7 mistakes you didn’t realize you were making in building your nonprofit career

Photo credit: rvlsoft, Shutterstock
Photo credit: rvlsoft, Shutterstock

I recently had the opportunity to mentor a young woman who wanted to start a nonprofit. Because I work exclusively with new nonprofit execs on core-competency building and she wanted to be an exec, it seemed like we were positioned to do something great together. She had the passion for her cause and I had the practical management knowledge…how could we lose?

Within our first few weeks working together I realized we had a problem. Although my mentee professed to wanting a long-term career in the nonprofit sector, her actions did not reflect that all; deadlines were consistently being missed and she seemed to be having trouble staying focused on her goal. After a few months of trying to make our partnership work, I finally broke it off.

As a nonprofit professional, I know how exciting it is to dream of devoting your career to doing something that changes the world. However, from personal experience and through working as a coach to new EDs, I have identified seven mistakes nonprofit leaders make that keep us from building a successful social sector career.

1. We fall in love with the vision of helping others yet forget to factor in how much work success actually takes.

My mentee loved the vision of helping distressed women but when it came down to actually beginning the process of researching competing organizations and writing a strategic plan, she would immediately tune-out and change the subject. She was totally in denial about the massive responsibility she would be taking on in this role. Running a nonprofit was more of a fantasy for her, not an objective.

Tip: Before you decide you want to make any big career move, apprentice someone who is already doing your “dream job” for at least six months to make sure that is what you really want. What something looks like on the outside and what something is on the inside are often two totally different things.

2. We don’t proactively build the skills we need to thrive in the nonprofit space.

At the time of our partnership, my mentee had just finished up her bachelors and was actively applying to graduate school programs in graphic design. When we discussed going to school for nonprofit management instead, she seemed disinterested because she loved art. Not a bad field but also not really helpful if you sincerely want to be an executive director.

Tip: Go out for coffee with five people who are already in the job you want and ask them what skills they think you’ll need to succeed in your new role. Once you have your top 3 overlapping answers, get busy proactively developing those skills through reading books or blog posts on the subject, hiring a coach or taking a course.

3. We get distracted from achieving our professional goals by what is going on in our personal lives.

During the short time that we worked together, my mentee often allowed personal decisions to stop our progress. One week she decided that she wanted to move and began hunting for a new place. Another week she wanted to get pregnant and focused on doctors appointments. And with each shift in her personal life she would ask to pause our program until things slowed down a bit. Of course, none of these are bad ideas, but if we’re really serious about a significant career in leadership, we have to be able to simultaneously manage both our personal and professional lives at the same time – not one or the other.

Tip: Write up your goals and put them somewhere you’ll see them every day. Often we let ourselves get distracted from our goals because we out-right forget what our goals are. When we are regularly reminded of our intended targets, it gets a lot easier to stay focused.

4. We keep changing our minds about what we want to accomplish.

This one was ultimately the issue that un-did our partnership. Each week it seemed that she would change her goal and then we would have to re-work the coaching game plan over and over. One week she would express a desire to focus on setting up her own organization, the next week she would want focus on getting a better job at a different nonprofit and the next week it would be something different again. Needless to say that after a few revisions and noticing that we were not getting any closer to finding one goal she was willing to wholeheartedly focus on, there was really nothing I could do to help her hit her target.

Tip: Before starting in any new venture, decide what you want to do and why you want to do it. Succeeding in any venture requires that you are completely clear about the outcome you want and then being disciplined enough to do the work required to get you there. Until you’re clear, you’ll say “yes” to almost anything instead of saying “yes” to only those things that will move you closer to your goal.

5. We secretly love drama and allow it to waste our time.

Succeeding at anything requires the ability to eliminate negative influences from our lives; we can’t get sucked into the drama that is floating all around us. One of the things my mentee was constantly complaining about was her tumultuous relationship with her in-laws who lived upstairs from her. During any given coaching call, she would spend at least 15 minutes complaining about the terrible situation she was in and how they were so unsupportive of her. Any time I tried to change the subject, she seemed to feel compelled to share more of her unfortunate story (yet was never willing to do anything about it to change it). Although she would never admit it, I could see that she loved living in a soap-opera as it gave her a “legitimate” excuse for not getting her work done.

Tip: If you’re an admitted drama-addict, begin the following drama-diet immediately. For the next 30 days, don’t watch the news, don’t read the newspapers, and refuse to engage in complaint-packed conversations (no matter how tantalizing). After one month, you’ll notice that you feel freer and more enthusiastic about taking positive action to move forward in your life. String a few of these months together and you’ll notice that your whole life will change.

6. We want to accomplish big things but are not diligent and disciplined to do a great job at the small things we’ve already have to do.

My mentee was always asking for me to give her big exciting projects to tackle but yet wouldn’t complete the small tasks I gave her to do. If you’ve ever heard the expression “how you do anything is how you do everything” you know how true it is. Until you can prove that you can be trusted to handle the seemingly insignificant items on your to-do list with absolute excellence, you will not be asked to fill any kind of leadership role because you have no track record.

