how can I get a management job without management experience?

A reader writes:

I am about six years into a career that puts the “individual” in individual contributor (nonprofit fundraising, in case it matters). I have good relations with my colleagues and we work collaboratively when possible, but our projects are completely solo. I have always known that I want to spend my career in a role that involves organizational leadership and people management. I’m good at the work I do now, but I feel so much more fulfilled when I have the opportunity to coach and support others, and my deepest goal is to be part of the team that sets the strategic direction of an organization.

The problem is, there’s no way for me to build management experience in my current role. The organizational structure is rigid and there is not likely to be a director level position opening for many, many years. Even when something does open up, I might not qualify because, you guessed it, I don’t have management experience. The scope of my role is intentionally kept very narrow, and while I’m fully independent in my work, the management here likes to keep us at arm’s length from any real conversations about the organization’s strategic direction.

I keep an eye on postings outside my organization, but the positions are either what I already have (individual contributions only) or require a decade of strategic oversight and people management to even be considered. If I wanted to take an intermediary step by finding a lateral move that incorporates the work I do now and also organizational and people management, it would invariably involve moving to a smaller, less prestigious organization and taking a serious pay cut which I really can’t afford.

I’m looking for a volunteer position that would include people management (such as a nonprofit board) but these are hard to come by. I also don’t have hours every week or deep pockets to contribute to an organization they way board members are often expected to. I do respect and trust my boss and have considered discussing it with her, but I’m afraid the answer will be there’s no way for me to get the experience I want in this role and it would damage my reputation here to indicate I might not be in it for the long haul.

So what gives? In some ways this feels like a repeat of the difficulties of finding a first job when all entry-level positions require five years of experience. How can I land a job managing people, when I don’t have any experience managing people?

Yeah, this is tricky!

It’s understandable — very understandable — that employers want to hire managers who already have experience managing because bad managers can have a huge impact, from an unhappy staff to lower work quality to legal headaches. And managing is hard and takes a long time to learn to do well. It’s a role that you really have to learn on the job, and so it’s easier to bring in someone who won’t be starting from scratch. Plus, the stakes are high enough when you’re hiring someone to lead a team that you want to be able to look at a candidate’s track record and see what kind of manager they really are, not just what kind of manager they hope to be.

Which, of course, raises the question you’re bumping into: How, then, are you supposed to get management experience in the first place?

Often people do it by starting in smaller ways: They lead a project, or manage an intern, or fill in for their own manager when she’s on leave, or work as a team lead. They build their skills through those sorts of responsibilities and get some initial experience with the range of challenges that come up in managing (like having tough conversations, giving feedback, setting clear expectations, correcting mistakes, and getting comfortable exercising authority without being a wimp or a tyrant). Once you’ve demonstrated your skills in those situations, it’s often easier to convince someone to hire you for a more formal management role. You’ll have specific examples you can point to showing how you’ve operated in a management context, and when interviewers want to talk about the mechanics of the job, you’ll be able to ground your answers in those experiences.

It can also be easier to get moved into a management role at a company you’re already at, because decision-makers have seen you in action and have an idea of whether you have the raw material that’s useful in a manager (like a willingness to confront problems and have hard conversations, an orientation toward making things happen and getting results, good instincts for dealing with people, and a high bar for performance). When people know you from working together, it can be easier to get them to take a chance on you. (Although the flip side of that is true too! In some cases, you might know from working with someone that you don’t want to put them in a management role.)

It’s also true that not every employer is as particular about requiring past management experience. In some cases, if you’re good at X, an employer will give you a shot at managing the people who do X. I’d argue that can be a sign that they devalue how hard managing well is and that it won’t necessarily be an ideal place to learn and get support as a new manager, but that’s not always the case and it’s definitely an option that’s out there.

So, where does that leave you? As a first step, talk to your manager! Tell her you’re interested in getting leadership experience and ask if she’d be open to things like you leading a project or managing an intern. It’s possible she’ll say that there’s just no opportunity for those things in your current role, but even if that’s the case, it’s unlikely to damage the relationship or your reputation. Obviously don’t frame it as “I need this experience or I’m leaving”; just say it’s increasingly an area of interest to you and you’re hoping there could be ways to incorporate it into your work. If your boss is a decent manager herself, she knows that people have ambitions beyond their current roles and that part of retaining good people is giving them opportunities to develop their skills. It won’t be shocking to hear that you’re thinking about this.

