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3 tips to consider if you want to become an executive director of a nonprofit

If you’re interested in developing a social-impact career, there are very few straightforward paths to follow. This week, we’re sharing the advice and stories of a few people in various fields to help shine a light on the opportunities that exist in the social sector. Today, Gregory Cendana—Executive Director of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA)—shares his tips for pursuing an executive director position. Check out the other posts in this series.

 

Photo credit: Pickersgill reef, Creative Commons/Flickr

Photo credit: Pickersgill reef, Creative Commons/Flickr

It’s hard to work at nonprofits these days without hearing about the leadership challenges our sector faces. What kind of leaders do we need? Who will lead the sector in years to come? How are we cultivating and supporting the next generation?

Gregory Cendana is tackling these questions as the youngest and first openly gay executive director of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), the first and only national organization of Asian Pacific American union members and allies to advance worker, immigrant, and civil rights. Although he was selected as the organization’s executive director when he was just 24-years-old in 2010, Gregory has been learning the ins-and-outs of organizing and leadership since he was a teenager.

At home, he heard his father, who emigrated from the Philippines, talk about his concerns with his union. Inspired to help his father and learn more about unions, in college Gregory secured an internship with the very same union that his father belonged to and became involved with campaigns in California and across the country. This led him to running (and being elected) as the president of the United States Student Association.  These transformative experiences not only allowed him to develop critical skills in leadership development, public speaking, and coalition building, but also connected him with a mentor who soon encouraged him to apply for the executive director position at APALA.

With the help of a mentor, hands-on experience, and a desire to strengthen workers’ rights, Gregory is entering his third year as executive director.

Do you want to become an executive director of a nonprofit?

Here’s Gregory’s advice:

  • Connect with current executive directors: “Get to know executive directors or people in similar positions.  If you can, get them as mentors. Learn and understand what makes them good at what they do but also talk about the challenges they face and skills you should you pick up so you can handle the job.”
  • Surround yourself with supportive people: “As friendly and gregarious as I am, there are moments when I feel like I am by myself. It’s a reminder of the responsibilities and what comes with the role; being an executive director can be lonely. But if you surround yourself with people that care about you and want to support you it will be easier.”
  • Make sure the board is behind you: “When I interviewed for the position, I only met the executive board members, so just five people. At my first in-person board meeting, the majority of our 42-member board—and many were founding APALA members—were there. They said to me, ‘We have been doing this work for decades. We throw our support behind you and care about the next generation.’ This was important because it showed how the ideas I had and leadership’s vision of the organization were aligned.“

Next steps

Greg-PTI Head Shot

Gregory is currently the Executive Director of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), AFL-CIO and Institute for Asian Pacific American Leadership & Advancement. He also serves on the Executive Committee of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans and as Chair for the Labor Coalition for Community Action. Named one of the 30 Most Influential Asian Americans Under 30 & the “Future of DC Politics”, Gregory is a recognized organizer, speaker, and trainer. Previously, he served as President of the United States Student Association (USSA), where he played an integral role in the passage of the Student Aid & Fiscal Responsibility Act and Healthcare & Education Reconciliation Act.

 

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