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5 Things to Know About a Career in Nonprofit Leadership

Nonprofits get a bad rap for being underfunded and struggling to achieve their ends. But this belies the fact that the third-largest sector in the US is the nonprofit sector. And none of this would be possible without the right nonprofit leadership.

In for-profit industries, leadership is a consequence of ladder climbing more often than merit. But take the profit out of the equation, and a leader needs a lot more. When your subordinates will only follow you out of respect, being a stubborn authoritarian won’t get you far.

If working in a nonprofit leadership center appeals to you, then come prepared. Read along as we discuss the five things you should know about a career as a nonprofit leader.

1. Nonprofit Leadership Is All about the Budget

Nonprofits don’t have deep pockets to dig into or record profits to reinvest. They exist on shoestring budgets, working miracles with minuscule resources. Going over budget could quite literally spell the end of a long-term operation.

A limited budget affects you in many, many ways. It lowers the salary incentive for your employees. Many nonprofit new hires get burned out very quickly and have little incentive to stay.

Then there is the issue of procurement. On a tiny budget, you have to work literal miracles to stretch your dollars as far as possible. Just because you are a nonprofit doesn’t mean that suppliers will take it easy on you.

All of this is to say that the most important thing you can learn is how to keep a budget in check. Know the resources you have and the funding sources you can draw from.

Master that silver tongue and get as many grants and philanthropic initiatives as you can manage. Even if money is the most important thing at the end of the day, some are able to see through it and invest in what’s moral.

Budget reviews and disclosures are a yearly ceremony in the nonprofit sector. Your donors want to know how you’ve spent every last penny. They may withhold their next donation if you spend it unwisely.

2. Interpersonal Communication

It should come as no surprise that a leadership role involves a lot of talking and liaising. Every nonprofit leadership MBA program will teach you that networking is often far more important than official relationships. You can get a lot done with informal encounters with other professionals.

Nonprofit leaders are a lot like lobbyists. They know how to spread their network and keep tabs on important individuals. When the time comes to call in favors, they don’t hesitate with a bit of sweet talking.

Don’t misunderstand, this is not about manipulating or using people. This is simply about leveraging personal relationships. Having a few I-owe-yous in your pocket will never be a disadvantage.

3. Delegation, Delegation, Delegation

Nonprofit leadership jobs would not be that effective if you were rolling up your sleeves for every minor task. Delegation is what keeps the gears turning in big organizations. If you aren’t used to assigning tasks, now is the time to learn.

What’s great about delegation is how it extends your reach. It’s almost as if it turns you into a hive mind, capable of much greater things than one person can achieve.

The key is having your subordinates do anything that you don’t need to do. With the remainder of your time, dedicate yourself to tasks that you alone should be responsible for.

4. Complex Problem-Solving

Nonprofit management and leadership proves itself when the hour comes to solve problems. Nonprofits often face a rocky road on the path to their goals. Just having a nonprofit leadership certificate won’t mean much if you can’t think outside the box.

Problem-solving is as much about puzzles as foresight. Decisions have far-reaching consequences, especially when your organization balances on a string. Knowing how things will hurt or benefit you further down the line is a crucial skill.

Just like with your budget limitations, you have limited resources and time to make decisions. Learn to make astute decisions that account for manpower and resources. Then you will make you an unstoppable force in your organization.

There’s no shame in deriving solutions from your subordinates. If anything, this makes your leadership stronger. You are open to suggestions and willing to learn, which teaches your employees to trust you.

5. Uniting People

At the end of the day, this is your job, right? A nonprofit leadership alliance with all of your regular employees. Yet even with noble causes that are common in a nonprofit, people can struggle to work together.

A good leader knows their people. They may have worked in a nonprofit leadership lab where they had to deal with challenging personalities. They know that just because a person is a bit prickly on the exterior doesn’t mean they don’t have value.

Your leadership role will be as much about understanding your people as getting them to function smoothly together. You pair like-minded personalities together. And if you have to, you put disparate personalities together only if you know that they can handle it.

At the end of the day, a leader reminds their people of why they show up to the office every day. You provide a constant symbol of unity and purpose that others can look to. Your example inspires them even when you don’t feel enough motivation inside yourself.

Become a Nonprofit Leader Today

Nonprofit leadership is a career with plenty of opportunities for learning and growth. But before you dive in, keep the above tips in mind to make the most of your tenure. The lessons you learn here carry forward into the rest of your life.

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