You might be surprised by what that produces! If she values you and thinks you have potential to do the work well, it’s not often that there would truly be no opportunities to give you more leadership experience, even if it’s just helping to coordinate a big project or being the point of contact for the rest of your team when your manager is out. And if she seems stumped, be prepared to make specific suggestions like that.

But if that’s a no-go, then your idea of volunteering is a good one too. I’d look less at board membership (which is often highly competitive and time-consuming and comes with fundraising obligations) and more at plain old volunteering, probably at a small organization that doesn’t have a management structure of full-timers.

The other option, of course, is to move to a job that has more room for advancement. I know you’re concerned that a lateral move to a role doing what you do now plus people management would only be available at less prestigious employers and for less money, but you might be able to move to a job that doesn’t include the people management yet but doesn’t have the same obstacles to advancement that your current job has.

So there are a bunch of options to consider! But start with your manager, since that could end up being the easiest and fastest way to move in the direction you want.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

Read an update to this letter here

{ 70 comments… read them below }

  1. MainelyProfessional*

    I moved from an individual contributor role as a non-profit fundraiser to supervising one employee and no one really batted an eye. The expectation was a development assistant –> development manager understands what the assistant needs to do, and you figure out management on the job with the support of your boss.

  2. Quiet Riot*

    I would argue you might be able to get some experience managing people via an organization you volunteer for – managing other volunteers, a project, etc.

    1. Jack Straw*

      I was thinking the same. If you don’t have dedicated fundraising/development volunteers, create a plan to onboard 2-3. Or do the same with interns.

      1. The Rural Juror*

        I managed people at a former job, but was never given the title of manager (which was frustrating). However, I ended up with more management experience from volunteering for a nonprofit that put on a huge 3-day event every year. I was a volunteer chair for a venue, but also for a couple of separate events throughout the festival. There were a LOT of volunteers to manage, but it was very fulfilling. I never needed it, but I’m sure the director of the nonprofit could have been a great reference for me.

    2. RecoveringSWO*

      Yep and if not, LW could try to join volunteer groups that have clear leadership paths. Volunteer fire department certainly has leadership training and positions, although that would take some time to develop into. Commissioning into the military reserves would also be a way to get leadership experience if LW could get an officer position. That’s not volunteer and obviously not a path for everyone, but there appear to be good options if LW wants to stay in her position.

  3. JB*

    Another possibility is to move to a similar role at a larger organization, which is more likely to have middle management, one-off projects, stray interns, and the like.

    I am navigating this right now in the for-profit world, and for years was stuck at a fairly rigid, smaller operation. Now I’m at a larger org that has ‘junior manager’-type roles on its org chart in sufficient numbers that high-performing senior individual contributors routinely are bumped to those.

    Based on your industry, your mileage may vary, but I bet that pattern is true for most fields.

    1. EPLawyer*

      cracking up at “stray interns.” Like they just wander in and you corral them to do your bidding.

      1. Allonge*

        I like the image too. But frankly, I have seen stray employees, even – maybe-harrassment situations, reorganisation casualties and similar weirdnesses in large orgs sometimes result in a ‘can you take this person to your department, like, yesterday, we can figure out what they do later but they really need to be not where they were’. Interns are almost par for the course :)

      2. The Prettiest Curse*

        We had a few stray interns in my nonprofit days … sometimes they did require a bit of herding, but they usually got there in the end!

        1. Selena*

          Our ‘prestigeous finance firm’ always had lots of interns in the summer, so there was a large backlog of research ideas that were going to be given to the next batch of interns.
          But to be honest most of these little projects never went anywhere: the intern got to do their end-of-internship presentation and get their grade, the research would subsequently be forgotten about.

      3. Junior Dev*

        I definitely got some management experience when our boss was too busy to manage the team’s summer intern and I was the only one who cared enough to make sure he had things to do

    2. Retired Prof*

      I wonder about looking for a development position at a university. My university has a good-sized development department, and staff members can volunteer to work on committees that provide leadership opportunities. It might be lower salary but will probably come with better benefits, like a pension. And most middle management is selected from internal candidates.

  4. awesome3*

    I like your idea of managing an intern, even if there is an intern there for the programmatic side, it would behoove them to learn the fundraising piece too. Or if there’s enough work to be done to bring on an intern of your own, that could be a great way to lighten your workload/expand your capacity and get management experience

  5. Interviewer*

    If you can think of strategic ways to grow your workload or project scope to get people added to your team, that might help. Shift to a senior role, supervise the team, end up managing that function, etc.

