Advice for Aspiring Nonprofit Tech Leaders

As an aspiring nonprofit tech leader myself, I feel both somewhat unqualified to be coaching others on this subject, yet at the same time in a unique position to share valuable lessons from my own professional experience. I also have the benefit of this community’s wealth of knowledge on the subject which I have liberally tapped into for this article.

Not wanting to reinvent the wheel though, I’d first point out that there are already an abundance of great articles out there on how to be a good IT Manager. Thanks go to Richard Wollenberger for pointing me towards Mike Sisco’s 12 To Do’s in Preparing for an IT Manager role that’s definitely worth a read, and almost exactly mirrors the sort of advice this article was originally going to focus on. So instead of just repeating what’s already been written, I thought I’d tweak things a bit to focus more on the “Nonprofit” side of the equation.

So without further ado, here are the top 10 pieces of advice for aspiring nonprofit tech leaders:

1. “Get to know what your organization is doing, understand the programs & services.” – From May 29th CoP: IT Directors Monthly Call. Working at a nonprofit on the tech side of things, it’s sometimes easy to forget the vital role your work behind the scenes plays in allowing your organization to meet it’s mission. So in order to make sure you don’t forget that (and that your boss and coworkers also don’t forget), it’s of critical importance that you understand the work your organization is doing, and how exactly technology plays into that work. Once you can consistently make that connection, you’ll be in a unique position to identify some of your organization’s most critical technology needs.

2. Connect with mid-level managers to identify what’s important to the organization; sometimes, it’s a radically different perspective than what senior management thinks is important. Those mid-level managers will hopefully help senior management understand how instrumental you are in advancing the organization’s mission if you implement solutions that advances their work.” – Courtesy of Ken Montenegro via the CoP: IT Directors Group. I find this to be great advice, and completely in line with my vision for what IT’s role at a Nonprofit should be – making sure that technology is being used in a way that makes the organization and it’s staff more effective at meeting their mission.

3. “Have a plan. Even if you don’t end up following it (exactly), you can’t get anywhere if you don’t pick a direction to go in” – From May 29th CoP: IT Directors Monthly Call. This of course could be said for anything you aspire to, but rings especially true here. This will look very different for every person and every nonprofit, but in order to avoid spinning your wheels it’s important to know where you want to go and how you’re going to get there. I’d also add that if possible you should discuss this plan with your boss or someone higher up in the organization that you trust, as they are likely in a very good position to assist you along this path.

4. “Pick your passion in NPTech and build a reputation for yourself in that area. Get involved in user groups, present at conferences, write blog posts.” – From May 29th CoP: IT Directors Monthly Call. I’d expand this further by saying pick your passion in life. If NPTech isn’t your thing, being a nonprofit tech leader may not be the best career choice. When you work at a nonprofit, the old cliche “Do what you love and the money will follow” may not always pan out, meaning you might need to double down on the “do what you love” part. I’m not saying you have to love every single aspect of your job (since at some level most of us still come to work for a paycheck), but I would encourage you to identify those areas of your job that do make you really excited to get up in the morning, and then see if there are ways to expand your job further in those directions.

5. “Get training to be an IT Manager. It’s different than managing other areas. Good techies don’t necessarily make good managers.” – From May 29th CoP: IT Directors Monthly Call. This goes for whether you’ll be managing people or projects (or both), and from personal experience I can attest to the difficulties of making this transition from techie to manager. There are an abundance of training opportunities out there (classes, books, blogs, webinars, etc), so I’d encourage you to figure out what format works best best for your situation, but then really do follow through on this. While there’s plenty of value in learning from your own mistakes, where possible it’s usually less painful to learn from the mistakes of others.

6. “Find a network, learn from them, and ask for help.” – From May 29th CoP: IT Directors Monthly Call. I can’t emphasize this point enough. Of everything I’ve mentioned so far or will mention below, finding and becoming part of a professional network of my peers has been one of the most valuable, and enjoyable parts of my journey towards becoming a nonprofit tech leader. And since everyone reading this is already a huge fan of NTEN, I feel less bad about shamelessly plugging our CoP: IT Directors Group and the larger NTEN community as a great place to start. If you hadn’t noticed, even for this article I’ve just been relaying the advice shared with me through this network (which means they’ve basically done all the hard work for me). A professional network is also a great place to find a mentor, pass on your own knowledge (or mistakes), or to just connect with other humans going through the same struggles you face at work on a daily basis (and no one says you can’t connect over beer either when you happen to be in the same city).

7. “Don’t just do your job, grow your career. Pick an area of expertise, learn as much as you can, share it back and build a personal brand. If you want to be in leadership, look to get management experience. You need to own your career.” – Courtesy of Steve Heye via the CoP: IT Directors Group. This is kind of a combo of #3, 4, & 5 above, but is such great advice that I figured it was worth repeating.

8. “Surround yourself with good people. Give them the responsibility, and authority, to do their jobs and trust them to get it done (in other words – don’t micro-manage things).” – Courtesy of Graham Reid via the CoP: IT Directors Group. If you’re not at a point in your career where you’re managing staff this won’t apply quite yet, but I can’t thumbs up this advice enough. Oftentimes when you first start managing staff, they’ll be doing some of the tasks that used to be on your plate, and what I learned early on is that if you don’t let those tasks go and trust your staff to do their job, then in essence the organization is now paying two people to do the job that one person used to do. There are of course a million other pieces of advice for new managers (that you’ll learn all about if you follow the advice from #5 above), but I felt this one deserved a separate mention.

9. “Work really, really hard.” – Courtesy of Jason Shim via the CoP: IT Directors GroupI figured I’d end with the most obvious piece of advice, but also really one of the most important. If you’re just skating by, doing the minimum required to fulfill your current role, your boss and co-workers will notice. I know I’m dangerously close here to sounding like the restaurant manager from Office Space talking about the minimum amount of required flair, but if you’re working at an organization you love and are invested in, and have an interest in moving into a leadership position, it does take a lot of hard work, both to demonstrate your skills and commitment to the organization, and to show that you’re ready for the additional responsibilities that would come with such a promotion.

10. See the comments below. For the final piece of advice, I thought I’d open it back up to the community for anyone who didn’t already have a chance to send me their ideas. So, what is the number one piece of advice you’d want to share with aspiring nonprofit tech leaders?

Karl Hedstrom
IT Director
Karl believes strongly in the power of technology to make our world a better place. While serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger (’04-’06), he experienced first hand many of the positive impacts cell phones and other newly introduced technologies were starting to bring to his rural village and the entire development sector in West Africa. Following his service, he was inspired to find a career at the emerging intersection of technology and social good, and had the good fortune to join the NTEN team as an AmeriCorps Volunteer in late 2006. For over a decade now, Karl has been working behind the scenes to improve NTEN’s use of technology to effectively meet its mission, and in effect striving to support all nonprofits in doing the same. Karl earned a BA in physics from Pomona College, and now lives in Seattle with his wife, two sons, yellow lab, and a pair of ragdoll cats who can often be seen sleeping on cat shelves in the background of his video calls. Outside of work you’ll find him playing volleyball, disc golf, Pokemon Go, or hiking and exploring the amazing Pacific Northwest with his family.