Pitfalls to Avoid When Seeking Nonprofit Leadership Jobs

If weak career prospects in corporate America have you considering a move into nonprofit leadership, you’ll want to avoid the most common stumbling blocks.

With enormous numbers of baby boomers retiring, nonprofits have especially strong needs in the leadership ranks — making this a good place for seasoned managers and executives to establish new careers. Moving into nonprofit leadership could be just what you need; just make sure you avoid these mistakes in your job search:

Submitting the wrong kind of resume

Finding a job in nonprofit leadership requires avoiding common mistakes.If you’re aiming for an executive suite of any kind, your job search begins with a great resume. Nonprofits in particular look for a clear, focused executive summary that hones in on your achievements and the value you’ll bring to a leadership role. Be sure to highlight the numerical results of your past projects and roles. The size of a department you led or the dollar value of a proposal you helped win are key points.

Nonprofits look for people who can coach staff, build effective teams, and deal with boards of directors and other stakeholders — which often play a more active role in a nonprofit organization than in a for-profit company. In particular, emphasize your experience in working effectively with multiple constituencies and in achieving consensus.

Being the wrong kind of ‘green’

Being completely new to nonprofits will not help you stand out as a candidate for a leadership post. The best way to be taken seriously is by volunteering first. Time spent as a reliable unpaid worker who is committed to the organization’s work will count every bit as much as the years you’ve spent honing your skills as a manager or expert in your field.

Alternatively, spend significant time as a volunteer for a group with similar goals. If you’re looking for a leadership role at an educational organization, work experience at a school, in a literacy project or on a library board will speak volumes about your knowledge and commitment to education.

Neglecting your homework

Speaking of education, any job search will benefit from research on the organization to which you’re applying for a job. In the nonprofit world, it’s especially necessary: Every nonprofit exists for a clear purpose, and most nonprofit employees will bring to the workplace a high dose of passion for their employer and its mission.

Having the wrong attitude

Because nonprofits serve the public, this is one sector where showing your softer side truly matters. Nonprofit organizations view mentoring, facilitation, team building and achieving consensus as especially important qualifications.

To be sure, you also will need to be bottom-line focused — just don’t exhibit arrogance about your corporate experience. You might indeed have saved your last employer from extinction, but be aware that nonprofits face tough challenges, too, which is why such an organization would give your job application serious consideration. Humility and empathy will make your candidacy even stronger.

For those starting out in their careers

If you’re just starting out in your career and envision one day moving into the ranks of nonprofit leadership, you need to start thinking ahead now — particularly about your work relationship with your manager, who often can be your ticket to a future leadership role.

You can’t expect to be noticed automatically. You’ll need to demonstrate a willingness to go “above and beyond” on your manager’s behalf if you expect to land the kinds of assignments that will stretch your knowledge and abilities and develop your leadership potential. For starters, ask if you can accompany your boss to meetings, presentations, training sessions or conferences.

If you work for a nonprofit where staff-development opportunities seem rare, you may need to develop your own — perhaps at your own expense. Some larger nonprofit organizations do make leadership-development resources available to the nonprofit community as a whole: One such example is Project LEAD, a program offered by the United Way of King County, Washington.


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