Tip: Start small. Which tasks have you been avoiding because they seem trivial? Have an inbox full of emails that you haven’t replied to yet? Do that with excellence. Have a messy office because you’ve been “too busy” to get it organized? Get it in order now. Doing the small things well gives you the credibility and the confidence to do big things well. Start now.

7. We run from challenges instead of digging in and seeing our goal through to the end.

It’s easy to give up when things get hard. However, in observing what it takes to succeed as a social entrepreneur we see that grit, toughness, and discipline are all non-negotiable character traits for those who want to do something significant with their lives. I remember asking my mentee to begin to research the requirements for incorporating a nonprofit in her state (an overwhelming task to be sure) just to see how she would respond. After a half-hearted attempt at researching, she told me that there was just too much info and that we could focus on that later. Although she thought she had the fortitude to follow her dream, she really only wanted to do the work that was easy, rewarding and fun.

Tip: Instead of looking for the easiest way to your goal, map out a strategic plan for your organization and then commit to seeing it through no matter what happens (knowing in advance that it is inevitably going to get ugly sometimes).

If you’re a nonprofit professional looking to make 2014 a break-through year, take a look back through these seven points and ask yourself if you’re making these mistakes.

Got a question, feedback or something to add? Leave a comment below and I look forward to getting back to you.

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Natasha is the Founder of Next Level Nonprofits – an online training company dedicated to equipping new nonprofit executive directors with the skills and support they need to enjoy successful, sustainable and satisfying careers.
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    • Juli
    • January 29, 2014

    Great advice for any professional in any field!! Like your mentee, I have high hopes for making an impact and creating change in the social sector. Though, I quit my job in the private sector and returned to school for a degree in Nonprofit Leadership to make sure I had the right tool set to do the job, and hopefully with my business background, I’ll do it WELL.

    Thank you for the list. It’s a great reminder that we need more than passion to make a difference. We need conviction, follow-through, fortitude, and much more, including surrounding ourselves with experienced colleagues, friends and mentors to hold us accountable to our own goals.

    Do you have a blog or post things outside of Idealist that people can follow? If not, do you have any suggested blogs, columns, websites, etc that emerging np leaders would benefit from following? Being a poor college student again, I don’t have the means to afford a coach right now, and would like to supplement what I might not be learning in the classroom with relevant advice from experienced professionals.

    1. Hi Juli, thanks so much for the comment and kudos to you for all the work you’re putting into building a high-impact career. I’d love to hear more about it!

      • Minal Chheda
      • January 29, 2014


      Thank you very much for this write up !!! I am in the process of changing the job, and the piece will help me to understand the needs and set the objectives..

      I agree that one should have passion for the work we want to do, but passion is not the only requisite, clarity of the objectives, goals, & skills to achieve the same are equally important..
      Thank you very much for having written and shared this at this point of time…

      1. Hi Minal, so glad it was helpful! What type of career are you changing into?

        1. At first I was afraid reading it, what if I found out thats me and I have to give up everything ?
          Fortunately that is not me at all which means that I can keep going on with my new born NGO!
          Grate article, thank you Natasha!

          1. Thanks Ramona for the comment. Share with me some of your success tips when launching a NGO? Maybe I’ll put it in my next post ; )

    • David
    • January 30, 2014

    Thanks for the article, Natasha. Very interesting and made me focus and reflect on a couple of the habits I’ve been forming (particularly ignoring smaller tasks to focus on bigger/more exciting ones). Cheers for that 🙂

    1. Hey David, I know what you mean. It is always more exciting to work on the big stuff but not the little stuff. I have to remind myself moment to moment not to get too much “shiny quarter” syndrome. What are you working on currently?

    • cat
    • January 31, 2014

    Natasha, Thank you so much. Some truths are difficult to take in, but awareness is key for me. Thank you for such an honest and clear helpful set of insights. Moreover, I greatly appreciate the tips. How generous of you. I often get *stuck* in thinking about how I am less than ideal in various ways without applying better methods or practices. Thanks once more for helping me get more back on track and keep my eyes on the prize–for my own benefit and possibly for that of others.

    1. Hey cat, thanks for the comment. We call get stuck on stuff – I get caught up in these mistakes more that I’d like to admit but it helps to be aware of them. Any particular project you’re currently working on?

    • Mark Stedman
    • February 7, 2014

    I have to wonder if you were charging for your coaching sessions. Giving away coaching results in coachees/mentees who don’t care enough to really work the process.

    1. Hi Mark, Great question. It was a volunteer mentorship matchup.

    • David
    • February 8, 2014

    Thank you very much Natasha for this article. I consider I am one of those that are making the mistakes, … Thank you for the tips, I will take them in account and try to improve myself. I work in cooperation and I will just appreciate any additional advice on what you consider important characteristics or skill in professionals for this field…. it has really make me think if this is for me.


    1. Hi David, happy I could help. We all made these mistakes…over and over lol! It’s a process, we never get to a point where we have it all figured out.

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