LGBT Center of Raleigh

119 East Hargett Street - Raleigh NC 27601 - 919-832-4484

Personal Lessons in Nonprofit Leadership from Executive Director James Miller

james“I never make the same mistake twice. I make it five or six times, just to be sure.” 

Over the better half of a decade, I have had the honor and the privilege to lead the LGBT Center of Raleigh. The mistakes made, the lessons learned… the pain and the pleasure. The work we all contributed in order to make Raleigh and North Carolina a better place for all people.

In order to air some wisdom before the roast tonight, I wanted to leave all of you with a few things that I have learned along the way, and things I hope future leaders in the nonprofit movement will embrace.

10 Lessons I've Learned from Serving the Community

  1. Being a young leader should never hold you back. This sector works against young leaders. The nonprofit world values wisdom and experience, and your perceived power is reduced, but it does not have to be this way. Fight for your power. Fight for validation. You are enough. And make them eat it.
  2. Never stop asking questions; never stop asking for help. Being curious will always serve you well. The world rewards knowledge, so seek it out! One of my biggest failures is not asking for help early, even though there were so many people willing and able.
  3. Conversely, you will never master your craft in this sector. The nonprofit world will be in constant flux: your funders, your donors, your volunteers. The moment you feel you have mastered anything, it is time to step back and re-evaluate.
  4. Surround yourself with capable people and let them do their job. Management is needed in certain situations, but leadership is necessary in every facet. Management is controlling every aspect to accomplish a goal – Leadership is leveraging everyone’s skill set to collaboratively make change. I continue to strive to influence and inspire, not wield power and control. If you ask my staff, they’ll let you know my leadership style is self-exploratory. It encourages risk and failure because there is no better way to learn. And, TBH, I could not be prouder of the staff and volunteers of the Center for the amazing leadership skills they are now developing and creating.
  5. Avoid being the angry *insert adjective here*. Early in my career, I was in a meeting with the state/CDC about HIV and prevention methods, a topic close to my heart. The insistence of bureaucrats to only focus on one topic area in a grant offering… well… it set me off (especially with their language usage and their being the ‘experts’). I made sure each individual in that room understood their lack of humanity. I was not kind and I regret that moment to this day. If I learned anything from Justine Hollingshead and Glen Medders, it was having control of the situation and your reactions to situations you are in. Anger and frustration is common in the nonprofit world. Make peace with it. And understand that your ability for diplomacy will pay dividends.
  6. Always help. Always. Your existence as a leader does not absolve you from helping in every task you encounter. Take out the trash. Wash the dishes. Help with setup and breakdown. You won’t always want to, but your ability to get your hands dirty will help you build relationships you didn’t know you needed.
  7. If you are ever given an opportunity to mentor, do so. I have had a number of interns and youth volunteers that I have had the honor and privilege of mentoring. This has been some of the most rewarding things about this job. And the secret here is to learn just as much from them as they learn from you. I do want to call out a few people here and thank them: Brennan and Lane, thank you for recognizing a need in your age group and wanting to tackle it head on. Alyssa (Cupcake), I cannot fathom the future without your amazing touch. And Brianna, the courage you showed by taking on every task head on and then deciding it was time for a change before burnout… that is courage. The world is better because of all of you.
  8. You can change and enhance community through sports. The leadership and management of Stonewall Sports – Raleigh has been completely transformative for our town. The camaraderie that it fosters is undeniable. I am proud to have played a small role, but more proud to see what it has become. The friends I’ve made along the way have helped to balance my life and I am utterly grateful for them. #LikeASir #WinOrLose
  9. Your relationships will take you farther than your education. Don’t get me wrong, education is great. I’m drowning in hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt for my six letters. And I would not change it for the world. But in this line of work, you can’t think your way out of personality/character conflicts. The relationships you build will be worth their weight in gold. I have been blessed with a community and leadership that has been open and honest with LGBTQ leadership. Our Executive Director Support Group has genuinely saved my life on many occasions, with its true strength, allowing younger or newer directors with solid and pure leadership. (Lee, Hector, Karen, Tara, Charles, Brandon… looking at y’all and smiling.)
  10. Never forget why you started down this path. If you’re like me, you followed the path of public service for a particular reason. I lost people to suicide thanks to the stigma of HIV. I will never forget the feeling of despair knowing my existence couldn’t mitigate the overwhelming societal fear. I will always be a staunch advocate for mental health in our community. But, taking this fear and anger can quickly skew your passion. Translate that anger into action. I let two of my friends leave this world too soon, and I’ll be damned if I let it happen again. Your vulnerability and experience can be your biggest asset in times of crisis. Don’t be afraid of it.

If you read this far, I just want you to know this job has been the absolute highlight of my life. Take care of each other and keep fighting for what you believe in.



“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.” – Gilda Radner

published on 3/28/2019 • written by James Miller

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