What advice would you give to individuals who want to pursue a successful career in the nonprofit sector? This is a question we’re asked often when we speak to students, new nonprofit professionals and emerging leaders. Nonprofit organizations are more important than ever for the future of our communities and our economy. With more than 83,000 nonprofits in Florida employing 6% of the state’s workforce and generating nearly $90 billion in annual revenue (according to the Florida Nonprofit Alliance), we need courageous, committed and highly competent nonprofit leaders to guide our sector into the future.
So what does it take to become a successful nonprofit leader or steer your new nonprofit professionals toward success? Here are five tips we’ve learned at NLC along our journey.
1. Be relentlessly curious. It’s okay to not know everything, but it’s never OK to stop asking questions or searching for ways to improve and innovate. Being a lifelong learner is one of the most important traits every great nonprofit leader possesses, irrespective of their years of experience. That means being a voracious reader who keeps up with the latest trends, industry research and case studies from other organizations. It means calling on colleagues and consultants to ask questions and brainstorm ideas. It means investing in ongoing professional and leadership development to hone current skills and build new ones. Being consistently curious prevents us from accepting the status quo, and it’s how we continue to learn and grow.
2. Invest in relationships. Connecting as a nonprofit leader is about more than accepting a LinkedIn request or swapping business cards at a monthly luncheon. Having a network of colleagues across industries, sectors and areas of expertise who you can call on for advice is critical to success. Strong, authentic and trusted professional relationships are also where some of the most intersting and impactful new opportunities originate. It’s easy to neglect your relationships in the day-to-day grind, but it’s also easy to keep them alive and thriving. Grabbing a quick coffee before work, sending an email with a relevant article to a colleague or mailing a hand-written note of thanks are all small gestures that deepen relationships … and relationships is what it’s all about.
3. Think about your nonprofit like a business. While nonprofits are in the business of changing and saving lives, our passion and commitment are not a substitute for a strategic business plan, focused programs and a strong internal culture. From the way you evenutally manage your board and run staff meetings, recruit and invest in employees and cultivate relationships with donors to communicating with stakeholders and evaluating success, the best nonprofit leaders lead with the business of their mission in mind so they can fuel its long-term sustainability and success.
4. Embrace other duties as assigned. Every seasoned nonprofit professional knows that the phrase “wearing many hats” is true for nonprofit organizations and leaders. The words “that isn’t my job” should never come out of your mouth. Those “other things,” big and small, demonstrate your commitment to your mission, to your colleagues and to a better future. Just know when to say your plate is full so that the quality of your work doesn’t suffer by taking on too much.
5. Believe in yourself. If you don’t know where you want to go, someone else will decide for you. Take time periodically to ask yourself how what you’re doing now will help take you to where you think you want to go in the future. Be confident in your skills and abilities, and don’t let others devalue them or decide what you’re good at.
Learning Opportunities for Nonprofit Leaders
Remember our first tip about curiousity being a key to success? Check out these upcoming learning opportunities to develop your skills and deepen your knowledge.
Certificate in Nonprofit Management at the University of Tampa.