It’s that time of year when we all are making our New Year’s resolutions. This is the best time to be thinking about how your nonprofit career will grow in the coming year as well. The economy dealt us nonprofit folks a difficult year (especially in fundraising), and undoubtedly there are more unknown challenges ahead for all of us. But we have to remember all the things that we ARE in control of: our actions, our intentions, our career choices. Here is my top ten list of things to add to your 2009 goals if you want to enhance your leadership in the nonprofit field. Please add your own in the comments!
- Clarify your purpose: Don’t go into 2009 without first asking yourself if you are in the right place. Are you really doing what you want to do? Take some time to reflect on who you are and why you are in the nonprofit field. Where is your passion? Does your job have anything to do with the way you want to be in the world?
- Speak up: When someone asks you what you think, tell them! 2009 is not the year of the shrinking violet. We need more nonprofit leaders, especially young people, to share their ideas and innovation to help move organizations forward. This is not the time to get intimidated by your boss or Board Chair, there is too much at stake. The most damaging behavior in a nonprofit is when everyone says yes to everything. Be the one who says “no” or “why” if you know it is the right thing to do.
- Join a nonprofit board of directors: There’s no leadership training like the experience you get serving as a board member. Over the past year, I have learned so much more in my board role than I ever would have in my day to day nonprofit job. You will undoubtedly learn about finances, staffing challenges, fundraising, and make decisions regarding pretty much everything. On a board, you HAVE to lead, that’s all there is to it. You also make some neat friends along the way. Start with boardnetUSA to find openings in your area.
- Find a mentor: We all know of someone whose leadership we admire. If you want to learn about the career of a leader who you feel has “made it” to where you want to go, reach out to them for a brief call or meeting. Ask them if they would be willing to be a resource for you and get together a few times a year. Most people aren’t that busy they can’t talk to you once a quarter. If you meet you role model at a conference, get her card and contact her right away to reintroduce yourself. Mentoring relationships have to be cultivated like any other; don’t expect your perfect mentor to magically find you.
- Learn how to raise money: The reality of being a nonprofit leader is that most of the time our big ideas require funding. You can talk a good talk all you want, but be sure you have the skills to make things happen. People respect a leader who can get things done, and in the nonprofit field, asking for money is the only way we can do the work. Take a fundraising class at your local nonprofit state association and practice as much as possible.
- Write an op-ed or start a blog: Putting your voice and name out there in print is scary, and people will respect you for it. Op-eds or blogs allow you to speak up about a cause you care about to a large audience that can end up helping to move your issue forward or at least call attention to it. Your reputation as a leader will soar once people see that you aren’t hesitant to say what needs to be said. Don’t get bogged down by always trying to be politically correct; the days of bullshit are over. People want to hear about values and truth. Everyone’s not always gonna agree with you; that is impossible. But chances are, there are thousands of people who feel the same way you do, and are so glad you said what they were too afraid to. Visit the Op-Ed Project to learn how to write one.
- Advocate for your cause: Just because you are an administrative assistant at a food bank doesn’t mean you have to stay behind that desk. Get up and go testify to your local government officials about legislation that would affect your clients. Write letters to your state representatives to show your support or opposition to policies that affect your cause. Don’t just feed the poor. Ask why the poor have no food. Visit the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest to learn all you need to know.
- Build your network: We all know that when you’re ready to take that next big leap in your career, it’s really more about who you know than anything else. Take the time to attend at least one networking event per month and go to professional conferences to meet people both in and outside of your field. Pick a social network you like and connect with like-minded folks. You never know how people will be able to help you through the power of Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn until you dive in. I know the membership fees can be steep, but you can meet so many great people (and potential mentors) through professional associations. If you’re a fundraiser, join the Association of Fundraising Professionals!
- Explore a slash career: Need more money in the new year? Don’t quit your job just to make $5,000 more or get a demeaning job at Target. This is the perfect time to explore another career alongside your nonprofit job that allows you to pursue one of your passions. And if you’ve been working in the same job, it might be time to think about trying something new to sharpen your skills and ability to adapt. Always wanted to teach? Try contacting your local nonprofit association or community college to see if they could use your expertise. The sky is the limit.
- Take care of yourself: My grandmother constantly reminds me that I can’t take care of anyone else if I don’t take care of myself first. Make 2009 the year you put your health first, stop working so late, spend time with family and friends, eat right and exercise. Build it into your schedule so that you can’t say you “don’t have time.” Set up a recurring appointment (let your Blackberry remind you) in the morning or evening for time to just be.
Rosetta Thurman is an emerging nonprofit leader of color working and living in the Washington, D.C. area. She holds a Master’s degree in Nonprofit Management and blogs about nonprofit leadership and management issues at Perspectives From the Pipeline.