Words to the Wise: Advice and Survival Tips for Young Nonprofit Professionals and Emerging Leaders

Content sponsored by the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits

By Joye Hodges, Director of Marketing and Events, North Carolina Center for Nonprofits

What advice would you give your younger self? That’s the question that kicked off a panel discussion of executive directors at the YNPN Triangle NC’s 2016 #NonprofitSTRONG Summit.

The panel included Angeline Echeverria of El Pueblo, James Miller of the LGBT Center of Raleigh, Kelly Phoenix of Nourish International, and Melinda Wiggins of Student Action with Farmworkers, and was facilitated by Bridgette Burge, Director of Programs with the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits.

What words of wisdom do these four seasoned executive directors have for YNPN-ers? Read on for advice on progressing in your career and surviving and thriving as a leader in the nonprofit sector.

Be open to new opportunities

Not everyone starts their career with the goal of becoming an executive director, but when opportunity knocks, these leaders say, bravely open that door and see what’s on the other side.

James says he always envisioned himself to be a “direct services guy” until the opportunity at the LGBT Center arose. “It was then that I realized I couldn’t deny my desire to change the world," he said.

Angeline’s goal was to engage in transformative work, but she didn’t really see herself as an executive director. She changed jobs every few years, seeking positions that offered new challenges and opportunities to expand her skills and expertise. By the time she applied to the executive leadership position at El Pueblo, she felt equipped for the work. “It felt like the right thing at the right time for me,” she said. "Follow your passion. If it feels right, it's an opportunity worth exploring."

Melinda had enjoyed being a program manager at Student Action for Farmworkers when she was asked to step into the director’s role. “My question was ‘will I have to fundraise?’ The board said ‘yes,’ so I said ‘no,’ but they said, ‘think about it.’ I’m glad I did because I love my job and now I love fundraising, too.”

Get yourself a mentor

No matter what your nonprofit career path, find a mentor in the sector.

“Get yourself a mentor and get one right away, even if you’re happy in your current job,” said Kelly. She also advised young leaders to become active in local professional development programs like YNPN. "And, read every career development book anyone ever recommends to you. If you want to become a leader in your field, invest in yourself personally and professionally.”

James motto is, “Never deny someone who’s offering you help.” One of his professors helped shape his life direction and the way he leads now. “She always treated me like a colleague, not a mentee. She was very deliberate in her work with me, pragmatic and also practical. Working with her gave me the confidence to really step forward and explore and push into new directions.”

Your mentor doesn't have to be an executive director. “Find someone you respect. Someone who can be a positive sounding board for you. I still call my mentor till this day. In fact, I told her I was serving on this panel and she was really excited for me,” said James.

Your mentor can be any age. Melinda said, “I have a lot of people I get advice from. Some of my mentors and advisors are younger than me but give me good perspective. I also have a peer support group. I can’t imagine being in my position without talking to a lot of people that have a lot of different expertise and experience.”

Don’t let fear hold you back

Angeline was the second youngest person on staff at El Pueblo when she became executive director, which was a bit intimidating. "I was really scared that I wasn't going to be able to do it,” she said, but advised young professionals not to let fear keep them from taking on bigger roles and responsibilities.

Kelly admitted that in her early days as an executive director she was afraid that she didn’t have enough nonprofit knowledge to make the right decisions. “But, I learned over time that there’s no reason to let a lack of knowledge prevent you from going where you want to go. In this community, there is a plethora of resources, information, and people who want to help you succeed. You can learn anything you need to know as you go, on the job.”

Get the job

Organize your resume to provide a snapshot of both job experience and volunteer work that show the causes you care about. Career objectives should align with the position and mission of the nonprofit to which you are applying.

Take extra care with your cover letter. “Please do not send me a cover letter where you have done a find and replace with my organization’s name and every other organization you are applying for,” said James.

“The cover letter should not be a narrative of your resume,” said Melinda. “Tell me something different about yourself, what you're about. The cover letter is the hook – it determines whether or not I want to meet you.”

Before you go into the interview, pump yourself up and be confident. “Don’t listen to the negative voice in your head and start doubting yourself," advised Kelly. "If you start doubting yourself, then I’ll start doubting you, too.”

Do your homework

Before accepting a position, find out all you can about the nonprofit, its programs, and its people. Kelly suggested researching the nonprofit’s Form-990, reviewing the board and staff lists, checking out their website and social media. Is the nonprofit sustainable? Is it having a tremendous impact? How are they spending their money?

“I would look at the organization as critically as if I were a funder and planning to give them $100,000 of my money,” said Kelly.

The panelists agreed that it’s critically important to get a sense of the organization’s culture to make sure it aligns with your personal and professional development goals. “You’ve got to ask a lot of questions,” said Kelly. “Are they bureaucratic? Are they old school? Are they innovative? Are they participating in things like [the YNPN Summit]? Are they at the front lines in their field? Do I know the people? Do I trust the people? Are they people I can learn from? Will I be challenged here?”

Angeline recommended, “Think hardest about how their mission aligns with your purpose in life, your passion, what gets you going in the morning.”

Secrets to success

What makes someone qualified to be an executive director? The short answer is more than one’s years of nonprofit experience and field knowledge; it’s a combination of hard and soft skills.

“This job is 85% passion, 10% practical knowledge, 5% knowing how to read a cash flow statement,” said James.

Executive directors must be resilient and stay calm during a crisis, said Kelly, whose international nonprofit has dealt with a fair share of crises. Fundraising is also a necessary function of the job.

“You have to be willing to take risks. You have to able to negotiate, understand how people are feeling, solve problems,” said Melinda. “You have to make decisions – sometimes little or big, sometimes with people or without - but you’ve got to make them so if you’re not good at making decisions, you probably shouldn’t be an executive director.”

Take care of yourself

The non-stop pace, the never-ending to-do list, the problems that won’t go away without more staff and more money…nonprofit work can be exhausting and stressful. More often, executive directors are burning out and leaving the sector. Self-care is a must, not a luxury.

At El Pueblo, Angeline requires staff to schedule vacation time and stick to it – no checking email while you’re on vacation!

“Also, I work close to 40 hours per week and encourage all my coworkers to do the same,” said Angeline. “It’s bad that we have to remind each other to do that.”

Ten years into her role as executive director, Melinda was drained and exhausted and felt she’d become “too myopic” about her work. She took a sabbatical “to remind myself that there was more to life than my job.”

“But, equally important is the stuff you do every day and every week to keep yourself sane,” said Melinda. She makes one day a week meetings-free, takes a lunch break every day, and walks each morning before starting work. “Modeling is really important for your staff.”

“I make sure I’m having conversations with my staff to make sure they’re taking advantage of vacation time and work- life balance opportunities,” said James. “It needs to come from the top.”

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