Has anyone ever taught you how to manage? About styles, impacts, how to handle difficulties, all of that and more? If you haven’t been taught, if you have learned by observation and osmosis, you are not alone; many educational programs don’t teach these skills. At most jobs, no one pulls you aside and says, “this week, we’re going to learn management skills”.

I think that many people in the not-for-profit world got into the work because they wanted to make a change in some specific area, be it violence against children, women’s rights, the environment, you name it. And they were good at it, and a grant came in and they were suddenly managing a project or program which came with budgets, outcome measures, and people. People to manage, people who are part of the project/program, people to whom you need to report, people in the media/press, people within the larger organizational system (human resources, finance, development, advocacy), all kinds of people who want and need all kinds of things from you and your team. And you have to do this while keeping in mind the mission and vision of the organization.

What do you do? How do you move from focusing on a specific piece of work and area of expertise, to: focusing on a system; being accountable to the people with whom you are working, especially to those for whom the program is designed; the work and results of individual team members; reporting to finance departments and donors; having an understanding of how organizational systems work or don’t work together? Especially if no one has taught you how to do this, never mind how to do it well?

The first question I always ask is, “Do you want to be a manager?”. Because you don’t have to take this on. You may love the technical aspects of your work, and you may not want to lose that direct contact with people, the environment or who/whatever else your nonprofit has been created for. The problem is that if you want to ‘advance in your career’, or make more money, you will most likely need to manage others. It’s one reason we need to think about greater equity in pay and recognition for people who want to continue doing the hands-on work.

Don’t panic. Learning all this takes time—time that you probably don’t have a lot of given the above list of areas for which you are now responsible. But you will learn it. And hopefully, you will leave the organization and the world a little better than you found it. If you are serious about managing well, think about good managers you have known and how they did their job, how they treated you or others. Read blogs, books and articles. See if your organization has a learning library or a resource bank. Ask yourself “How will I do my job so that the way the organization works internally reflects the mission we want to achieve externally?”

Humility is really important, as is listening and acting on what you are hearing, to create a management system that does not result in a way of working with those for whom the organization was created that reflects a top-down, neo-colonial mindset, which is part of why the world is in its current mess.

Over time, you will develop a management style. It’s sort of like a musician or artist developing a musical or painting niche/style; however, artists are free to move in directions that don’t necessarily impact anyone other than themselves through their sales and/or reputation. If one musician in a band wants to move in a direction that does not work for the other band members, the band might dissolve. If this happens In the management world, you may find yourself out of a job or deeply unhappy (unless you are upper management where you can, unfortunately, get away with a lot more).

Unlike the notoriety that can go with great art, or the money that can accompany for-profit management, great management in nonprofits is behind the scenes and, because we don’t have the ‘Managing Grammys’ or a Pulitzer for Team Leads, motivated, productive, supported staff with better outcomes is its own reward.

Just a note on the photo: I chose this photo of kittens because when I entered ‘manager’ into the search field, I got rows upon rows of white men, then a couple of white women, and one or two people of color. Indicative of an inclusive world view leading to diverse ideas? I think not, hence: kittens.