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Why Nonprofit Leaders Should Play Big

By Nell Edgington

One of the many books I read on my social media hiatus last Fall, was Tara Mohr’s Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create and Lead. Her argument is that there are countless women out there who could be contributing so much more to society but are holding themselves back for various reasons. I think the same could be said for nonprofit leaders, many of whom are women.

Mohr argues that as our country faces increasing challenges we need more women who have solutions to offer to step up and lead:

“The past was a world defined, designed and led by men. The future – we hope – will be a world defined, designed and led by women and men. The present is the transition. Those of us born into this time were born into a unique and remarkable historical moment, a moment of in between…When we understand our moment as one of a major transition that will take decades to enact, and when we see ourselves as forgers of that transition, things shift. We can focus on how we want to help move the transition forward, and we can feel less wounded and frustrated by the myriad ways the transition is not yet complete. We can also feel honored and grateful to be alive at this transition moment and to be stewards of it.”

I would argue that those in the nonprofit sector are also leaders of a critical transition. At this historic moment when it feels like so many daunting problems face us (growing wealth inequality, political divisiveness, crumbling institutions), we need nonprofit leaders — those who envision a better, more inclusive, more equitable society — to speak up, create and lead us to a better place.

So I read Mohr’s book, yes as a woman of course, but also as a social change leader, and I would encourage you to do the same. Nonprofit leaders have tremendous ideas for how to improve systems, change lives, strengthen communities — all things we so desperately need right now. But often those nonprofit leaders are held back — by dysfunctions in the system to be sure, but also by hurdles they place in their own way, like scarcity thinking.

Mohr’s book holds tremendous lessons for nonprofit leaders. Because just as our society tends to place less value on the work and voices of women, we also put less value on the nonprofit sector. Her lessons can easily apply to nonprofit leaders, like:

  • Ignore your inner critic that whispers you are failing or unworthy
  • Connect to your inner wisdom that knows the right way forward in challenging situations
  • Overcome crippling fear that holds you back
  • Unhook from praise and criticism which are so often heaped on nonprofit leaders by boards and funders
  • Stop hiding from having a bigger, bolder role and take some big leaps forward, and
  • Communicate with power by infusing your oral and written language with confidence

I would love to see nonprofit leaders, who have something incredibly valuable to contribute to society, start playing much bigger.  Indeed I believe these times require it.

Photo Credit: Jose Murillo

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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 Nonprofit Leaders Should Play Big

May 31, 2018

My experience has been “don’t rock the boat” in the nonprofit world, or you will get fired. As a female, entering the ED role in a nonprofit, all of the “think big”/“be bold” — where I thrived in the corporate & public sectors was shut down by a board of primarily white men. Nonprofit women/leaders may be ready, but their Boards lag way behind. Better advice would be “how to think big” and make your Board happy.

Nell Edgington
May 31, 2018

Thanks for your comments, Kelly. I’m sorry to hear you’ve had such a frustrating experience as a nonprofit ED. There are certainly systemic problems in the sector, which I talk about all the time, but I also believe that nonprofit leaders can approach those hurdles with a scarcity mindset or an abundance mindset. And I think by having an abundance mindset (seeing the opportunities, not just the challenges in any situation) as a nonprofit leader you can get so much further. So when faced with a board that doesn’t want to be big and bold, when you as the nonprofit leader truly believe that’s where you need to go, then revamp the board. Seek out new members who share your big vision and are willing to support you in achieving it.

Omar Ziadeh
June 2, 2018

It is certainly saddening that women in the workplace are still struggling in this era. It is a topic that society should have gotten over decades ago. No leader should have to try to satisfy the needs of a board unwilling to listen to someone simply because of their gender. Your advice is great, and I hope one day that there will not be people who will push against progress, especially if they hold important positions such as a board member, in the nonprofit industry.

Nell Edgington
June 4, 2018

I completely agree with you, Omar. Thanks for your comments!

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