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How to Retool as a Nonprofit CEO

How to Retool as a Nonprofit CEO

by Marilyn Machlowitz

So you’ve tested the waters of retirement and decided you want back in the swim.  Or your professional services firm requires retirement at some ungodly young age and you have another act in you.  For whatever reason, you might be considering life as a nonprofit’s CEO, often called Executive Director or (ED).

Here are some thoughts. Nothing in life is easy, including, or maybe especially, a job in a non-profit

  1.  No one goes to the Olympics without a coach and few get these jobs without a coach either. She or he will help you showcase your transferable talents.  The coach will help you translate your Board and volunteer service into skillsets and reasons to hire you. And, perhaps most importantly, the coach will teach how to say I’ve made enough money and now I can do this without turning off everyone in the room. 

  2.  If you don’t have any nonprofit experience, get some.  Volunteer via Taproot or New York Cares or your local equivalent.  Mentor via Greater NY or another organization. Take those calls from your alumni association and sign up for the 40th Reunion Fundraising Committee.  Key:  Fundraising is Job #1 for an ED. No one may say it in so many words. Code: We’d like to go to the next level.

  3. Read anything and everything Joan Garry has written. Listen to her podcasts, too.  Sign up for her e-blasts.  Why?  She was a corporate citizen who transitioned to a nonprofit CEO and lived to tell the tale.www.joangarry.com

  4. Write a killer cover letter.  For sector switchers, the narrative is key. Your resume alone won’t get you the job. And, yes, you need a resume.

  5. Consider whether you’d really make a better COO than CEO.  For many, especially if you were General Counsel, CFO or Chief Human Resources Officer, the internally focused number 2 slot may be a far better fit.

  6. Ask those who’ve made this move.  You will need advice. Winning over the board and its search committee is easy compared to winning over the nonprofit’s staff.

  7. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking a nonprofit CEO is part-time or easy.  It isn’t.

Machlowitz Consultants, Inc., a NY-based executive search firm, has helped leading organizations (Ford Foundation, High Line, and more) recruit top talent since 1997.

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