Posted by: alexswallow | February 2, 2014

Want to be a charity/nonprofit Chief Executive? Here’s 5 tips!

alex fundraising

Photo from the Institute of Fundraising

I recently spoke at a charity careers evening hosted by Iam Enterprises. My particular talk was called, ‘So, you want to be a Chief Executive?’.

I thought it might be useful to share a few of the things that I said. I have already touched on some of the brilliant things and frustrating things about being a Chief Exec. Hopefully the tips and insights won’t just be relevant to those who are interested in being in this particular role one day but for anyone who wants to take their career forward in our sector, including people who currently work for other sectors.

So, here are my 5 key tips:

1- Give yourself a reason (excuse!) to talk to lots of people

What I mean by this is simply that you need to find something that you are passionate about which allows you to expand your horizons and to interact with innovative, interesting people and organisations. You might be lucky enough to find this solely in your day job, or you might find it through volunteering. Setting up something yourself is another possibility- this could be as simple as a blog on an issue you care about, or an entirely new organisation. In my own case, a few years ago I was working at a small charity when I found that I was interested in learning more about charity Governance issues and doing something about the lack of diversity on charity Boards. There was no opportunity for me to do this through my day job so I set up Young Charity Trustees (YCT). Through YCT I came into contact with a host of organisations across the sector, including the charity I now head up, the Small Charities Coalition!

The YCT LinkedIn group now has more than 1,500 members and I continue to be encouraged about the interest that young people show in Trusteeship. My involvement with YCT has been an amazing adventure that has changed the direction of my career and of my life.

Here is one interview with me talking about Young Charity Trustees, a speech on Board Diversity, and here another interview with me talking generally about Trusteeship.

2- Find areas of life where everyone is equal 

I’m a huge advocate of social media. I like the fact that online, structures are much flatter. I might struggle to even find the email of a particular Chief Executive or to get much of a response from their organisation if I want to share something with them, but on a platform like Twitter it is much easier to engage. I have used social media to reach out to others, to support causes I care about and to collaborate in a way that would have been impossible even 5 years ago and social media is a great way to learn and to pick up new ideas.

Here are some LinkedIn tips for people who are involved with charities. Also, here are some more general ideas about how charities, even the smallest ones, can use social media to their advantage. Here is a list of the Chief Execs who were judged to be good at using social media (and I was very proud to be among them). To follow the list on Twitter, see here via Abbi Davies.

3- Get a mentor- and give something back

Mentoring is something that I wish more people thought about. The benefits are huge and obvious- the chance to talk with someone who can give you constructive feedback and advice but who you don’t need to ‘impress’; the chance to learn from the mistakes that others have already made; the chance to learn from someone who cares passionately about some of the same things you do…

Many people think that they don’t deserve a mentor, or even if they do deserve one that no-one would want to help them. This couldn’t be further from the case. Of course some people are too busy with other commitments to be mentors, but many would love to be asked. After all, mentoring is a two-way relationship, both parties learn something from it. My own mentor, Matt Stevenson-Dodd, is incredible, and I am such a huge fan of his charity.

As well as trying to find a mentor, you should consider being one yourself. I was previously a mentor for two years for UpRising, and it taught me so much. I am currently a mentor for the amazing Charityworks Programme (I look forward to blogging more about it in the future, but it is really worth looking up).

Having good people to draw on and learn from of course extends to the staff and volunteers of your charity, including Trustees. One of my Trustees is the current Charity Principal of the Year so there is certainly a lot I can learn from her and from others.

4- Never, ever stop learning

Being passionate about governance in charities, I obviously think that Trusteeship is a great way to learn and to pick up new skills, as well as to make a difference in society. There are of course so many other ways to volunteer and charities really need your help. Aside from the skills that volunteering teaches you, it is a chance to see a charity from the other side. How are volunteers treated? What is the ethos of the charity? Is everyone pulling in the same direction? This then means that in your paid job you can put some of the good things that you have picked up into practice and avoid those things which you are less impressed by.

Here I talk about the importance of learning from the people around us and also this list of charity blogs is a great way to learn more from others. This is my list of the top three people who have inspired me in my life.

Of course there are so many ways that it is possible for us to expand our minds. I was inspired when I went to my first TEDx event not too long ago. There are so many forward-thinking projects and initiatives which you might like to get involved in. When you meet new people who are doing things that you admire it can give you a new perspective on the world and your way of coping with your own challenges. As an example, I was recently so happy to meet Graham Allcott, whose work on productivity and general approach to life I have been intrigued by for some time. Look out for your own people who inspire you and try to learn from them.

5- Network as much as possible

Networking, both in person and online, is an extremely important way of making progress in everything that you do. Of course, not everyone enjoys it, but if, as in point 1, you can find something that generally fires you up, you will find that talking to people about it and seeing how their own lives and work connect to it is more exciting and more easy than you might have imagined.

I give some tips about networking here.

Having shared my five tips with you I’d like to add two further, related points. The first is that a great deal of luck is involved in anyone’s career journey. I feel amazingly lucky to be a Chief Executive and do my best every day to honour the faith that has been shown in me. The second is that you need to remember that the process is a marathon, not a sprint. I have had a time in my life when I was struggling to find full time work, I lacked a bit of direction and I was probably a bit unfocused, but I stuck it out and met some amazing people and am currently loving the things that I get to do. While I have picked up a lot of new skills from then to now, of course I am fundamentally the same person. The things you want to happen won’t happen straight away, but if you keep going there is a good chance that one day they will.

This article is of course just a personal view and I am sure that Chief Executives in the charity/nonprofit sector who are a lot more experienced than me will have some important insights I have missed. Please share your own tips in the comments below and as ever I’d like to hear what it was that got you involved in charities in the first place!


  1. It’ll take me some time to go through each of the links from this piece. However, what I’ve read in the body of the text is difficult to argue with. I would add that one should know his/her demographic and the space in which the charity/foundation sits. My second point is that one needs to believe in the cause. If one is a believer it is easier to create the compelling content around the cause. In isolation these points won’t necessarily factor in getting a CEO role. However, it may steer one to a particular charity/foundation while at the application/consideration stage.

  2. I’d echo Tony’s reply: focus on a field you care about. It can be lonely being a CEO and you have to be self-motivating. You have to be self-motivating to motivate others and if you don’t care, you will be found out!

  3. This is such a brilliant and inspiring blog! I’ll definitely be sharing this 🙂

  4. […] mentor is so interesting. I mentioned the importance of both having and being a mentor in a recent career post, and the people on the Charityworks Programme are really rewarding to mentor- bright, […]

  5. […] list mentoring as one of my five key tips in my advice about becoming a Charity Chief […]

  6. […] 3- Becoming a Charity Chief Exec […]

  7. […] the charity sector, about leadership, and about career development. I have already written about how to become a charity Chief Executive and the importance of using social media in a leadership […]

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