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January 24, 2018

Career Planning in the Not-for-profit World

What is the best route to CEO in the charity world? Our associate Director, Nick Billingham, offers his advice.

One of the things I love about my role is the opportunity to meet informally with Directors from different specialities in the sector and discuss their career plans. When I'm not interviewing potential candidates for specific roles, I will always meet professionals for a career-focused chat. Typically this will cover work history, motivations for a potential job move and undoubtedly gossip on what's going on in our sector. One question that often comes up is "what is your opinion on the best route to CEO". I would estimate that over 50% of the people I meet are ultimately seeking to become a CEO in the future and it is widely accepted as a common aspiration.

However, it's becoming more and more common for not for profit organisations to appoint a CEO from the public or private sectors, as they already have many of the skills required, plus an understanding of how Government works or how to generate income from commercial routes. As a consequence, it's becoming harder to move up from within the sector, despite charity professionals already having a grasp of the culture, an understanding of funding issues and a proven ability to get the most from limited resources. So how can you maximise your chances of making it to CEO?

The first suggestion I always make is to understand what type of cause they are motivated to work for and ultimately run. Different types of organisation require different skills from their Chief Executive. A somewhat obvious comment perhaps, however it is something that is worth individuals clearly establishing early on. A campaigning organisation can require a vastly different skill-set from their CEO compared with that of a medical research charity.

Having spent most of my time within the sector in and around Fundraising, I am fairly biased when I say I think undertaking an income generation role before broadening out to cover wider external relations responsibilities can be a great route. However, it's often vital that you also gain experience in programmes/service delivery. And you undoubtedly need outstanding financial acumen and the capacity to manage complex budgets with ease. And let's not forget the requirement to have an excellent understanding of the role of HR within a successful operation. In essence you need to have exposed yourself to every area of the business!

So where does that leave you as you plot out your carefully constructed career plan? Naturally it will be very difficult to experience running each of the functions mentioned above; however there are some key actions to consider:

  • Start out by writing your career plan, literally writing it out. Start with the ultimate goal and work backwards. Where do I need to be in 10 years, 5 years, and 3 years?
  • Ensure you weigh up what any new career opportunity can offer you; what experience will this give me that will aid my long term ambition? Where will this experience leave me in five years' time?
  • Secure an official mentor; seek out an existing CEO and ask to meet with them. They will of course have some great experiences you will be able to learn from. Once you have done this, do it again. Keep meeting people; network with professionals from a variety of different organisations.
  • And of course one of the best ways to gain exposure to the challenges of running a charity is to volunteer as a Trustee and all at the Charity People Group would strongly recommend this.

The Charity People group is made up of a group of companies that work closely with organisations with a strong social purpose to improve their impact and effectiveness. My focus is on sourcing the best talent in the Not for Profit world. To get in touch to discuss how we could work with you on this, you can contact me through nickb@charitypeople.co.uk or 0207 9397422.

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