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Advice From An Executive Director | Volunteering Can Help You Understand The Sector

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This week, we’re talking to executive directors about their jobs, career paths, and what it takes to lead a nonprofit. To kick off this series we’re sharing the story of Kelly Blandford Bah, Executive Director of Sustainable Sandhills in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Kelly found her job on Idealist, after spending almost four years at the Canton Development Partnership, a Division of the Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce in Ohio.

Her journey began after serving in the Peace Corps in West Africa working in rural and small business development. When she returned she said in an interview that she wanted to go back to her own "village" in Ohio and do development work, build community, and get people engaged. However, moving 500 miles away to North Carolina to lead a nonprofit came with its own set of challenges and lessons. Here, Kelly chats with us about her career path.

Why did you pursue a position as an executive director?

I came to the Canton Development Partnership as an entry-level project manager and was soon promoted to assistant director. Over time though, I knew I wanted to get more experience and figure out what I could do with the skills and network I was building. I found my passion—sustainability—and knew that I needed to move on (my boss loved his job and wasn’t going anywhere soon). So I was looking for something that hit on my passion and utilized the skills I had developed. I also wanted to work some place smaller where I could focus on organizational growth and see projects from start-to-finish.

I looked at Idealist everyday and got email alerts about new opportunities. Then the executive director position at Sustainable Sandhills came to my inbox and I thought ‘wow this is perfect’: out of the Ohio snow with a focus on community development, and sustainability. I sent my resume in, and received a response immediately.

What was the most challenging part about pursuing that role?

Anytime you step into a role with more responsibility there’s a learning curve. I’m relatively young for an ED; I’m 33. I’ve been on this upward ladder, so I’m getting experience but I have to be very humble and patient as I figure out how to grow in each role. I am responsible for employees. I am responsible to the community by telling them about sustainability and letting them know we have a plan to create a more sustainable community. Culturally it’s very different here. This is a big military community here, with military values. Like the Peace Corps, I had to learn the culture and language but now I’m applying it more broadly.

What do you wish you had known before you took on this role?

How difficult funding a nonprofit really is. During the economic downturn people hold on to their dollars more tightly, across the board, not just nonprofits. So being able to shift and change our plan around that was challenging. We went from military funding to a more grassroots model and are celebrating 10 years next year! We also have to evolve and keep things relevant: creating community events and keeping our partners interested.

I’ve also realized that we’re often working with people who are learning about sustainability and recycling for the first time. It often feels like we’re starting from square one in getting out our message.

What’s the biggest challenge facing executive directors today?

Maintaining the presence in our communities and keeping partnerships. I believe that a rising tide lifts all boats. People want to silo themselves: Which organization is going to get the dollars? Whose name is in lights? We have to work more broadly in partnership to make community initiatives work.

What advice or resources can you recommend for people interested in becoming an executive director?

Start by understanding the different roles in a nonprofit. You need to have volunteered and understand volunteer culture, membership culture, and fundraising culture. Make a commitment to understanding by volunteering with organizations. You can be on a committee, on a board, or just offer your help to a nonprofit – we always need that assistance. It’s always nice to hire people who have that understanding, because it’s hard to create that knowledge or experience. Keep moving forward with experiences. Life is about learning. It takes your whole body, heart, and soul to keep going and really make things work in the nonprofit field. We’re the glue that really holds the community together.

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