  6. Eether, Either*

    Volunteering is a very good idea. I volunteered for Home City Ballet Company for several years. The volunteer group was a board with elected positions–treasurer, secretary, etc., that mimicked many of the positions and duties of the board of directors for the company. Except the donation part, thankfully. I was the volunteer coordinator and the newsletter editor. I assisted the paid event planner for the ballet, planning all aspects of the company’s annual gala and other member events. It also came with a lot of perks. Free performances, free ticket to the gala, etc. I also met many people who were prominent in business and philanthropy, so volunteering is also a great way to network. It could have easily become my full time job, so be careful you don’t overextend yourself. It was an extremely valuable learning experience and I continue to use that experience in my day job, which is completely unrelated to ballet. Best of luck!

  7. Kelly Brooke*

    In addition to my job, I’m also a music producer. I LOVE the management part of my sort-of-second job. I love managing and I am in the same boat as OP, except I have 10 years experience.

    I did interview for manager jobs, but I kept getting questions like “Have you ever fired someone?” and having a really hard time answering that, so it really tripped me up.

    1. Selena*

      Maybe you can tweak that into ‘no, but i did give a bad review’.
      Which seems to me like it gets to the root of the question: do you have the balls to be hard to your reports?

  8. voyager1*

    I am in the for profit world—banking. I found that being really good at your job is essential, but more importantly your supervisor has to trust you. The second part gets a lot of people. It got me when I went for a promotion about 7 years ago. The supervisor making the hiring decision didn’t
    say it was a trust issue but in hindsight it was pretty clear to me that was what happened. I too had no management experience.

    Depending on where you work and how awesome you truly are, you can tell your manager that being able to move up is important to you.

    If there is nowhere to move up to, then sometimes you just have move on to move up.

    Good luck!

  9. TWW*

    “If I wanted to take an intermediary step by finding a lateral move that incorporates the work I do now and also organizational and people management, it would invariably involve moving to a smaller, less prestigious organization and taking a serious pay cut…”

    Isn’t that the answer right there? If you want to get onto a different career track, it’s often the case that you have to make sacrifices. It’s not much different than if you went back to school to earn an advanced degree–you’d have less money for several years and have to figure out a way to live cheaper, but it would hopefully pay off in the long run.

    1. MrsPeaches*

      I hate to say it but I think that’s an occupational hazard of nonprofit work, especially if you’re in a geographic area that doesn’t have a ton of nonprofits. I work in fundraising and have run into the same issue. You have to decide what trade-offs you’re willing to make.

    2. Spero*

      This is what I did. Moved to a smaller/less prestigious org to manage a team of 2 others. It also meant stepping out of my specialty content field to a related but separate field. However! It ended up being a 50% pay jump within a few years as my team and role grew. When I move on from here in a few years it will most likely be to one of my current partners, an org 3x larger than my past one and 10x larger than my current one. If I had left after 2 years, I probably could have gone back to manage a team of 5+ at a less prestigious partner. If you can save up the amount of 2 years worth of paycut to subsidize a temporary lower salary, make the jump.

    3. Letter Writer*

      Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately I’m the breadwinner for my family so until my spouse gets a promotion or we win the lottery, I need to keep my salary what it is.

  10. RC Rascal*

    I fought this battle for years. In fact, I am still fighting a version of this battle, in that I have now managed large external sales organizations (agencies), but not internal teams and for some managers this seems to be a hangup.

    My advice, in addition to what has already been said, is this:

    1) Look for a volunteer organization that has committees, and lead one of those. It might be the church beautification committee, or a committee reporting to a Board member at an organization you know professionally.

    2) Switch to an individual contributor job at a larger organization, and in the interview process tell them your 5 year goal is to manage people. For some reason when an organization hears that on entry, they look at you differently that an existing employee who announces they are interested in management. When you come into an organization with that stated goal, it’s easier to then be considered for junior management positions when they do open up.

  11. Mynona*

    My fundraising executive colleagues have moved around between industries: they’re arts/culture types but they go over to higher ed because the fundraising departments are larger and goals are higher. Then they are competitive for more senior positions in their home fields.

