Developing Your Leadership Skills as a Young, Nonprofit Professional by Dan Gould

YNPN Chicago Board of Directors Speak!

Leadership is a set of skills and qualities that needs constant practice, and for many emerging nonprofit leaders, can be an area of limited experience.  I feel guilty for using the word “emerging” to describe young nonprofit leaders, but there is still a sizeable gap to close before today’s young professionals find themselves serving as Executive Directors and senior staff moving the sector forward.  So what does it mean to be a leader if you’re not sitting in the corner office or pondering mission with your board of directors? Your first reaction might be to say that you’re bringing innovative ideas to your workplace. However, ideas are great only when implemented effectively.

Some popular recommendations for enhancing the role of young nonprofit professionals in the sector were outlined in YNPN’s report, “Good in Theory, Problems in Practice,” which examined several ideas around leadership development. The findings of this report suggest three ways that young professionals can bring high-impact ideas that are achievable and sustainable to their workplace. Here are some of my thoughts on how you can get them to work for you and take the next step in developing your leadership skill-set.

  1. Understand context before suggesting a solution.  Since consensus building is one of the cornerstones of the nonprofit community, even if you have the best idea, you’re going to need buy-in. A good way to get started is to conduct an informal evaluation before you propose your idea. You might talk with coworkers or board members to gain perspective.
  2. Leverage relationships  Your current coworkers are not the only resource at your disposal to test out and help promote your ideas. This is the perfect opportunity to reach out to your personal board of directors and ask their opinion.  The best relationships will give you honest feedback. They will tell you what your ideas may be missing or if you need to hurry up and get a presentation together.
  3. Be a partner  None of these actions are achievable without a strong network of peers. And to build a strong network, you’re going to have to go deeper than sharing a beer at happy hour. My colleague, Carissa Giovanni previously posted on the YNPN Chicago blog about how to start your nonprofit career and those tips definitely still apply.  Once you’ve found like-minded professionals, you’ll want to stay in touch.  I’ve found a great way to do this is to reach out when you don’t need anything. Emailing an article with a short message that says “I thought you might find this interesting.” goes a long way.  This technique can show peers and coworkers that you’re interested in their development and thoughts in addition to just getting your work done. Part of being a leader is to keep up on trends and share your findings and thoughts in meaningful ways.

What other tools have you explored to show your value? Do you have any other advice for aspiring leaders? We’d love to hear your comments.

Dan Gould is an At-Large Member of the YNPN Chicago Executive Committee and currently Associate Director for Alumni Relations at Loyola University Chicago. Dan joined the Loyola team in November of 2010 after working for several years in the Chicago nonprofit sector. At Loyola, he works on building relationships with Colleges, Schools, and Centers of Excellence in addition to assisting with communication and marketing strategies, focusing on social media. Dan holds an undergraduate degree in English and Music Performance from the University of Iowa and a master’s degree in Education from DePaul University. Dan is also a musician in his spare time, preferring the bassoon and accordion.

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One Response to Developing Your Leadership Skills as a Young, Nonprofit Professional by Dan Gould

  1. Very well written and very informative. Thanks for the good work !

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