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4 Lessons from 4 Decades of Nonprofit Service

Emily Benham, a white woman with curly blond hair wearing a green jacket stands against a colorful background of shapes in reds, blues, oranges and light peach
Emily Benham

I didn’t set out to work in the nonprofit sector. I wanted to be a doctor. I was fascinated by the art and science of health care, but my first organic chemistry class confirmed that wasn’t my calling.

It was risky changing my major two-thirds of the way through college. Many people tried to talk me out of it. Today, as I prepare to retire from full-time work, I can wholeheartedly say that dreadful organic chemistry class was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It was the moment my focus shifted from medicine to mission.

What followed has been a 43-year career in the nonprofit sector, working with orchestras, theaters, health care organizations, and ultimately, the Nonprofit Leadership Center (NLC).

I’ve learned many lessons during my four decades in the nonprofit sector.
I’d like to share one lesson for each decade of my leadership journey with you.

1. You don’t need to have all the answers.

I was 23 years old when I became an executive director for the first time. I was convinced I needed to be able to answer every question with great confidence and accuracy. Luckily, I had an awesome board chair and wise colleagues who allowed me to make mistakes and learn from them without significant consequences to the organization.

If I could go back and give my first “executive director self” some advice, I’d share two essential leadership lessons I’ve learned at the Nonprofit Leadership Center.

The nonprofit model is complex and sometimes messy. I’ve come to refer to “leading practices” rather than “best practices” because I believe there is more than one way to get something done effectively. Find the answers in professional development, an informal group of peers or by engaging the people you work with each day. While it takes a measure of humility, the outcome is transformational.

2. Always be ready for the call.

There’s an expression in the fundraising world: “Big money follows big ideas.” I’ve seen this validated many times and have witnessed many missed opportunities due to a lack of innovative ideas.

In the nonprofit sector, we rarely allow ourselves to dream enough. So focused on balancing current resources with critical needs, it’s easy to lose sight of the opportunity to imagine a different future.

What would you say if someone asked you what you would do with a $1 million contribution? Are you ready for that?

Make sure to have those “dreamy” conversations with your board and staff to develop what we refer to at the Nonprofit Leadership Center as our “Wouldn’t it be cool if” list. It consists of strategic, mission-aligned programs and initiatives we would implement if we had the financial resources.

In fact, two NLC programs were born from dreaming and thinking bigger based on calls from leaders looking to solve a community problem — a strategic planning cohort for nonprofit leaders (called the Matrix Map) and our Advancing Racial Equity on Nonprofit Boards Fellowship. Those calls and subsequent conversations with leaders are some of my favorite NLC memories and legacy moments.

3. Celebrate differences.

At the Nonprofit Leadership Center, we constantly test-drive tools and experiences to ensure they suit the nonprofits we serve. Trust me; I’ve never been assessed so many times in my life! Each time I take an assessment or participate in a different review, I learn more about myself, those I work with and the world around us. This self-awareness has allowed me to be a more effective leader — to understand why certain things that are difficult for me are not difficult for others.   

I’ve also learned that my nonprofit and I are both at our best when we are surrounded by others who show up differently. Diversity, in its many different dimensions, makes us better.

Help your board develop guiding principles on how you are going to disagree.

Create safe spaces for staff and volunteers where kindness and respect are evident.

At a time when we are constantly pressured to choose “sides,” choose curiosity for the win.

Learn about taking TCC Group’s Core Capacity Assessment Tool.

Learn about taking the Intercultural Development Inventory Assessment.

4. Never stop learning.

When I look back on my career, my happiest — and most transformative — moments involve learning. How to launch a capital campaign. Achieving my fellow certification in health care philanthropy. Figuring out how to produce the Nonprofit Leadership Conference in a virtual and accessible format.

Every time we learn something new, we grow. There are moments of profound humility when we’re unsure what to do next, but as we say here at NLC, learning is leading and leading is learning.

Although I am retiring from my role at NLC, my learning continues. I’ve only scratched the surface. I hope you, too, will commit to being a lifelong learner and embracing a culture of learning everywhere your career takes you.

WATCH: Emily’s Farewell Message

Leading the Nonprofit Leadership Center for nearly a decade has been an honor and a privilege. I am in awe of you, the passionate staff, board members, volunteers, nonprofit professionals and donors who have committed to this work and strengthening our community. In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed individuals can change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Keep in Touch with Emily

Stay in touch with Emily on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and email. She’d love to hear from you and remain connected. ⬇️

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Emily Benham


Emily H. Benham has more than 30 years of experience in the nonprofit field. She served for 9 years as the CEO of the Nonprofit Leadership Center from 2014-2023, Emily was the Interim President for Bayfront HERO (Health, Education and Research Organization), a health legacy foundation formed in 2013 with the net proceeds of the sale of Bayfront Medical Center to a for profit entity. Prior to the sale, she was a member of Bayfront Medical Center’s senior leadership team, and directed its philanthropic arm (Bayfront Health Foundation) for more than 20 years, raising millions of dollars for capital improvements for the hospital.

On June 30, 2023 Emily retired as CEO of the Nonprofit Leadership Center to launch a new private consulting practice.

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