Leadership Lessons from the Not-for-Profit Sector

By Michael Melcher
Partner, Next Step Partners

Michael Roberts, Executive Director of Comprehensive Youth Development joins Michael Melcher on his Career Stewardship podcast.

Michael Roberts has been working in the nonprofit sector for more than 20 years. He leads Comprehensive Youth Development, an organization that partners with three public high schools to help underserved young people in New York City to complete high school and dial up a life plan for the future.Michael Roberts is one of the most accomplished, interesting, charismatic and effective leaders that I’ve ever known. He’s respected throughout the philanthropic and charitable sector in New York and beyond.In Episode 34 of my Career Stewardship podcast, Michael shares what it’s like working for nonprofits, how he became a nonprofit leader and the special role of courage in this type of work.

Following are a few key excerpts from our conversation (that have been edited for clarity and brevity). Listen to the full interview here: “You Are Bigger Than You Know” – Courage and Leadership in the Not-for-Profit World.

Courage is the Core of Leadership

Michael Melcher: What are a couple things that you know about leadership that you didn’t know 15 years ago?

Michael Roberts: In order to access any virtue, in order to access any dream or level of development, you have to have the courage to step out from what you know and have the courage to look for what you don’t know.  You need the courage to be humble and the courage to listen. Courage is that action that unleashes and opens all those doors. If you sit in fear you can’t move forward, you can’t grow personally or help anyone else grow.  And I learned that from clients.

It was young people that I met years ago at Far Rockaway High School who taught me that courage is the essence of leadership. We had students who were domestically abused, children living in shelters, but they got up every day and came to that school building. Now, they may not always have been going to class, and they weren’t the best kids in the building behavior-wise, but they showed up. And I kept trying to figure out: what are they showing up for if they don’t really want to go to class? Why are they showing up?

They were showing up on the possibility that someone was going to open a door for them. That someone would give them a word that would let them move into the next stage.  And so they came to my office and we talked every day.  We trained them to be youth mediator-arbitrators.  And they became the best mediator-arbitrators you’d ever want to see. Unbeknownst to the school, we did gang mediation and street mediation together. These were all 14, 15, 16 year-old kids.  It gave them a sense of purpose. It let them see that, “I may not be good in math class, but I have a skillset.” And so by teaching them these tools, they were able to replicate those with their peers. Altruism started to grow for them. They wanted to do things.

That was the beginning of my understanding that true leadership is having the courage to face what you have to face and to speak out even when it’s not comfortable for other people, or comfortable for you.

Michael Melcher: I think leadership and learning always involve discomfort. You don’t learn by staying comfortable. You have to actually take action. And you don’t really know what the consequences will be and you certainly don’t know how people will react. If you’re truly courageous you’ve got to accept the possibility that you might be criticized, you might fail, you might be belittled, but there’s something in you that is going to take that action anyway. As opposed to waiting for everything to be safe and feel right.

Michael Roberts: There are leaders who like to be in a safe environment where they know the boundaries in which they’re providing leadership. Courage means moving beyond those boundaries and challenging yourself to say, “Yeah, I have this covered, but is there more I should be doing, is there more I should be understanding?” That’s this lifelong learning piece — that you’re constantly learning. People think I’m smart about youth development, but part of it is that young people are telling me and showing me and allowing me to understand what their needs are and then I’m able to take what I know educationally and put those things together.

Questions to Ask When Interviewing with Nonprofits

Michael Melcher:  In terms of resources, there is tremendous variation within the nonprofit sector. There are some organizations that are financially stable, others that are not. There are some that are very well managed and led and have good cultures and there are other nonprofits that have really toxic cultures. What are some questions a person can ask when deciding whether or not to pursue or take on a role in a particular organization?

Michael Roberts: I think it’s the same everywhere, whether it’s the corporate world or the artistic world. There are toxic environments and there are great environments. The only way you can really know is by doing. It is very hard to know in the interview what the actual environment of an organization will be.

You also want to be clear about what your goal is for being there. Not-for-profits are charities and I think people forget that. We live by the needs of our clients and that’s how they are resourced. Their level of resources reflects the needs they are grappling with.

We are not corporations. We don’t make widgets or shoes or jeans. We’re helping people and so it’s by giving that we stay alive. As long as an issue is alive, people will support it. But every year needs change.  We had Covid this year and that shifted a lot of giving to the need of Covid away from children and families, domestic violence and education. Crises can dictate these shifts.

Keep in mind, also, that you need to be inspired by the purpose and mission that you want to help drive. If you’re not interested in domestic violence, you probably shouldn’t go to a nonprofit that does that. If you don’t want to work with teenagers, you shouldn’t go there.

Think about what it is that you are bringing to the table – the skills you have and the skills you like to use.  Are you a social worker? Are you a teacher? Are you an accountant?

You can ask questions about how organizations do the actual work. How do they service clients? What’s been the impact of the services? Where do you think there are gaps?  Where could you make an impact? It’s a constantly changing beast.

You really have to be clear on what purpose it is you want to support and design your questions around that.

Listen to the whole episode

Over the course of our 30-minute conversation, Michael and I discuss more details about his path and perspectives on working in nonprofits, including:

  • The role of a learning mindset
  • Finding balance in your role
  • How you are bigger than you think
  • His beginnings as a Broadway actor, singer and dancer
  • Career advice his parents gave him and his 7 brothers and sisters


About the Career Stewardship with Michael Melcher podcast

This 5-star podcast from career expert, Michael Melcher, will help you figure out what to do to advance your career.

Each episode offers best practices, stories from the field, and bite-sized tips to help build your career success in both the short and long term.

As one of the partners at Next Step Partners, Michael is a seasoned expert on developing leaders, building inclusive work environments, and helping senior professionals make career transitions. A former lawyer, foreign service officer and startup CEO, he has navigated several career transitions himself.

Subscribe to Career Stewardship with Michael Melcher on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcherGoogle Podcast or your favorite platform. You can find additional resources on the show website:

About Michael Roberts

Michael Roberts is Executive Director of Comprehensive Youth Development, an organization that partners with NYC public high schools to prepare young adults, ages 14- 24, to secure a successful future for themselves and their families. Through this partnership, students develop the capability to graduate from high school and make informed decisions on higher education and careers.

Michael Roberts has been an advocate for adolescents for over twenty years. Prior to his roles at CYD, Michael developed programs at The Children’s Aid Society and Safe Horizon. “As one of 8 children who was born and raised in NYC, I understand the importance of education as a foundation for the future.”



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