Contemplating Career Change for Nonprofit Executives

If you are just starting to contemplate an exit from what you’ve been doing, I hope this gets your attention.  

It is especially difficult for nonprofit Executive Directors/CEOs to get advice about whether to make a job change because for most us, the ED IS the face of the organization and represents leadership and course stability to major donors, community leaders, grantors, and government officials.  

That’s not the same for corporate executives who have succession plans with successors already named; have hired and groomed a strong #2 to step in; and, let’s face it, haven’t been serving as the brand marquee for their organization.  

I have made several career shifts including corporate to nonprofit leadership and serving in nonprofit CEO positions as well as interim executive posts. I know how quietly we must pursue any emerging new idea or interest in making a career change.  

Serving as the leader for a specific nonprofit has been a calling, not just a job.  So, how do you even start to contemplate making such a decision to leave? Hopefully, this is not a decision being forced on you from external factors, but one you’re considering because you are starting to feel a “nudge.”  

Have you been finding yourself asking, “How much longer am I going to be doing this”? OR “Is this my last career position or might there be another before I (fill in the blank)?”

On behalf of your organization, board chairs do NOT want you to go. That is their worst nightmare.  But if you’re getting signals a change could be ahead, take the time to truly contemplate when you and the organization could be ready.  

Thinking ahead for your nonprofit about a leadership shift involves: strengthening your board to be composed of the right leaders and communicators during a transition and executive search; strengthening your senior team’s leadership and decision-making skills; reducing your major donors’ dependencies and exclusive relationships with only you in your nonprofit. Preparing your organization is another blog, if not a workshop, and succession planning process.    

What I’m offering here are some thoughts about getting your own thinking started in a constructive direction, maybe even over the next year to two, to prepare yourself for a possible career change. It could result in you deciding to stay exactly where you are but doing some things differently. If you can, take the time to mindfully ruminate first before jumping into making a plan and timeline. That’s how many great transitions start – pondering, wondering, discerning.  

Start where you are.  

What are you feeling that makes you think a change might be ahead? What is interesting to you that didn’t use to energize you? What different types of stories and people are you making time for and getting energy from?    

Create deliberate time for silent contemplation.

Hard for all of us, especially nonprofit leaders, but it’s that activity treadmill that becomes our Catch 22 – too busy to make time to figure out what’s going on with us. Perhaps carve out some weekly time for an hour or more outdoors, time with no distractions, honoring that time for you to talk to yourself is just as important as any meeting or demand of someone else. “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it tells you it intends to do with you.”*  

Try living for the next month or two alert and attune to your “creative tensions between limits and potentials.”* Journal some of those thoughts. Reflect.

Pay attention to your nudges. Otherwise, you may end up like the flight attendant. You may remember the story of the flight attendant. The one who, upon landing, grabbed two beers out of the refrigerator, opened the escape hatch, yelled, “Adios,” and slid out of his job and future career with the airlines.  

Your organization and YOU deserve more consideration and time to start a transition. It starts in the small, silent, guided moments you make for it.    

*Parker J. Palmer, Let your Life Speak, 2000, Josey Bass.‍

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