Were you aware that only 144 nonprofits have grown to budgets exceeding $50 million in revenue since 1970? (See source below).

That’s probably surprising for you to learn, but the reality is that all you have to do is think about the nonprofits in your neighborhood. Most of the 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States operate with budgets of less than $1 million. There are some factors as to why this happens, but one of the reasons is that there are only a handful of leaders who’ve been able to grow their organizations to dominate the industry.

People who become nonprofit executive directors and their senior team members, such as chief development officers, should seek out mentors to help them break through the ceiling. Years ago when I founded a nonprofit and grew it to a budget more than $70 million in fewer than five years, I relied on the expert advice and counsel of others. Formal or informal mentors helped me do something few have done before me or since.

If you want to grow and have your nonprofit dominate, then one of the first actions you should take is to find a mentor who’s done it before and ask him or her to become your sounding board. When looking for a nonprofit leader who can help you get to the next level, think about the following qualities:

  • Experience: The number one thing you want to make sure your mentor has is the experience. If he or she has run an organization that has a budget over $1 million, you’re looking in the right place. I would start by making a list of folks who run nonprofits with budgets exceeding $5 million. And, as your nonprofit grows, you can then look for mentors who run organizations with budgets greater than $10 million, $20 million, etc.
  • Entrepreneur vs. Sustainer:There are two types of leaders, and when seeking a mentor, you should be clear on the kind of person that will help you. If your nonprofit is a start-up, then look for someone who has that type of experience explicitly. However, if your organization has been around for some time and is in a growth mode, find a mentoring leader who knows how to grow an existing group. Entrepreneurs have different skills and mindsets than those who develop an existing organization.
  • Transformational Leader: No matter who you seek, someone who’s entrepreneurial or a sustaining developer, you want a transformational leader. In my experience, the leaders who substantially grow their organizations are visionary and inspirational. They set a course and direction. They empower their teams. And, they’re never satisfied with the way things are; in other words, they’re seeking to transform the reality of the way things currently exist.
  • Discretion: When you look for a mentor, you have to find someone who will keep your confidences in the proverbial vault. The reality is that to talk to someone about how to grow and develop your business and leadership you’re probably going to have to divulge things that are confidential and private. The mentor you choose should be someone you trust and who has a reputation for keeping confidences.
  • Thought leadership: The nonprofit leaders who have been able to develop organizations past industry averages are people who by definition are thought leaders. If someone has grown a charity to $10 million, $25 million, $50 million or more, they’re doing something very few people have done. And, because there are so few, the reality is that these individuals are likely thought leaders. They are helping create the defining narrative within the nonprofit sector.

Finally, when you look for a mentor, find someone who is generous of his or her time and values having this type of relationship with you. Mentors and those who have done what you seek to do are an excellent resource for inspiration, ideas and to learn about the challenges and opportunities. As in everything, this learning takes time and consistency. Your mentor will have to be open to being on the journey with you.