I came across a great article the other day, Rules for Brilliant Women, and as a female entrepreneur I found it really inspiring and affirming. But I realized nonprofit leaders need a similar list. Because just as women often sell themselves short, so too do nonprofit leaders. In fact, there are some interesting parallels between the place of women and the place of nonprofits in society, but that’s a post for another day.
So in the hopes of inspiring nonprofit leaders to claim their rightful place as true heralds of social change, here are 7 rules for brilliant nonprofit leaders:
- Find and Keep Your True North
As a nonprofit leader you probably receive advice all day, every day. From board members, to donors, to staff members, to colleagues, to bloggers and consultants (ha!), everyone has an opinion about how you should do your job. So close your eyes, take a deep breath, and find your true north. Don’t do what you think you “should” do, or what someone else tells you to do. Follow what you know deep down is the right path.
- Remember the Dream
The daily grind can wear a nonprofit leader to the bone. It is often an exhausting, thankless job. But you have to remember what got you here in the first place. And I bet that was some huge vision for how the world could be a very different place. Don’t lose sight of your overarching goal. And don’t lose heart that you may never get there. It’s the big honking dream that propels great leaders forward.
- Admit When You Don’t Know
Leaders don’t have to know it all. And in fact the best leaders are those who recognize their weaknesses and figure out how to address them. The first step is openly admitting when you don’t know (to your board, your donors, your staff). Only then will you find the freedom and power to scale that wall.
- Ask for What You Really Need
And once you freely admit what you lack, you must ask for it. Whether you need more staff, better technology, greater knowledge – demand it. Create a detailed list of what will make you more effective as a leader, put a price to those items, and then make the pitch to your board, to funders, to anyone who can help you get what you need.
- Don’t Wait for Permission
How many times do nonprofit leaders wait for their board chair, or a big donor, or a government official to allow them to do something? True leaders find permission internally and then show those around them why their path was the right one. I get that there are times when forging ahead without consent would be politically unwise, but those times are less often than many nonprofit leaders think. Don’t shut yourself and your staff down because you fear making someone else mad.
- Stop Being So Nice
The thing I love most about nonprofit leaders is that, for the most part, they are truly good, decent people. They are trying to make the world a better place, so by definition they are considerate of others. But sometimes you can take being nice too far. Being nice to the donor who leads your nonprofit the wrong way, or the staff member who can’t cut it may work for that individual relationship, but is detrimental to the larger organization and ultimately your mission.
- Hit Pause on Saving the World Once in Awhile
I don’t care how fast-paced and “always on” our world becomes, we always need time and space to breathe, reflect, regenerate. Because you are in the business of improving lives, as a nonprofit leader you are particularly prone to the martyr syndrome of equating taking a break with fewer lives saved. But you will actually be more productive if you regularly focus on things outside the realm of saving the world.
Oh nonprofit leaders, I love you so. You are brilliant, beautiful human beings doing truly amazing things. Own it.
Photo Credit: Shyamal
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