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How to Become a Nonprofit Leader

A Black woman smiling.

Leaders can be those among us with a real talent for inspiring people, or those who lead by example—showing up every day and doing a great job without much fanfare. They can be found brainstorming solutions to social issues, testing out new ways to engage others to join them in their work, or simply mentoring teams and bringing folks together.

If you’re interested in attaining a leadership position at a nonprofit organization, remember that leadership doesn’t only exist in top level management positions. There are also plenty of less-traditional ways to find leadership opportunities and boost your resume at the same time.

What kind of leader do you want to be?

Imagine a person you’ve worked with who made you feel good about showing up to work every day, and inspired you to do as much as you could for the betterment of the organization and those it served. Can you pinpoint the things that made that particular leader good at their job?

Was it their willingness to hear all ideas and suggestions? The way they offered fair and honest feedback? The fact that when they spoke, people listened? Clarity around what good leadership looks like in practice will help to inform the kind of leader you want to become.

While most of us are familiar with the more traditional ways to lead an organization—executive directors, human resource directors, deputy commissioners—there are other ways to lead that don’t require an executive-level title.

In starting to define your own leadership goals, think about whether your ultimate goal is to oversee an entire organization, or if you’d like to create another type of leadership opportunity.

Creating your path

Because nonprofit work oftentimes offers the opportunity to oversee a variety of projects, you should always be on the lookout for areas that would highlight your strengths. Love working with words and connecting people? Offer to take the lead writing a blog for your organization. Are you energized by building relationships in your community? Pitch an idea to host monthly community meetings to highlight different projects your organization is tackling. Or, you could offer to create a mentoring program for new hires at your organization if you don’t already have that sort of structure in place.

Leaders take initiative and look for opportunities to enhance their work. Raising new ideas can provide you with useful context and case studies as you carve out your path.

Develop your leadership skills

Start observing the skills and strengths of a good leader, tracking which you may possess and which you may need to develop:

  • Comfort representing an organization to stakeholders and the greater public. Leaders often end up as the face of the organization. These are the folks who energize us and keep us connected to the mission. They are truly excited about the cause and they draw people in—whether potential donors, new volunteers, or new staff.
  • Vision to support future leaders and social-impact employees. Leaders spend time thinking not only about doing a good job today, but about building the scaffolding to support the work of future generations. Can you identify three areas of potential growth for your organization and come up with suggestions on what kind of support and leadership your team needs in order to meet those objectives?
  • Interest and skill with relationship management. Leaders are the first people others turn to when they need support. Spend time assessing how you feel about initiating honest and sometimes difficult conversations. Think about your ability to set clear boundaries and respond with fairness. Are you good at reading people and situations and responding appropriately?
  • Ability to make decisions and stick to deadlines. We lead best by example. If you stay on top of the things you need to do, it will be easier for others to strive towards the same.

Put some of these ideas in action

If you have aspirations for leadership, make sure you are doing your job well. Leaders often have a knack for grasping the big picture, even when the details are making plenty of noise. If a leader sees something that needs to be done, they do it (to the very best of their ability), even if it’s not a part of their job description. If you hold the intention to do your job well, even when doing the more mundane parts, you may be the first person people think of when a leadership opportunity arises.

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About the Author | For nearly two decades, Jeannette Eaton has been working for nonprofits and helping people identify their strengths. She has experience as an advocate for women and girls in crisis, a volunteer coordinator for adult literacy, and a family literacy instructor.

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