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Self-Management for Nonprofit Leaders

Updated: Jul 5, 2023

How to develop the crucial skill of self-management

Group of adult men and women of various races sitting comfortably in a circle, enjoying conversation

Self-management is a critical aspect of leadership, and it plays a key role in the success of any organization. As a nonprofit leader, it is essential to practice self-management to be effective in your role and achieve your organization's goals. We may have a board overseeing us, but day to day, the executive leadership position has to manage itself. In this blog post, we will explore the concept of self-management and provide some practical tips on how to practice this skill.

What is Self-management?

Self-management is the ability to regulate one's thoughts, emotions, and actions in a way that promotes personal and organizational success. It involves understanding oneself and one's limitations, managing one's time effectively, prioritizing tasks, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Self-management is especially important for nonprofit leaders, as they are often juggling multiple responsibilities and must manage their time and resources efficiently.


A critical component of self-management is self-awareness. It makes sense that in order to effectively manage someone, you have to get to know them and their work, yet when it comes to managing ourselves we often assume we know all there is to know already when that is rarely the case, especially for those of us that consider ourselves “experienced.” Self-awareness involves understanding one's strengths and weaknesses, recognizing triggers that may cause stress or anxiety, and seeking feedback from others to improve performance. Nonprofit leaders can develop self-awareness through self-reflection, seeking feedback from colleagues and staff, and engaging in professional development activities. Participating in a forum (a small, confidential peer-learning group,) attending retreats, and educational events with peers are opportunities to learn not only useful information for leading your organization, but to learn more about yourself. These events provide a non-judgmental environment as well as prompts and exercises to get to know yourself better, as well as connect with peers who can provide valuable perspectives.

Self-awareness as a skill is the foundation for developing almost all others, as we can’t improve if we don’t know where we’re starting from. In fact, the Stanford University Business Advisory Council identified self-awareness as “the superior competency that leaders must develop.”

Time management

Another key aspect of self-management is time management. Nonprofit leaders often have a lot on their plate, and it is crucial to prioritize tasks and manage time effectively. This means setting clear goals and objectives, breaking tasks into smaller, manageable steps, and using tools like calendars and to-do lists to stay organized. It is also important to set boundaries and learn to say "no" when necessary to avoid overcommitting and burnout.

At this point you may be thinking “Duh! Of course I have a calendar and am so busy I have to say no to things.” But just because you have these tools doesn’t mean you are using them to the best of your ability. For example, studies have shown that the best to-do lists are just 3 items long, forcing you to prioritize, and are on paper that you can cross out with a pen. Bonus points if the items on your to-do list are specific and action oriented, as broad items appear daunting and are less likely to be completed, which not only slows your progress but more importantly robs you of the feeling of making progress, slowing your momentum. The resources on time management are plentiful, and investing time in determining what methods work best for you will be worthwhile in the long run.

Emotional Regulation

Emotional regulation is another critical aspect of self-management. Nonprofit leaders face many challenges, including managing staff, meeting fundraising goals, and navigating complex social and political issues. It is important to develop strategies to manage stress and stay grounded during challenging times. This might involve regular exercise, mindfulness practices, or seeking support from peers or a mentor. Note that emotional regulation does not mean suppressing our emotions, and in fact, peer support such as forum participation is often effective because it can validate emotions and provide a safe space to process them.

Everyone and their emotions are different, based on their body’s chemistry and their lived experiences. Similarly, we are all on our own journeys when it comes to learning to regulate emotions; some people spend years learning in therapy and others grew up with healthy coping mechanisms. There are myriad ways to regulate and what helps one person regulate their emotions may not work for everyone, so again it is important to find the techniques that work for you.

Effective self-management requires discipline, focus, and commitment. We must be intentional about managing our time and resources, developing strategies to manage stress, and cultivating self-awareness. We can practice self-management by setting clear goals and priorities, practicing mindfulness techniques, and seeking feedback from others. It is also essential to recognize that self-management is an ongoing process, and there will be times when it is more challenging than others. However, with practice and persistence, nonprofit leaders can develop the skills and habits needed to practice effective self-management and achieve their organization's goals.

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