“I want to be a CEO,” someone told me recently, “but I don’t want to do fund-raising stuff.”

After a good laugh, I was transported back 15 years when I probably said something similar. I was an ambitious, naive AmeriCorps worker at the local volunteer center who wanted to make a difference as much as I wanted a paycheck. From my first day on the job, I knew that I not only wanted to spend the rest of my working life in the nonprofit sector, but I also wanted to be a nonprofit CEO. 

With hard work and mounds of stubbornness, I was able to “fail up” the ladder to reach my goal of leading an organization. As much as I gripe about the many frustrating aspects of the nonprofit sector and the unnecessary nonsense leaders have to face, the rewards of my job outweigh the challenges tenfold. In case you have the same aspirations as I did, here are five truths about being a nonprofit leader that you need to know:

1. As a CEO, you’ll do a lot of fundraising “stuff.”

The biggest misconception about being a nonprofit leader is that you can avoid fundraising by delegating the heavy lifting to your board of directors or staff. In reality, you, as the CEO, will spend most of your time raising money and worrying about money. You’ll wake up in the middle of the night panicking about cash flow and overhead and earned income streams. The insomnia will only be mitigated the nights after you cash those big foundation checks.

2. This will be the loneliest job you’ll ever have.

Most people will never understand the tough decisions you have to make on a daily basis, and you will consistently be the bad guy to someone. They won’t understand the burden you bear and the sacrifices you make, and you’ll be criticized far more than you are praised no matter how hard you work. You’ll be faced with more no-win situations than win-win situations. 

It is critically important to connect with other nonprofit CEOs who have most likely experienced the same tough choices, roadblocks, and setbacks that you have. There’s nothing better than trading nonprofit horror stories over a glass of wine with a fellow leader.

3. Leadership is in the eye of the beholder.

If someone doesn’t think you’re a leader, don’t sweat it.  Defining “effective” leadership is a moving target.  The attributes that some people consider your defining leadership qualities are the same ones that others view as flaws. Research shows that leader identification, or how a potential follower connects with a leader based on shared characteristics, has more influence than the leader’s words or actions.  

In Western culture, we also conflate gregariousness and extroversion with greatness. Vulnerability, which celebrity researcher Brene Brown asserts is essential to effective leadership, is still viewed by many as the sign of a weak leader.  Good orators are sometimes viewed as great leaders, though a person who has mastered the art of cadence and word choice to excite a crowd could just be great at coercion. One time a person even told me, “Great leaders wear nice suits.” Huh?  

4. Focus on your strengths, not on fixing your deficits.

Many criticisms exist of traits-based definitions of leadership (sorry, Good to Great fans), as some of the world’s most despised CEOs hold the same traits as the “great” ones. In leadership books by self-improvement celebrities like Simon Sinek and Sheryl Sandberg, the ascribed characteristics of leadership are scattered at best, fallacious at worst. Instead of attempting to take on characteristics that may be in direct opposition to your personality and abilities, spend your time honing your own strengths and hire good people whose strengths are a perfect complement to yours.

5. Being a good leader requires mastering the art of letting go.

Innovation and creativity are rarely solo activities. Empower your staff, your board, and most importantly your constituents to be partners in the decision-making process. Share your power, especially with those most marginalized. No one is a leader all the time, but everyone has the ability to lead. Your responsibility as the leader lies not in making all the decisions but in bringing voices together as a generating force for identifying new, bold ways of making Memphis better.


If you are an aspiring nonprofit leader, join us at Momentum Nonprofit Partners for our Executive Director Boot Camp coming in early 2019.    

Kevin Dean is chief executive officer of Momentum Nonprofit Partners, an organization that works with nonprofits to improve efficiencies and outcomes. Visit momentumnonprofit.org for more information. Dean can be reached at [email protected].org