    Also: fwiw most DoDs I’ve worked for are not full-time managers in that they spend a substantial amount of their time servicing a portfolio of the most important donors. I’m sure this is different in larger orgs, but I thought I would throw it out there. If you want to do more work on the strategic planning end of fundraising, you might look at consultancy jobs?

    1. Smithy*

      I’m also in fundraising, and agree that it may behoove to the OP to expand their scope of what might fit within their “sector” where they want to focus. I started off working for human rights organizations, but found more opportunities (including management) with humanitarian organizations. And within the humanitarian sector, I’ve seen people transition in/out of fundraising for hospitals, environmental organizations, academia, etc. Because fundraising is the area of expertise and the organization’s work is more a space of being a generalist, there are way to share the overall narrative of your professional life without getting overly caught up with only working within one sector.

      I would also flag the idea of what a “prestigious” organization is. Certainly there are well and poorly run organizations, but often prestige has more to do with brand recognition, which in fundraising can cut both ways. Of course anyone can raise money for UNICEF – no talent is needed! However, the Llama and Teapot Advocacy Society – look at what I’ve achieved here, and you’ve never heard of them! It’s obviously not a perfect rubric and working somewhere with a terrible reputation isn’t recommended – but I think it’s worth challenging the concept of the OP’s employer being truly the most prestigious.

      1. Letter Writer*

        I guess by “prestigious” I meant “secure and well-funded”. I have a very good work-life balance and am very happy with my compensation, which would not be the case if I moved on – trust me, I have a good idea of what the market pays and I am at the top end of it.

    2. Letter Writer*

      Ah, see I’m already in higher ed! The consultancy option is an interesting one, I’ll keep an eye out for those opportunities. Thanks!

  12. Mainly Lurking (UK)*

    Volunteering sounds good, and it’s also definitely worth talking to your manager about what additional opportunities they might be able to give you. Hopefully that will lead to the results you want! But set yourself a timeframe for new opportunities becoming available. If you keep being told that they really want to help you develop, but there just isn’t anything on the horizon, take it as a sign to start looking elsewhere.

    Similarly, if they find a new project for you to work on, and are telling you it’s a development opportunity, you need to assess for yourself if it’s REALLY taking you in the direction you need to be heading.

  13. Grits McGee*

    Slightly off topic, but still relevant- if the OP is interested in the intern option, I bet she will have applicants banging down her doors for the opportunity. At least in my field (public history), there’s so much emphasis on grant writing, but so few opportunities to get hands-on experience. And it’s not direct supervisory experience, but mentoring relationships could bolster OP’s experience as well.

    1. Pop*

      As someone that works development-adjacent in the nonprofit field, it wouldn’t surprise me to find the opposite – paid development jobs have a huge shortage of applicants right now, at least in my city, and COVID has just made it worse (already stressful job + cutting funding/more challenges + a lot of the traditional fundraising tools like coffee/lunches and events being taken away).

  14. Vox Experientia*

    the best way to become a leader is to show leadership. do whatever you can to show you have leadership qualities. offer to train new hires. take on projects to lead. be an idea person – come up with innovations and improvements. show initiative. note though that wanting to be a leader doesn’t necessarily make it the right fit for you. and being the ‘best’ at a job doesn’t qualify a person to be the manager of people doing that job (anyone who works in IT can tell you that, it’s the most common promotion mistake in IT to promote the best tech guy to lead the team – the skills that make you a great tech absolutely do not always match up with the skills to manage people – quite the contrary usually). the idea of being the manager/boss/leader is appealing to everyone – but the job itself in reality might not. watch what your boss does all day – sit in meetings? herd kittens? deal with HR and drama? have to deal with the executive team? the actual responsibilities are often not worth the sometimes minor increase in pay. and the final warning i always give to my people considering moving into leadership – once you are a manager, your success depends on other people. as a sole performer you control your destiny – you can make yourself a star on your own efforts. a manager could fail because suzie went thru a divorce and stopped meeting her metrics, and freddie the superstar clerk quit to go back to school, and john developed an alcohol problem. having your success often rely on other people is sometimes very challenging.

    1. Nonprofiteer*

      Very true in fundraising! There is quite a small overlap in skillset of strong fundraisers and effective managers of fundraisers.

      One option for OP is to identify a newish program they are raising funds for and really lean into that, building relationships across the organization and demonstrating leadership as you help develop the idea into a fundable program. I’ve seen colleagues literally write their own job description in a grant proposal.

