A few days ago, I received an intriguing message from a volunteer manager who had been in one of my conference sessions last year. It was the first time I had received this question – but I must believe that many others are aspiring to leadership positions and have similar questions. Here’s an excerpt from the note:
I am seeking advice on the subject matter of a Volunteer Manager interested in eventually wanting to lead an organization. Am I destined to have to make the leap into Development or can I realistically do this from my current seat?
I love what I am doing. I love working with people. I also enjoy strategic thinking and cannot help but to think about future aspirations and wonder if I am pigeon-holing myself by staying in the role of managing volunteers just because of my passion for people. Do you have any advice?
Victor the Volunteer Manager (Not his real name, of course)
By hopping on a call with Victor, I learned a little more about his path to his current role, which included military service and working in healthcare. While still early in his career, he has a strong resume with diverse experience across a few areas of nonprofit operations. I respect and appreciate his aspirations to eventually become a CEO or Executive Director of an organization. So, we talked next about all the different dimensions of experience that organizations seek when hiring a new leader. Dimensions such as leadership, strategic planning, management, governance, fiscal management, public speaking, and, yes, fundraising/development.
I also briefly shared my own path, which started as an anthropology educator in museums (where I partnered daily with skilled volunteers) and led to an Executive Director role (before consulting). Early in my career, I joined the board of a local museum, became a manager at my own institution to further hone my leadership and budget experience, and eventually became Marketing Director of another nonprofit, where I was part of senior leadership, prepared communications plans in collaboration with the fund development director and for the Board, and more. After that, I was ready to take on the role of Executive Director – in my case, of an organization that embraced volunteer engagement as part of its mission.
Having shared that, I wanted to be clear that my path is not everyone’s path. So, here is the advice I shared with this aspiring leader:
- Network, network, network. Meet with Executive Directors of organizations you respect. Learn others’ paths to leadership. Was it by working their way up? Through moves across organizations? What past experience did they bring to the table as they moved up?
- Join a board. One area of experience that many organizations prioritize is experience working with a board. Yes, many development directors have access to boards… but that’s not the only portal to board collaboration. You can join a board (and would likely be a valued addition given your experience in volunteer engagement). This will expand your fiscal experience and governance experience. Maybe even consider getting on the HR committee to better understand the management side of running a nonprofit.
- Fill in gaps through professional development. If you aren’t interested in becoming a Development Director, consider other ways to gain the experience in fundraising that is crucial to most executive director roles. Become involved in your local chapter of AFP (Association of Fundraising Professionals), volunteer to write grants for another organization and partner to do so within your current role, take courses, get certifications, … the possibilities are endless.
- Become involved in your professional association or movement. Become a leader within your community or nationally on a professional level. Whether in engagement (local DOVIAs, AVAs, or the new National Alliance for Volunteer Engagement) or another area of passion (such as a cause that speaks to you, local government, leadership programs, etc.), becoming a leader among other professionals will position you well to hear about openings, build skills, and present yourself as one who is ready to take on the mantle of leadership.
The more leaders we have in the nonprofit world who not only believe in the power of volunteerism but understand what it takes to truly embrace engagement as a strategy for capacity building, the better off we’ll all be! So, good luck, Victor! I hope to see you in the CEO’s office soon.