit creates community change; the kind of mentor that is needed knows that doesn’t happen from behind a desk.


How can you cultivate leadership skills early in your career to grow as a leader?

One of the great things about the nonprofit sector is the role of community volunteers necessary to make missions happen.  The best leadership skills come from getting involved. This provides a unique form of “on the job” training that most companies can’t offer.  Joining a nonprofit board is another way to augment the “hands on” with the “head space” that nonprofits also need.

The key, however, is not to hook up with just any nonprofit; the head will follow if the heart is in the lead. Developing the leadership skills necessary to get ahead will most certainly follow.

As new talent coming into an organization, how can you blend your new ideas and skill sets into an existing company culture?

This is a very tough question. The generational differences that exist in our society aren’t foreign to the nonprofit landscape. Many nonprofits were developed by Baby Boomers as their passion, calling, or life’s work. As such, it’s sometimes even harder for one generation to let go, let alone yield to another as it ages.

There is no easy solution here. However, what we know as a nonprofit sector about building communities tells us that new ideas are born out of discussion.

The best way for new talent to blend new ideas is by getting to know others and get into conversation with them.  Don’t wait for them to reach out to you. You must build get into conversation, build allies, create coalitions, and develop spaces where new ideas are valued.  That space generally isn’t created.

The most important skill in sharing ideas is active listening.  It is an art to disagree with someone and still let them know you value them, respect their opinion and have heard them. That is a leadership skill that will lead to tremendous dividends in a nonprofit career.

Anything else you’d like to add?

There is a movement for the nonprofit sector to reinvent itself.  The old ways of addressing old issues aren’t working according to many.  The term, “nonprofit,” has worked against its objective. Business and government have tried to manipulate the sector into something that it isn’t to serve their own agenda.

Now, more than ever, a new way of doing nonprofit business is eagerly sought and desperately needed as homelessness continues to rise, symphony orchestras go out of business, public television is threatened, and affordable quality care for children is getting harder to find.

This Is further complicated by an uncertain health care system, racial tension and a larger population of elderly people than we’ve ever had before.  My hope is that we stop talking about jobs in the nonprofit sector and start developing careers for social entrepreneurs!

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