    2. Letter Writer*

      Fundraising, like IT and sales, is plagued with managers who are great at the work and terrible at the managing! I’m actually more interested in the managing part than the IC part, and recognize that the skills I have are what good managers need. Plus, as a fundraiser your successes are already dependent on other people – you can work with a prospective donor for 3 years but then they get a divorce or join a cult and then your hard work goes down the drain.

  15. Forrest*

    I am also in this situation, and the advice in my sector is to manage a project, ideally one which involves other people, with clearly defined and evaluatable outcomes. I have been getting interviews for management roles for the last five years, but due to pregnancy, a change of job and then no management for a year and a half (which was also a pandemic!) I keep missing out on the actual job, and it’s mostly because I can point to things I do all the time, and things I’ve started, which other people finished, but I have no projects that I’ve seen through from start to finish and evaluated. So this next year is all about getting my head down and focusing on two finishable-projects and then I’m out of here.

  16. Berry*

    I’m having this exact issue working in startups. My last job I assisted in managing an intern, and my current one I don’t manage anyone because we’re a company of 15 people and there just isn’t anyone. I wanted to get management experience at my last position but hiring kept getting pushed off and then the company shut down completely.

    When I was interviewing a few months back, there were several interviews were I made it all the way to the final round but ultimately didn’t get it because other people had more management experience (so I was told when I asked my interviewers for feedback). Now with my new job I don’t foresee getting more management experience anytime soon (we have no plans to keep hiring since it took 2 years for my position to be made) but I need it to be able to move forward in my career.

  17. BRR*

    I work in nonprofit fundraising and I think you can probably get a job managing one or maybe two direct reports without management experience. Interviewers won’t skip over it but I’ve found it somewhat common for people to be hired into management roles without experience.

    1. Washi*

      Yes! Use good judgement, but it doesn’t hurt to throw your hat into the ring for a position where you meet the qualifications apart from the management experience. Don’t disqualify yourself by not even applying!

  18. MassMatt*

    LW I get your frustration but think you are not looking broadly enough and are discounting whole areas of possible advancement.

    You say your job has few opportunities to advance to a manager role but seem to assume changing employers means lower pay and prestige. I doubt you have managed to find the highest-paying, most-prestigious employer in your field, and even if you have, what good is this prestige if you don’t have the opportunity to advance your career in the direction you want?

    Also, you seem to be wanting to jump from individual producer to not simply managing but moving to upper management–you mention director level, or being on the board of a nonprofit. That is an enormous leap for someone with no management experience. It reminds me of the letter from years ago where a new grad complained no one would hire him to be their “idea man”.

    I recommend shooting for some sort of supervisory or FLM role first, or as other people have suggested volunteer work. But even there, someone is unlikely to come fresh off the street into a managing role.

    It may be that your employer just doesn’t offer a management career path, in which case you may need to change employers. Maybe this involves a pay cut at least temporarily, but you need to determine how important this change is to your job satisfaction. In general, people with management skills are desirable employees, and have clearer paths for career advancement than individual contributors, at least in many industries.

    1. Anonym*

      “what good is this prestige if you don’t have the opportunity to advance your career in the direction you want?”

      This is a key consideration! Prestige is unlikely to help very much when you don’t have the experience required for a role. Call it a 5% factor vs. a 50% factor.

    2. AndersonDarling*

      I was also thinking about the “idea man” letter!
      But realistically, If the OP can identify a need at their organization and take the lead, then it will go a long way in exposing the challenges of management. Maybe there is a gap in training and the OP can step in to put something together? They would need to interview team leaders, document, build an on-boarding system, run it through a test, and get feedback. If it was done in manageable pieces and didn’t interfere with the OP’s core work, I bet their manager would appreciate the contribution. That would definitely be something to put on a resume and the OP could examine what parts of the project they really liked.

    3. Smithy*

      Without knowing a bit more about the kind of Director level role the OP wants – it’s also difficult to know what the management leap will be.

      I was once the only direct report shared by two (fundraising) directors, so that certainly was not a job where extensive personnel management was required. I know people who’ve had Director of Development jobs where they only managed one person, and in some cases were the entire department. I’ve also worked on teams where a VP or Chief Development Officer manages departments of dozens if not hundreds.

