Effectively Transitioning Into A Senior Nonprofit Role


As nonprofit organizations grow, often their job searches extend into for-profit industries. Transitioning from the pace and culture of a bottom-lined focused organization to a nonprofit can be stressful. The Bridgespan Group recently posted some tips for new hires exploring the new territory of the nonprofit world.

Preshow: If you’re interested in making the switch and are interviewing at nonprofit organizations, use this time to uncover as much as you can about the processes, systems and environment of the organization. Some nonprofits, especially those who are expanding quickly, may not have training structures in place, which can lead to a bumpy transition. By asking about specific coaching and leadership cultures, you can gauge the temperature of the senior leadership team.

Waiting to Begin: You’ve been hired, and now you’re waiting to begin. How can you get a head start on more smoothly transitioning? If you have several weeks before you begin, ask for any material the organization may have produced – internally and externally – so you can start learning the language and key focuses.  If you’re able to, meet with other senior leaders and any managers with whom you’ll be directly working. This will help establish trust before you unpack your office so you can immediately contribute.

Setting Expectations: Being able to define expectations for your first month, and up to your first year will not only relieve anxiety of all the things a new job brings, but it will provide you a safe place to explore how to lead inside the new environment of a nonprofit. Ask for feedback, ask for help, and ask for time if you need it. Communication is vital with both your peers and those you manage. Be flexible, but let others know your leadership style. Take confidence in the fact you were hired for a reason and while you will need to adapt to a new culture, don’t be hesitant to express your strengths.

Getting to Know You: Finding relationships within and outside of your new organization is another way you can help make your transition smoothly. Especially in the nonprofit sector where board members and donors are key, the sooner they meet you and you take an interest in them, the better. Nobody likes to be left in the dark when it comes to important transitions, and your presence will help them adjust. Also, seek out mentors either in your organization or in other nonprofits that can provide you with insight as you begin leading. People in senior positions often find themselves isolated when it comes to finding guidance. Be proactive and reach out.

Mind the Pace: Let’s face it: sometimes the pace by which decisions are made in nonprofit organizations can be a bit slower. Due to the nature of how most nonprofits operate, this is to be expected. Unlike for-profit businesses, big decisions made too quickly can have a potentially devastating impact on the culture. Slow down and learn, especially at the beginning.

Don’t Give Up: Crises and unexpected mishaps will happen in your first year. This can be discouraging and may lead you to question if you should have made such a big leap from the familiar into the unknown. Instead of being derailed by what may go wrong, lean into other senior leaders and strengthen your bond with them. Pulling through crises with a unified front will only build trust with employees, volunteers, and donors.

Beginning a new career in the nonprofit world can be extremely rewarding if you take the time to plan and manage expectations in your first year. And once you begin learning the ropes, always remember to pay your knowledge forward.