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A New Kind of Nonprofit Leader

By Nell Edgington

In his New York Times column this week Bob Herbert strongly criticized America and its leaders for not stepping up to the plate to guide us through these very troubling times.  As he put it:

As a nation, we are becoming more and more accustomed to a sense of helplessness. We no longer rise to the great challenges before us. It’s not just that we can’t plug the oil leak, which is the perfect metaphor for what we’ve become. We can’t seem to do much of anything.

Although his column is perhaps a bit too bleak, he does make the point that we have forgotten how to lead ourselves out of a mess, and the messes are getting larger and larger.

The messes of the American system are often cleaned up by the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits are usually borne out of some disequilibrium that the market creates (poverty, homelessness, poor education, lack of healthcare).

However, lately the messes have been too much for even the nonprofit sector to bear. And at the same time a deep recession, government’s increasing off-loading of social services to the sector, donors growing desire for measurement, and a more wired world are all combining to demand dramatic changes to how nonprofits operate. As a result, nonprofit leaders need to adapt.

The day has come for a new kind of nonprofit leader, one who has the confidence, ability, foresight, energy, and strength of will to really lead. This new nonprofit leader:

  • Embraces the idea of a networked nonprofit and is willing and able to break down the walls of control and risk aversion and let the world in as fully engaged partners in the work they are doing.
  • Works toward completely integrating money into the impact they are trying to create, understanding that big plans for impact are not enough, you also must finance them.
  • Realizes that it is no longer enough to just “do good work.” They must find a way to measure, in some form, the work that they are doing and be able to demonstrate results to the external market.
  • Looks to the social entrepreneurship movement for inspiration and new ideas for accelerating social impact.
  • Recognizes the importance of strong infrastructure and works to recruit and keep top talent and create effective technology and systems by fundraising for those real operating costs every year.
  • Refuses to play nice with funders who want to undermine the mission and impact of the organization, competitors who are providing an inferior service, and board members who won’t contribute.
  • Maintains an external view on how their organization can continue to add value in the outside marketplace of community problems.
  • Constantly forces themselves, and their high-performing team of board, staff, funders and volunteers to ask hard questions, make bold goals, push themselves harder, and deliver more and more impact.

It’s a tall order, but true leadership always is. We no longer have the luxury of so-so leaders. These times demand confident, capable, engaging leaders who are a beacon to a society whose mounting problems are overwhelming at best.

Photo Credit: 3n

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (, a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.

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8 Comments to A New Kind of Nonprofit Leader

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Tim Glynn Burke
June 30, 2010

Dear Nell,
I enjoy reading your posts. We explore another characteristic of entrepreneurial leaders–albeit related to networked nonprofits, social entrepreneurship, maintaining an external view, and asking hard questions as you include in your list–in our new book The Power of Social Innovation ( Effective and entrepreneurial leaders view social innovation as catalyzing change across the broader social problem solving system in which they’re operating. Because the challenge of disrupting entrenched systems is political by nature, we suggest that leadership also requires political savvy, the courage to face inevitable opposition, and an ability to mobilize the public in support of change.

This leadership is required not only of the entrepreneur but also of the policy makers, funders and other providers involved.


PS Bob Herbert has also written more optimistic columns on effective social innovations like CeaseFire (Upending Twisted Norms, May 10, 2010)

Nell Edgington
June 30, 2010

Thanks Tim, you raise some great additional characteristics of the new leader for social change. I recently got a copy of your book and look forward to reading it very soon.

Dana Hagenbuch
July 9, 2010

Nell, the qualities of the new nonprofit leader you’ve pointed out reflect the core competencies of what we’re seeing in social entrepreneurs. In helping to fill positions at many of the nation’s most socially innovative organizations, Commongood Careers has seen a profile of leadership that is highly strategic, networked, data-driven and focused on demonstrating an organization’s value in capital and social markets. The new nonprofit leader is here now in organizations like College Summit, Donors Choose, Kiva, BUILD and more. Funders like New Profit Inc. and Blue Ridge Foundation recognize and develop the qualities of these leaders and, as a result, we’re seeing organizations that are taking innovative approaches to solving some of today’s most pressing social problems.

Nell Edgington
July 9, 2010

I agree that the new nonprofit leader exists in those organizations and other darlings of the social entrepreneurship movement, like Teach for America, etc. However, I think the challenge is to encourage smaller, less well-known nonprofits to adopt these characteristics in order to move the entire nonprofit sector into a more innovative, effective space.

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