      Nonprofits represent a really wide range of sectors – so exactly where the OP’s career objectives and desires sit will impact all of that. It may also be that the OP has had a wonderful experience with their current org and the dream job is simply their boss’s job. In which case, the questions at hand may be more direct. If the goal is to be competitive for your boss’s job – what does your boss see as missing? How best to get it?

      I will add that I know in my corner of the nonprofit world, there are some select orgs that are known to pay a LOT more than their peers. Nothing to do with prestige or not, just – those jobs can pay a lot more. Some of those spots are also relatively small teams (i.e. a director only managing a team of a few people) and you really will not be competitive for those director roles unless you leave, get more experience and come back. But that’s not necessarily advice I’d apply any more widely without more information.

      1. MissBliss*


        In the fundraising sector, for many organizations, there are no “managers.” You’re an individual contributor or you’re a director. Someone wanting to go from, say, a Gift Officer to Director of Development or Director of Major Gifts is not necessarily someone getting too antsy or trying to skip a level. That would be more like a Gift Officer or Development Coordinator trying to go from their role to VP of Advancement or Executive Director of the organization.

    4. Letter Writer*

      Thank you for your comment. As others have pointed out, “director” is the usual title for anyone who is not an IC. It usually goes development assistant -> officer -> director, with a WIDE variety of the level of responsibility a Director of Development title carries.

      I am extremely fortunate to be in the position I have now, and I am quite confident that my compensation and work-life balance is better than it would be at other organizations.

  19. Regular Reader*

    As someone who spent the latter years of her working life as a manager saying ” were it not for volunteering in a manager role, I would not be where I am in my working life”, I owe a lot to my volunteering. I don’t think it was the reason I got my first management job, it added skills and abilities I could not gain at work. I was fortunate, the organisation was large enough to have a management training scheme which I completed more than once as my roles changed. I volunteered alongside people with phenomenal working skills and I learnt from them too. When explaining what I did used appropriate professional phrases in my CV – managing time critical projects, managed a team of 20 volunteers, managed a budget of…..You get the idea.
    At work where I completed a vocational management qualification, my volunteering experience was considered valid by my assessor and he encouraged me to include it to strengthen my evidence.
    Its not an exact like for like experience, but you learn a lot and hopefully have fun too. I’m still having fun after 30 years of volunteering with my organisation.

  20. Empress Matilda*

    A couple of quick things you could try – ask your manager if you can be the contact person when she’s on vacation. Even if you can’t solve all of the problems that come up, at least you’ll get some insight into what kinds of problems they are.

    And while you’re at it, ask her if there are any recurring meetings that you could attend on her behalf (or again, when she’s on vacation etc). If she’s like most managers, she probably has a million meetings every week, and she may be happy to get one of them off her agenda and on to yours.

    The answer might be no in both cases, but you never know until you try, right? Good luck!

  21. Eug*

    I agree with Alison to look at other areas of volunteering other than board service, but for a different reason. Many boards do not (and should not) be managing staff/projects, and for orgs like this, the request would be tone deaf. Regular volunteering is great, and can definitely lead to opportunities for project management/committee work as a volunteer.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Agreed they shouldn’t be managing staff, but they should be managing the executive director. You’re right that that’s a different kind of thing though (for one thing, it’s very high level management of the ED, not the same thing as managing, say, a junior staffer)./

      1. Sleeping Late Every Day*

        At the not-for-profits where I worked, there were two types of volunteers: the regular ones who assisted paid staff on projects and also some who were docents, worked in the gift shop, herded attendees at public programs, etc. The other kind were board members, who were wealthy, sank a lot of money into the organization, and in many instances, served as a prestige thing, not because they were particularly interested in our organization. Or, as one woman put it when a senior staff person made the mistake of asking what she did, haughtily answered “I am a community leader!” and went to mingle with her own type rather than the staff riff-raff. Unless you’re a 1%er or the organization desperately needs to hit a diversity quota on its board, there is no entrance to that self-proclaimed elite level.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Varies greatly! Most orgs I’ve worked with have been the “rich people on the board” types, but smaller orgs often have boards made up of activists and others doing the work.

          1. JP*

            Yes, came here to say OP should look into smaller-budget nonprofits for board service. Not for the employee management (as noted here) but for the experience making decisions that affect the trajectory of the org, which they also said they wanted.

            I’m the board chair at a national nonprofit with a very small (<200k) budget. An org like ours would be very excited to have someone with development experience on the board, and our expectations for board member giving are extremely flexible.

