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7 Tips For First-Time Nonprofit Managers

Michael V. Paul profile image

Michael V. Paul

Words written on a white board to evoke the idea of managing others.

Being in a management role for the first time can be challenging. As a young professional who scored his first job out of college at a small nonprofit (via Idealist, of course), I grew into a supervisory role through the creation of an internship program and the addition of staff. I had done the groundwork and garnered much responsibility in the office, and wanted to utilize the opportunity to develop professionally – but was I ready to manage people? Of course not! However, I prepared myself and tackled my new role head on. Here are some tips that helped me:

Have a plan

I’m a meticulous planner and like to be assured of my next step well in advance. Sometimes a hindrance, but oftentimes not, this attribute was extremely important as I ventured into management for the first time. Prior to my first day as a manager, I made sure to thoroughly detail performance goals I needed my team to reach. I wrote page after page of tasks and expected outcomes, for my eyes only, which gave me a foundation to work from. These notes served as reference points during a fast-moving, new time-period for me in the office.

Find your voice

A difficult aspect of this transition is figuring out your management style. Initially, I tried not to be an authoritative oaf while attempting to be an articulate leader. To help hone my voice, I considered how I wanted to sound: clear, concise, and open (aka not an authoritative oaf). This focus helped me build confidence and encouraged me to maintain a respectful yet productive tone. As I became comfortable with my management voice, relating to my coworkers became much easier.

Be the boss you’d want to have

I don’t think anyone appreciates a manager who is lazy, does not communicate well, and delegates work rudely. So, the great thing about becoming a supervisor is you can create your ideal manager. I wanted to be a supportive manager and one that my officemates wanted to work for. Similar to the Golden Rule, I encourage first-time managers to treat those you manage how you would want to be treated if you were in their position.

Be positive and supportive

One thing I found difficult when I first became a manager was how to deliver bad news. Some people are comfortable cutting others down for mistakes made or lackluster efforts, but this was not my style. Rather than “burning” my employees, I would reframe negative feedback as an opportunity for growth. “This work is terrible” became “this is a good start, but with a bit more effort, this will be great work. Here’s where you can improve on….” I think it’s important for people to know someone is supporting and rooting for them to get their best work done. We grow by experiencing and learning through instances of trial and tribulation: it’s a manager’s duty to be supportive during times like these.

Know the jobs of your employees

When I was promoted, I had worked on every task imaginable in the entry-level positions I would soon preside over. This helped me understand the difficulty of each job and aided in gauging timelines. Also, I felt it added an “I know what you’re going through” kinship with my employees. I think having detailed knowledge of what your employees are doing commands a respect that otherwise would not be there if you have not produced similar work. Even if you haven’t learned every role in full, I would encourage taking time to learn important processes of the people you manage.

Incentivize work

In my experience, a great method of motivation is the prospect of gaining experience. If you are a first-time manager, this method will most likely be available to you, since the entry-level workers you are presiding over vitally need to gain experience. The incentive in this equation is the prospect of someday (hopefully soon) being a heavily relied upon coworker and ultimately, moving up the ladder. When I was in an administrative assistant role, this incentive was enough for me to pour all my efforts into any task I was doing. As a manager, I continually engage my team by relating the importance of gaining experience in their role and how it will benefit them as it did me.

Don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves

When I grew into my supervisory role, I told myself that I would never act as if any task was too large or small for me. If any of my colleagues needed a helping hand and I had the time, I would do it, not only to help the office, but also to prove a point: if I can do this you can do this. This attitude really helped me bond with those I managed. They felt I was there to support them and in turn trusted and respected my role in the office.

By being mindful about those you are managing and utilizing the work ethic that got you into an advanced role in the first place, the process of managing people for the first time will be less of an obstacle than you imagined.

Michael V. Paul profile image

Michael V. Paul

Michael V. Paul was the Program Officer of the Rita J. & Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundation. He is an appreciator and practitioner of efficient operation, strategic thinking and hard work, and an avid reader and soccer enthusiast.

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