10 Tips to Prepare for Nonprofit Leadership

If you aspire to be a nonprofit  executive director in the future, here are some things you could be doing now to prepare:

  1. Know what you’re getting into as you develop your personal career roadmap:  be realistic about the work/life balance, earning potential, and the various sacrifices nonprofit leaders must take throughout their careers
  2. Formal education – These days it’s unlikely that you’d be considered for any leadership role without a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field, such as business, public administration, social work, or in subjects related to the mission of the organization (eg. arts, criminal justice).  You may want to forego an advanced degree until you have several years of work experience, rather than enter into the workforce with even greater debt (recognizing that nonprofits are not generally the place to get rich); generally experience is given more weight than an advanced degree
  3. Develop a track record using every opportunity to gain nonprofit experience – as a volunteer, as a board member (our director joined her first board at age 17); gaining fundraising experience is a real plus – again as a board member or volunteer
  4. If you do join a board, be observant – watch the interaction between the board and the E.D. and learn from what’s done well and not so well
  5. Have realistic goals – less experienced individuals might be more appropriate for smaller nonprofits, but it’s reasonable to expect to have 5 to 10 years experience before becoming an executive director
  6. Pursue professional development, even if you have to pay for it yourself, not only in your specific skill set, but in the so-called soft skills (time management, conflict resolution, working in teams, organizational skills); consider pursuing a certificate in your chosen skill set to gain an edge over other candidates
  7. Work on your communication skills, both oral and written;  study preferred communication methods of other you work with (particularly other generations)  and adapt
  8. Show initiative, offer to take responsibility, whenever it makes sense, be a team leader
  9. Find a mentor who is or has been an E.D.
  10. Network!
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