    2. Claire*

      I came here to say the same thing as Eug. Nonprofit boards have high-level oversight over the ED, but should not be playing a management role! If they are, it’s a red flag.

      1. MissBliss*

        That really depends on the size of the organization! Oftentimes very small and/or very new nonprofits have working boards. But those same orgs often have no or very few staff to manage, so they’d be more likely to be managing processes, which it sounds like the OP already has an opportunity to manage in their day job.

  22. mylittletony*

    OP, I broke into management after producing a community radio show. We had a rotating series of young hosts and I often had to create project timelines and give them gentle nudges so that we met deadlines. During the interview, I said something to the effect of, “if you can convince people who are not being paid to stay on top of a relatively large workload, those skills should transfer.” Good luck to you!!

  23. Caraway*

    I recently was hired into my first management role after being an individual contributor for years, with no official supervisory experience. What I did was:
    – Volunteer for internal leadership opportunities (committees, initiatives, etc.). Not technically supervision, but it showed I had leadership skills. This might be a good start, if you’re struggling to find external volunteer leadership opportunities.
    – Made the case for how my current job required supervisory-adjacent skills. My previous role required strong project management skills. I don’t know exactly what this would be for you, but you must work with others at your organization and perhaps there’s something you can point to as evidence.

    I called these two things out specifically in my application materials, by discussing them in my cover letter and including a “Leadership Experience” section on my resume. Good luck, OP!

  24. FundraiserNYC*

    Do you intend to stay in fundraising? If so, you might consider switching to a more generalist role to gain experience in a wider range of fundraising projects. From there you can usually work your way up to a more senior manager role where you would be managing 1-2 people and then eventually to a director level position. But to get to that director level position, you really need experience in all major areas of fundraising.

    1. MissBliss*

      In my experience, the bigger the org, the more specialized the position, so a generalist role may not be available where OP is currently, and they might have to take a step back in pay to go to an org where such a position is available. But I agree that it is very valuable. On my current team, I’m the only one who has a broad base of fundraising experience- when a director position comes up, I’ll be better positioned because of that experience. But I got it at orgs that paid peanuts and had generalist positions because they couldn’t afford specialists or more than just a few people on the team.

  25. Volunteer Leader*

    If you are a woman in the U.S. or in London, you can join the Junior League. It is a volunteer group which trains its members in leadership. Particularly in a smaller League, you can work your way up from Committee Chair to President in a few years. My league has women of all ages with a wide variety of work experiences and I’ve learned a lot from them, and have had additional training from outside speakers.

  26. Laura Roslin*

    I had the same dilemma few years ago. I asked for collaborative work experiences across my organization, and built a reputation for reliability and getting work done well while also being easy to work with. I managed some projects too and stepped up when others faltered. Because of my reputation, I was given an interim leadership role–it was very, very challenging, and very much a trial by fire situation! I learned so much. I did not end up in the permanent role–but my new boss has been mentoring me in management. Now I am moving to another organization in a management role and I’m super excited–and more prepared than I was for the interim role! I know there is still so much to learn and from reading Alison’s blog I know I will still make mistakes. So to sum up, definitely talk to your manager and find ways to lead projects and teams if that makes sense in your context. And as Alison is always saying, build up an excellent reputation in all that you do!

  27. All Het Up About It*

    I think that the letter writer might also be overlooking a lateral move to another organization where they are an individual contributor, but the org doesn’t purposefully keep their development officers siloed and limit their knowledge of the org’s strategic plan. (Honestly, that part hit me in a very negative way.) If they took a similar role with another org that allowed for project management or serving a as a team lead on a proposal or fundraising project then that could be an option.

  28. John Smith*

    OP, you could apply to my organisation because no experience (or understanding) of management seems like a prerequisite in some departments…

    Seriously, I’d look at what you have managed yourself. Anything /anyone you have controlled/supervised organised, advised on no matter how small… sell it!

    Local government especially operates on tick boxes (at least where I live). If you can tick a box- in any way- you stand a chance. Get feedback, learn and grow and show you can manage. I got my current job (not management or hiring) with no direct experience, and having several internal candidates with experience as competition. But because I could find a way to tick a box (and a bit of luck), I got the job (regretted almost ever since). Call centres seem to promote on the sole basis of being able to hit targets (regardless of competency – that’s another story is love to tell) but can take time (and a lot of soul ripping).

