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Building a Long and Successful Nonprofit Career

There are numerous benefits to building a long-term nonprofit career, such as connecting to organizational missions and working in sector that reflects your personal values.  However, there are challenges to sustaining a nonprofit career. Understanding these challenges and taking advantage of opportunities to advance your career are key to a long and successful nonprofit career. 

Understanding the Challenges

Comprehensive research has been done to explore the challenges that nonprofit professionals face in pursuit of strong, rewarding, and stimulating careers.  These studies show that many people who work in the nonprofit sector are not only committed to improving their world, but they are also committed to improving their careers.

CompassPoint’s 2006 Daring to Lead survey found that 90% of executives had participated in professional development of some kind and almost one in five enrolled in a nonprofit management degree or certificate program. In addition, 25% of respondents said they had used an executive coach at least once. 

This dedication to professional development and growth isn’t always matched by appropriate opportunities.  Respondents to Commongood Careers’ survey The Voice of Nonprofit Talent in 2008, for example, said that a “lack of career ladders” was one of their biggest concerns about sustaining a nonprofit career. 

Frequently, nonprofit leaders find that once they have reached a certain level in an organization, there is no further room for growth or promotion so they have to search for a different position elsewhere in the sector. 

“In the private sector, highly competitive companies often tell employees to ‘move up or move out,’” The Voice of Nonprofit Talent notes, “but in the social sector, individuals are more often finding they must ‘move out to move up.’”

Similarly, the Daring to Lead survey found that almost half (43%) of the executives today reported that they had decided to spend some time in the for-profit sector to reach career development goals or to gain more expertise in management. 

Not only that, but many executives decide that “once is enough” to lead an organization.  Respondents to the Daring to Lead survey cited stress, personnel problems, and the constant need to juggle finances as major deterrents to taking on another leadership role.  With so much to manage, it is hardly surprising that the study also found that the majority of leaders had not identified a successor within their organization. 

Creating Ladders to Leadership

Some organizations are taking steps to address these challenges. As a result of the sector-wide recognition of the impending talent crunch, several new initiatives have been put into action.
The Center for Creative Leadership and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, for example, collaborated to create The Ladders to Leadership Program. This program, launched in May 2008, aims to build the leadership capacity of community-based nonprofit health and health-related organizations serving vulnerable populations, where people are often economically disadvantaged and have limited educational opportunities and inadequate access to health services.

“Nonprofit organizations are a critical part of health care and service delivery in this country. It is important that we work with current leaders to build a pipeline of qualified future CEOs and Executive Directors, so we do not lose the vision and capacity needed to continue to do this work effectively in the future,” said Sallie Petrucci George, Program Officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Offering 270 early- to mid-career professionals access to a 16-month leadership development curriculum, the Ladder to Leadership focuses on helping social sector professionals develop critical leadership skills in order to ensure that the needs of the populations they serve are met in the most effective and efficient manner.

“Fellows will be taught a range of skills from how to build and manage a team to problem-solving and networking,” said Karen Dyer, Director of CCL’s Education and Nonprofit Sector. “We believe this program will have a powerful and lasting impact on individual leaders and their organizations.”

Similar leadership development programs include The United Way of New York City’s Nonprofit Leadership Development Institute, which offers training to entry-level, junior and senior nonprofit leaders in New York City.  Likewise, New Sector Alliance, in addition to offering organizational development services, provides one-on-one career coaching, customized training sessions, and workshops in career development topics like nonprofit management and socially responsible careers.
The Value of Mentor Relationships

Other organizations are working to address different aspects of the leadership challenges facing the field.  For example, the Center for Nonprofit Success found that many current CEOs and Executive Directors had questions about leading their organizations and developing their careers but did not know where to look for support. 

“We developed the mentor program so that nonprofit professionals have help when they need it. Having a mentor can help you grow in your organization, determine strategy, or problem solve. Mentors have experience running their own nonprofits and provide support and answers as well as advice,” said David Johnson, Communications Manager at the Center for Nonprofit Success. 

The program connects current leaders of nonprofits who volunteer to mentor other, often younger or less experienced leaders.  The organization couples the mentor and mentored based on a short questionnaire filled out upon application for the program and then lets the mentoring pair work on their own from there.

The idea of the program is to inspire dialog and mentorship within the sector.  Part of the goal of this program, Johnson said, is to start a trend of mentoring that will support the career development of nonprofit leaders.

A Robust Future for Nonprofit Careers

While there are a number of challenges to building a long-term nonprofit career, the sector is responding.  Thanks to an abundance of research on what it will take to develop the next generation of nonprofit leaders and some innovative programs already addressing these challenges, nonprofit professionals have more options for professional development to build and sustain long-term nonprofit careers than ever before.

This article was written by Commongood Careers and is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-NoDerivs 2.5 License.

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