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Strategies to help map your journey to nonprofit leadership

Adapted from The Nonprofit Leadership Workbook for Women, by DonorPerfect Fundraising Platform

Right now there are five truths about women in nonprofits:

  • Women make up 73 percent of all nonprofit employees
  • Only 45 percent of nonprofit CEOs are women
  • 21 percent of nonprofits with a female CEO have annual budgets of greater than $25 million
  • Additionally, these women CEOs make only 66 percent of male salaries for the same role.
  • Disparity is even greater for women of color, who represent less than 14 percent of nonprofit board members.

And the lie? There’s 0% that we can do about changing these numbers.

In an effort to close the gender gap in nonprofit leadership, DonorPerfect has created The Nonprofit Leadership Workbook for Women. The workbook takes readers through goal setting, brand building, and finding a mentor. It equips aspiring nonprofit leaders with the right tools and perspectives to continue making forward progress in their careers, creating and maintaining professional networks, and finally, giving back to other women in and beyond their organizations.

"How can I make the greatest impact within my organization?"

Asking questions is the first step. Many aspiring leaders make the mistake of plotting a path toward the job they want, instead of the change they want to create. Identify where and how you can make the biggest impact. What is the end result you want to achieve and how will you define success?

3 goals for aspiring leaders

After you've visualized and defined what leadership and success are for you, you can set goals that will help you make that vision a reality. Here are some leadership development goals to think about setting:

  1. Grow as a leader, both personally and professionally. Any aspiring leader should understand and adopt the knowledge, skills and communication style that will help them blossom in their role and best support their team. While these will vary depending on the work setting it’s no surprise that many of the leaders we look up to share common traits.
  2. Develop your leadership skill set. People look to leaders for feedback, guidance and expertise. It's important to evaluate what you currently have to offer as a leader and what you’ll need to offer in the leadership role you’re seeking. Then you can strategically plan to gain the skills and experience you’ll need to excel in the future.
  3. Innovate and improve work, processes or collaboration at your organization. You should thoroughly understand how your organization is structured, from its development initiatives and donor segments to its communication channels and key resources before proposing change. When looking at your nonprofit mission, consider what aspects of your organization can you fully wrap your arms around and own? Propose a collaborative project that will provide value or improve a process for your organization.

After defining and documenting your goals, the next strategic steps will help make your leadership path more clear.

Build your brand

A personal brand will shape the way people think of you as a leader and a person. Developing your personal brand should do the following:

  1. Give a memorable impression. Ideally, your brand should position you as someone people will seek out for collaboration expertise and advice. Personal brand-building encourages you to speak, write and dress in a style that's uniquely and authentically you. As an aspiring nonprofit leader, you can leverage this opportunity to stand out as a passionate, mission-driven professional.
  2. Highlight your expertise. Show off your most prized expertise and do it in a way that showcases your work product. A portfolio of your best work can showcase how you bring and build value to your organization. Continue to make a positive impact by generously sharing your knowledge with peers and mentees.
  3. Making connections with people. Your personal and professional brand should make it easier for others to want to connect with you. Make and maintain relationships in and out of your organization. A broader personal and professional network, carefully curated, will allow you to tap into more resources in a time of need.

Find a mentor

A mentor-mentee relationship can enhance your both your business skills and provide you with valuable insight, guidance and feedback as you seek to move forward in your career. Finding the right mentor, someone who you know and admire, will ideally help guide your professional growth.

Leadership competencies are found in every industry. Think about looking outside your immediate professional sphere to find a mentor that is right for you. A new approach to challenges and a change in perspective can help you develop new ways to solve problems and overcome obstacles in your work life and help you contribute to your organization's overall mission.

A successful mentorship will include the following 5 characteristics:

  1. Have a goal in mind that you want to achieve, which will serve as a roadmap for your mentorship.
  2. A good mentor relationship is a conversation, not a lecture. A mentor can also learn from a mentee!
  3. Regular meetups should be scheduled and met. Any pause or diversion in face time with a mentor can cause the relationship to be diluted or devalued.
  4. A great mentor challenges your intellect and assumptions. Listen with an open mind.
  5. Adds to your professional network and connections. Mentors should introduce their mentees to their networks and help establish those additional connections.

Establish your professional network

Develop your professional network to meet and grow meaningful relationships with people and you'll find new opportunities to leverage your skills, collaborate and learn new skills. Building a professional network doesn't need to be a chore. Try the following to get started:

  • Network with purpose. Go to the places that attract others whose skills, experience, and connections can also benefit your personal development
  • Network with a colleague. Don't let social anxiety interfere with your networking. Take a trusted work or professional friend with you to networking events
  • Don't show up unprepared. Learn about the event before you get there. It will help you start conversations naturally
  • Still feeling unsure about approaching strangers? Ask questions about the person. Many of your professional peers are like yourself. Simply ask what it is they do and what they care about most career-wise. You'll find the conversation flows more easily when sharing a common, professional interest.


Now that you've got an idea of setting goals, building your brand and establishing your professional network, it's time to start collaborative projects to demonstrate your skills, motivate colleagues and influence both the growth of your organization and your professional trajectory. This list of dos and don'ts will help you collaborate smartly.

  • Do: Speak up! Make sure your voice is heard in meeting and that your opinions are valued. Always come to meetings prepared and feeling confident to share your viewpoints.
  • Don't: Be afraid to try something different. "We've always done it this way" is a phrase that stifles new thinking and innovation. Step out and be bold with new methods and processes for your projects.
  • Do: Roll up your sleeves and get to work. Don't think you can just come up with ideas and expect others to make your ideas a reality. Be willing to put in the hard work yourself.
  • Do: Speak the language of your organization. Understand your organizational culture and how your ideas may best work inside of that. Reach out to other leaders in the organization for feedback.
  • Don’t: Try to do everything yourself. Leaders identify people’s strengths and place them in positions to succeed. Take the time to get to know the people around you and you’ll know who to ask to take on an assignment to achieve the best result.
  • Do: Ask for feedback. Reaching out for feedback will not only help improve your process, it shows that you value other stakeholders and are looking to make change for the better. Take criticism constructively and with an intellectual eye.
  • Don't: Downplay your accomplishments. Women are often guilty of deflecting compliments and saying, “Oh, it’s nothing.” Responding this way detracts from the value you’re adding to the organization and places you in a one-down position. Instead, stand up and graciously accept credit for the work and recognition you receive.
  • Do: Recognize the hard work and contributions from your team. Great leaders celebrate the team and leverage them in ways to benefit the progress of their organization. Publicly applaud their successes and make contributions to their personal and professional growth, even as you travel your own growth path.

Make the ask

Waiting around silently for someone to recognize your talents won't help you achieve the path to leadership. Learn to ask for what you want and deserve. Asking for opportunity, that promotion or salary you feel you deserve (and can back up with accomplishments and documentation) is something within your grasp.

And when you do ask for that new project or job title, do it with confidence. Don't go into any situation half-heartedly. If you can't convince yourself that you're worth it, it'll be even harder convincing others you deserve it as well.

Pay it forward

To encourage more women in leadership, we need to have open conversations in our workplaces, in our homes, and in our communities. There’s no one way to contribute to progress in the world, but it’s certainly more than just showing up at the march.

Your current title doesn’t determine whether or not you can lead the charge for change. All it takes it conviction, passion, and above all, constant and consistent action. Your mission needs you. The nonprofit community needs you.

To download the full copy of the Nonprofit Leadership Workbook for Women, visit DonorPerfect.



MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.