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7 Mistakes You Didn’t Realize You Were Making in Building Your Nonprofit Career

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I recently had the opportunity to mentor a young woman who wanted to start a nonprofit. Because I work exclusively with new nonprofit execs on core-competency building and she wanted to be an exec, it seemed like we were positioned to do something great together. She had the passion for her cause and I had the practical management knowledge…how could we lose?

Within our first few weeks working together I realized we had a problem. Although my mentee professed to wanting a long-term career in the nonprofit sector, her actions did not reflect that all; deadlines were consistently being missed and she seemed to be having trouble staying focused on her goal. After a few months of trying to make our partnership work, I finally broke it off.

As a nonprofit professional, I know how exciting it is to dream of devoting your career to doing something that changes the world. However, from personal experience and through working as a coach to new EDs, I have identified seven mistakes nonprofit leaders make that keep us from building a successful social sector career.

1. We fall in love with the vision of helping others yet forget to factor in how much work success actually takes.

My mentee loved the vision of helping distressed women but when it came down to actually beginning the process of researching competing organizations and writing a strategic plan, she would immediately tune-out and change the subject. She was totally in denial about the massive responsibility she would be taking on in this role. Running a nonprofit was more of a fantasy for her, not an objective.

Tip: Before you decide you want to make any big career move, apprentice someone who is already doing your “dream job” for at least six months to make sure that is what you really want. What something looks like on the outside and what something is on the inside are often two totally different things.

2. We don’t proactively build the skills we need to thrive in the nonprofit space.

At the time of our partnership, my mentee had just finished up her bachelors and was actively applying to graduate school programs in graphic design. When we discussed going to school for nonprofit management instead, she seemed disinterested because she loved art. Not a bad field but also not really helpful if you sincerely want to be an executive director.

Tip: Go out for coffee with five people who are already in the job you want and ask them what skills they think you’ll need to succeed in your new role. Once you have your top 3 overlapping answers, get busy proactively developing those skills through reading books or blog posts on the subject, hiring a coach or taking a course.

3. We get distracted from achieving our professional goals by what is going on in our personal lives.

During the short time that we worked together, my mentee often allowed personal decisions to stop our progress. One week she decided that she wanted to move and began hunting for a new place. Another week she wanted to get pregnant and focused on doctors appointments. And with each shift in her personal life she would ask to pause our program until things slowed down a bit. Of course, none of these are bad ideas, but if we’re really serious about a significant career in leadership, we have to be able to simultaneously manage both our personal and professional lives at the same time – not one or the other.

Tip: Write up your goals and put them somewhere you’ll see them every day. Often we let ourselves get distracted from our goals because we out-right forget what our goals are. When we are regularly reminded of our intended targets, it gets a lot easier to stay focused.

4. We keep changing our minds about what we want to accomplish.

This one was ultimately the issue that un-did our partnership. Each week it seemed that she would change her goal and then we would have to re-work the coaching game plan over and over. One week she would express a desire to focus on setting up her own organization, the next week she would want focus on getting a better job at a different nonprofit and the next week it would be something different again. Needless to say that after a few revisions and noticing that we were not getting any closer to finding one goal she was willing to wholeheartedly focus on, there was really nothing I could do to help her hit her target.

Tip: Before starting in any new venture, decide what you want to do and why you want to do it. Succeeding in any venture requires that you are completely clear about the outcome you want and then being disciplined enough to do the work required to get you there. Until you’re clear, you’ll say “yes” to almost anything instead of saying “yes” to only those things that will move you closer to your goal.

5. We secretly love drama and allow it to waste our time.

Succeeding at anything requires the ability to eliminate negative influences from our lives; we can’t get sucked into the drama that is floating all around us. One of the things my mentee was constantly complaining about was her tumultuous relationship with her in-laws who lived upstairs from her. During any given coaching call, she would spend at least 15 minutes complaining about the terrible situation she was in and how they were so unsupportive of her. Any time I tried to change the subject, she seemed to feel compelled to share more of her unfortunate story (yet was never willing to do anything about it to change it). Although she would never admit it, I could see that she loved living in a soap-opera as it gave her a “legitimate” excuse for not getting her work done.

Tip: If you’re an admitted drama-addict, begin the following drama-diet immediately. For the next 30 days, don’t watch the news, don’t read the newspapers, and refuse to engage in complaint-packed conversations (no matter how tantalizing). After one month, you’ll notice that you feel freer and more enthusiastic about taking positive action to move forward in your life. String a few of these months together and you’ll notice that your whole life will change.

6. We want to accomplish big things but are not diligent and disciplined to do a great job at the small things we’ve already have to do.

My mentee was always asking for me to give her big exciting projects to tackle but yet wouldn’t complete the small tasks I gave her to do. If you’ve ever heard the expression “how you do anything is how you do everything” you know how true it is. Until you can prove that you can be trusted to handle the seemingly insignificant items on your to-do list with absolute excellence, you will not be asked to fill any kind of leadership role because you have no track record.

Tip: Start small. Which tasks have you been avoiding because they seem trivial? Have an inbox full of emails that you haven’t replied to yet? Do that with excellence. Have a messy office because you’ve been “too busy” to get it organized? Get it in order now. Doing the small things well gives you the credibility and the confidence to do big things well. Start now.

7. We run from challenges instead of digging in and seeing our goal through to the end.

It’s easy to give up when things get hard. However, in observing what it takes to succeed as a social entrepreneur we see that grit, toughness, and discipline are all non-negotiable character traits for those who want to do something significant with their lives. I remember asking my mentee to begin to research the requirements for incorporating a nonprofit in her state (an overwhelming task to be sure) just to see how she would respond. After a half-hearted attempt at researching, she told me that there was just too much info and that we could focus on that later. Although she thought she had the fortitude to follow her dream, she really only wanted to do the work that was easy, rewarding and fun.

Tip: Instead of looking for the easiest way to your goal, map out a strategic plan for your organization and then commit to seeing it through no matter what happens (knowing in advance that it is inevitably going to get ugly sometimes).

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About the Author | Natasha Golinsky is the Founder of Next Level Nonprofits – an online training company dedicated to equipping new nonprofit executive directors with the skills and support they need to enjoy successful, sustainable and satisfying careers.

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