Nonprofit Job Titles: What to Go For

Just as a brand is so much more than a name, you are so much more than your title. But a good one certainly doesn’t hurt. Your job title is not only a reference to your authority and position within an organization, but also your calling card (quite literally the text printed on it). While nameplates used to be etched in stone, or at least gold acrylic, nonprofit job titles are now fluid and negotiable elements of a nonprofit career. Even if you’re not where you want to be in your professional journey, think of your title as a building block or a launch pad to new adventures. 

Nonprofit branding guru and Do More Good co-founder, Bill McKendry, has established four criteria for a good brand name that actually apply to job titles as well. The goal of both a brand name and a title are to represent value. These attributes involve being meaningful, memorable, readable, and distinctive. While this may sound simple enough, there are reasons common nonprofit job titles often lack these attributes. Let’s dig into why they’re so important and so often overlooked. 

Meaningful | Titles Don’t Pay Bills

The nonprofit sector is full of trendy titles like “Director of Philanthropy” or “VP of Engagement.” These are lofty, but they’re also quite ambiguous. Does a director of philanthropy oversee the resources and funds distributed by the organization? Or does that person raise funds? Does the VP of Operational Excellence oversee KPIs for all departments? Or does that person ensure all maintenance aspects are performed…including plunging the occasional toilet?

The reality is that these titles mean all of the above and then some. But we can do better. Your title should directly represent what you do and who you serve. If not, you’ll find yourself redirecting a lot of inquiries or doing much more than your job description calls for. Do your research and make sure your title accurately reflects market value and the job duties described. If it doesn’t, work with your employer to adjust the work and the salary/benefits of your role. This will ensure you—and future employees—are successful. 

Employers are in a bad habit lately of offering premium titles to offset less than market wages and benefits. Nonprofit organizations are no exception to this. While a big title seems like a stepping stone to later career success, you should closely analyze what the resume boost will cost you and the sector. On a personal level, holding the title of “VP of _______” will only cause dissatisfaction if you don’t get the authority to direct or lead efforts. Inflated titles also don’t prepare you for the actual work of true leadership positions, which makes advancement or switching careers challenging. On a larger level, if the nonprofit sector continues to pay below market wages while escalating titles, the value of our work cheapens. Raising the average comparable salary for nonprofit positions starts with authentic titles and expectations. 

Memorable | Be Authentic

Working unexpected or catchy lingo into your title makes it stand out, but the novelty gets lost in translation. “Engagement Architect” or “Dialogue Curator” might spark some interesting conversations, but the fascination won’t last. People don’t always remember titles, but they almost always recall how you made them feel or what they experienced when working with you. When your job title accurately reflects what you do and who you are, people will remember it. 

The credit for many CEOs adjusting their titles from Chief Executive Officer to Chief Engagement Officer goes to the late Apple co-founder and long-time leader Steve Jobs. This one tiny change in the vernacular used to describe the top of the org chart has had a modernizing and leveling effect on many organizations. In part, it’s because of authenticity. A great CEO is all about engaging his/her team and audience to further a mission and vision.

Readable | Less is More

“The Senior Director of Community Engagement and Client Experience is waiting on line one.” 

Oh dear. Don’t go there. Keyword stuffing is as bad for nonprofit job titles as it is for your website. If at all possible, avoid the word “and” in job titles and aim for no more than three words. Your job may be complex, and it’s likely you wear many hats, but your title doesn’t need to reflect all of them. Keep it simple, clear, and practical. 

Struggling to narrow it down? Try doing a time study and look at where you spend most of your time. Also, consider dropping hierarchical references like “senior” or “junior.” Instead, rely on your intellectual authority to speak for itself. Leveled titles can be a behind-the-scenes tool to build hierarchy, but they don’t necessarily need to be used publicly. 

Be cautious of roles that can’t be easily summed up by one or two words. A fractured or unbalanced role is as hard to describe as it is to fill. 

Distinctive | You’re More than a Number

Perhaps more frustrating than a hipster moniker or title packed with ten-dollar words is the one that doesn’t represent your value. Project Manager #3 or Marketing Generalist can make a team member sound like one of many rather than a valued member of a team. Although your nonprofit may not have more than one person doing any specific task (most nonprofits wish we had that scenario), there are larger nonprofits and government units that use this system. The sector also has a bad habit of generalizing roles in order to cover as many “other duties as assigned” as possible. Thus, the term “generalist” outlived the 1980s. 

Encourage your leadership to recognize team members distinctively. It not only helps team members feel ownership of their duties, but it also helps them feel recognized. For positions with multiple people filling the same role, consider using a “group” system rather than numbering. Let’s say you have three people that handle client intake. Rather than dubbing them Client Intake Specialist 1, 2, and 3, refer to them each as a member of the Client Intake Specialist Group. Let their name be their distinguishing title instead. After all, at the end of the day, it’s better to be known by name rather than title.

The words "Job title" on a form

Katie Appold

Katie’s nonprofit career includes a variety of leadership roles for human service, foundation, and publishing-related nonprofits as well as many volunteer roles. Under Katie’s leadership, nonprofit organizations have developed new programs related to free healthcare, affordable and accessible housing and literacy programs for K-12 students. In her first Executive Director role, Katie increased the annual revenue of the organization she led by 300% and received the top grant prize in the nation for affordable housing through the Federal Home Loan Bank of Indianapolis. Today, she leads Nonprofit Hub and Cause Camp, which collectively serve more than 50,000 nonprofits throughout North America. Her educational background includes an undergraduate degree in business administration and a masters degree in nonprofit leadership. Katie serves as the board president of Gracious Grounds, a housing organization serving individuals with disabilities. She is an active member of the Grand Rapids Young Nonprofit Professionals, the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, Cause Network, and the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

December 2, 2021

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