    For what it’s worth, I’ve been asked why I’ve not applied for management roles in my organisation solely because of the above (first part of 2nd paragraph). These have come from managers (that I have respect for) who have seen how I handle situations and believe I could make management.

    Besides that my manager’s job is a poison chalice, and my manager’s manager is the poison that fills the cup, I’d rather not manage because I like things done my own way (often doing things myself) and I know I’ll turn into a right little Hitler when it comes to operational issues.

    Good luck, really hope you get what you want.

  29. Katastrophreak*

    I got my required project management (and people management) skills by volunteering with Girl Scouts and my kid’s Little League. Basically every trip you take with a kid is a project, and being a coach/ team parent/ concessions manager/VP of Baseball/ whatever requires managing someone.

    1. allathian*

      Yeah, as long as you don’t go too far with the parallel. After all, most employees are adults and need to be treated as such, and even with minors you can’t treat a 14-year old who’s filling the shelves in exactly the same way you might treat a 14 year old whose team parent you are.

  30. tamarack and fireweed*

    Yeah, that’s a long-term project. Or at least medium-to-long term. The initial rungs of management are often filled from inside the organization, with mentorship from the one-rung-higher manager, eg. director, at least for a first-time manager in a middle-management role.

    The logical way to go about this if you’re in an organization where there’s no established pipeline from your IC role into management is to make a lateral move into a similar role in a different org where there *is* such a pipeline. But you say that what you see on the market would mean a cut in pay and prestige, so don’t do that.

    On the plus side, you have a job currently and therefore a basis from which to grow. I’d go for a multi-pronged approach, doing all the things simultaneously:
    – keeping your eyes open for roles that have some elements of what you do and some elements of, or at least a pathway to, what you want
    – slowly add to your org management, people management and project management skillset any way you see fit, at your current org or through some extracurricular volunteering
    – talking to people inside your org about opportunities that would at least get you out of your role onto a trajectory – maybe a circuitous one – towards what you want

    *All* of these are long-haul, and none has a clear timeline attached, which can be frustrating. Best of luck!

  31. OakAshElm*

    I have a report on my team with this exact problem – they want to be a manager, but have little management experience, and while they have done the theory and the courses, they don’t have the practical knowledge. They are also getting very frustrated with the situation, and don’t see a way out as on every opportunity they apply for in our org, they are beaten out by people with previous management experience.

    I’m struggling to coach them through this, and help with a decent development plan. They’ve led projects & initiatives, but their role is mainly an individual one – they look after a group of clients’ teapot repair needs. My own history doesn’t help, as I got into a management by doing a job, company growing, need more people to do that job – oh Oak can manage that. Lo & behold when I changed company 5 years later, I was an experienced manager.

  32. Junior Dev*

    OP could try coming up with a volunteer position at their own job that they would train and manage. In fundraising, there’s probably some work that could be delegated, like writing personalized thank you notes to donors (which OP would proofread and send) or automated by someone with the computer skills. Finding a volunteer to assist them could both lighten OPs workload and also give them management experience.

  33. Fundraising!*

    I just did exactly this! I was an independent fundraising contributor at a large non-profit with a very rigid structure and a supervisor who isn’t going anywhere until she retires. I didn’t have any formal management experience but applied for a role that manages 4 employees. During the interview I was upfront about not having formal management experience, but highlighted my volunteer experience of leading an event committee as the chair for 2 years, coordinating workflows/giving feedback for our administrative staff that supported our fundraising team at my current job and leading various special projects for my peer-team. I also made sure the rest of the position beyond managing were skills & tasks I was really strong in and tried to make sure the interviewers knew I was very qualified in that way so the growth could be focused on my management skills. The position I’m in now is at a local & not corporate non-profit, but the salary for me was a significant raise still & I plan to take the management experience to move laterally back into a corporate non-profit.

  34. Selena*

    You compare your situation to ‘getting a job without experience’ and i feel that the answer is pretty much the same: don’t expect to be able to just jump in and hit the floor running. Build your expertise with smaller roles that develoo your skillset, similar to how you work as an intern before getting a real job.

  35. Baby Fundraiser*

    OP, what professional development programs are available through your local AFP chapter? I wonder if you might be able to build some of the soft skills needed for management by volunteering as a mentor to young fundraisers like myself through AFP programs.

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