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Why Do Nonprofit Leaders Get in Their Own Way?

By Nell Edgington

men hurdlesCan we talk about crazy for a minute?

I’ve recently witnessed some behavior from nonprofit leaders that made my jaw drop:

  • A board chairman convinced the rest of his board to turn away a donor who wanted to give the nonprofit a significant amount of money to fund organizational capacity (strategic planning, coaching, fundraising training) because he felt the nonprofit already knew how to do the work internally for free.

  • An executive director who was really struggling with wrangling her board and developing a strong financial model bravely asked a close foundation donor for advice and support. When the foundation offered to fund some leadership coaching, the executive director rejected the offer for fear her board would think she didn’t know how to do her job.

  • A board charged their nonprofit’s Development Director with increasing revenue in a single year by 30%. When she asked for a donor database to help more effectively recruit new and renew current donors the board said “No” because they felt she should already be able to do that without the aid of new technology.

More often than not it is nonprofit donors who hold back efforts to build stronger, more sustainable nonprofits by not providing enough capacity capital. I talk about that all the time (like here, here and here).

But sometimes, and more shockingly, nonprofit staffs and boards stand in their own way.

It takes courage for a nonprofit leader to admit that she doesn’t know how to do something and needs help. I am reminded of a fascinating interview I heard on NPR earlier this fall with Leah Hager Cohen who recently wrote the book, In Praise of Admitting Ignorance. She describes the freedom that comes from admitting when you simply don’t know how to do something. That moment of honesty can lead to transformation, as she says, “I think those words can be so incredibly liberating…They can just make your shoulders drop with relief. Once you finally own up to what you don’t know, then you can begin to have honest interactions with the people around you.”

I would love to see nonprofit leaders take this advice to heart. Once you have the courage to admit (to your board, to your donors, to your staff) that you don’t know how to do everything, you just might finally get the help you so desperately need.

Nonprofit leaders have been given the Herculean task of: developing and managing effective programs, managing a diverse and underpaid staff, crafting a bold strategic direction, creating a sustainable financial model, wrangling a group of board members with often competing interests, and recruiting and appeasing a disparate donor base. All with little support along the way. It is easy to see why the position of nonprofit leader is such a lonely one.

So instead of continuing to bear that enormous burden, take a step back and admit that you simply don’t know how to do it all. You need help, guidance, advice, support, organization building. If you are lucky enough to have funders, board members or others outside the organization that want to help, admit (to yourself, to your board, to your donors) that you need that help. And don’t let anyone (including, and especially, yourself) stand in your way.

If you’d like to learn more about the leadership coaching I provide nonprofit boards and staff click here, and if you’d like to schedule a time to talk about how I might help move your organization forward, let me know.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

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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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4 Comments to Why Do Nonprofit Leaders Get in Their Own Way?

Jo Ann Harig
January 23, 2014

I find this article interesting and wish more non profit leaders would read it. I recently left an organization who was so focused on raising large donations that they over looked, ignored the little donor. They had the right tools but failed to use them. One example of this was a database that had 15k duplicates. They did not want to build their donor circle, but wanted a “hail Mary” to reached an unobtainable goal

Linda K. Strohl
January 24, 2014

We have developed a culture– for-profits as well as non-profits– in which admitting that one doesn’t know or made a mistake, is grounds for severe sanctions. This is holding us all back. I have admitted mistakes in my career, to the amazement of others and have sometimes taken it in the neck for that, but I am not perfect and won’t pretend to be! ( They were small mistakes and caught early, but still met with sanctioning)

Nell Edgington
January 24, 2014

Jo Ann and Linda, thanks so much for sharing your experiences. There is a lot of crazy in the sector. We have to be open and honest about our limitations (and those of the sector) in order to move the sector forward.

Charles McInnis
February 19, 2014

Nell, thanks for calling like you see it – Crazy!
I must agree. I have seen crazy in my career also. And I am wondering if our professional environmant is getting crazier, maybe this is really a larger social problem. But I am seeing odd ideas about fundraising pushed by ‘leadership’ and pretty much accepted without any pushback, logical or reasonable thinking about the direction of the effort or long term impact. It hurts the staff, the organization and oh, what about the donors, remember them, they are impacted quite differently. Donors don’t have to put up with it to pay the rent or put their kids through college, they can walk away from crazy.
thanks again

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