- Chapter 1: It is Time to Reinvent the Nonprofit Leader
- Chapter 2: Unlock the Charity Shackles
- Chapter 3: Refuse to Play Nice
- Chapter 4: Embrace Strategy
- Chapter 5: Use Money as a Tool
- Chapter 6: Break Down the Walls
- Chapter 7: Demand Real Help
- Chapter 8: Remember the Dream
- Chapter 9: Get Started
Chapter 1: It is Time to Reinvent the Nonprofit Leader
The new millennium has been a difficult one. A crippled global economy, threatening climate change, crumbling education and healthcare systems, and a widening income gap comprise a few of the social problems we face.
And as our social challenges mount, the burden increasingly falls to the nonprofit sector to deal with the fall out.
But the leaders of our nonprofit sector are already so worn down by continuously being forced to do more and more with less and less. They have been given a seemingly endless list of tasks: develop and execute effective programs, manage a diverse and underpaid staff, chart a bold strategic direction, create a sustainable financial model, wrangle a group of board members with often competing interests, embrace rapidly changing technology, and recruit and appease a disparate funder base.
All with little support and few resources along the way. It can be an overwhelming place to be.
So it is time for a new kind of nonprofit leader, one who has the confidence, ability, foresight, energy, and strength of will to lead the nonprofit sector, and our communities, forward. Indeed it is up to the leaders of our great nonprofit sector, to face, rather than shrink from, these many challenges.
It is time we move from a nonprofit leader who is worn out, worn down, out of money and faced with insurmountable odds, to a reinvented nonprofit leader who confidently gathers and leads the army of people and resources necessary to create real social change.
So in the hopes of inspiring nonprofit leaders to claim their rightful place as true heralds of social change, I have written this book. It is based on my many years of coaching nonprofit leaders to success. This book lays out the elements that those nonprofit leaders learned in order to embrace their reinvented role.
The reinvented nonprofit leader:
- Unlocks the Charity Shackles and demands to be treated as an equal and critical part of the economy, the community, the solution.
- Refuses to Play Nice and gets real with funders, board members, partners, and staff who are standing in the way of progress.
- Embraces Strategy that moves beyond just “doing good work” and gets real results.
- Uses Money as a Tool because big plans will not come to fruition without a sustainable financial engine behind them.
- Breaks Down the Walls of the organization and lets the world in as fully engaged partners, advocates, and supporters.
- Demands Real Help and the tools necessary to achieve the mission because the best leaders recognize weakness and solicit help to address it.
- Remembers the Dream that got them here in the first place because often it is he big idea that propels great leaders forward.
It is a tall order, but true leadership is.
We no longer have the luxury of mediocre leaders. These times demand confident, capable, engaging leaders who are a beacon to a society whose mounting problems are overwhelming at best.
While it may seem like an impossible transition to become a new kind of nonprofit leader (one who is more entrepreneurial, innovative, confident and strategic) let us remember that nonprofit leaders have always been entrepreneurs. They have recognized some sort of disequilibrium in our society and have created, out of nothing, an organization, a solution and an assembly of staff and volunteers to fix it. In essence, I am simply encouraging you, the nonprofit leader, to claim your rightful place.
The reinvented nonprofit leader is confident, engaged, and savvy. She will, I have no doubt, lead this great nonprofit sector, and all of us who benefit from it, to new heights.
So how do you become a reinvented nonprofit leader? Let’s take these one by one.
Chapter 2: Unlock the Charity Shackles
The first, and most important, step is to break free from the corrosive “charity” moniker.
I hate the word “charity.” Do not get me wrong; I’m not big on semantics. But “charity” is more than a word, it is a destructive mindset that keeps the work of social change side- lined and impoverished. And nonprofit leaders must move away from the word and the concept.
“Charity” harkens back to the beginnings of philanthropy, which was largely the purview of women and as such was viewed as tangential to and less valuable than the more im- portant “business” of the male-dominated world.
We must shift from the “charity” of our predecessors to an understanding of social change, and the critical work of nonprofit organizations, as part of everything we do.
And here’s why:
Charity Lives Beside the Economy, Social Change is Baked into the Economy While charity was just an afterthought of the real work of the world, social change is rapidly becoming an integral part of the economy. The number of nonprofits grew 50
times faster than for-profits in the last 10 years and nonprofit revenues grew at double the rate of GDP growth in the same period.1And its not just the size and resources of nonprofits that contribute to an emerging social change economy, the Millennial generation actually thinks about social change as part of every aspect of, not separate from, their work and life. The work of social change is ubiquitous and integral to life as we know it.
Charity Addresses Symptoms, Social Change Addresses Systems
Charity is about remedying the immediate and direct symptoms of a larger problem. It is about feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked. But as very real structural challenges grow (like the widening income gap) we can no longer just stick a finger in the dike. We must come up with approaches that solve the underlying issues causing those problems.
Charity Requires Spare Pennies, Social Change Requires Significant Investment Charity existed on the largesse of the profiteers of the last centuries. Once they made their millions, they sloughed off a portion of the excess to the charities who cleaned up the messes they made. But you cannot do much with the dregs. Because social change is about changing larger systems, it takes real, significant investment of resources.
Charity Employs Volunteers, Social Change Employs Experts
Charity was always the purview of the wives who didn’t work. As volunteers they devoted their time to helping the needy. But as our social problems become increasingly complex and entrenched, we must employ experts – not volunteers – who through education, knowledge and experience know exactly how to approach the problem and how to solve it. And we must pay them what it takes to keep them working on those solutions.
Charity Apologizes, Social Change Demands
When you are voluntarily acting on behalf of a charity and asking others also to act voluntarily on behalf of the charity, you are often apologizing for the interruption to their “real work.” But social change is critical work, without it our problems continue to mount. So nonprofit leaders must demand the investment, mindshare, time and effort required. There is absolutely no space for apology.
Sometimes words and the baggage of the past really matter. When we stop thinking of the work of social change as “charity” we start demanding and creating real investment, real attention, and real change.
The key to the charity shackles that have been holding you back is in your hands.
As a reinvented nonprofit leader you must stand up and demand to be treated as an equal and critical part of your community, your funders’ and your board members’ mindsets, the economy, and the overall solutions we so desperately need.
Chapter 3: Refuse to Play Nice
As a by-product of the charity mindset, nonprofit leaders often suffer from being too 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 is not performing may work for the individual relationship, but is detrimental to the larger organization and ultimately your mission.
Indeed, according to a 2010 study by researchers at Stanford University, nonprofits are perceived as “warm, generous and caring organizations, but lacking the competence to produce high-quality goods or services and run financially sound businesses.”2
In other words, we think nonprofit leaders are nice — but not competent.
But this reality is often imposed on nonprofit leaders. Nonprofit leaders are encouraged to collaborate instead of compete, hold onto under-performing staff, accept martyr-like salaries, smile and nod when funders push them in tangential directions, and keep quiet when government programs require the same services at a lower price.
This demand that the nonprofit sector play “nice” is the result of (at least) three aspects to the sector:
- A Focus on the Social. The sector exists to address and (hopefully) solve social problems. Thus, by definition, it is socially oriented and has an inclusive, consensus-based approach to doing business.
- More Customers. Nonprofits have two customer groups, as opposed to the single customer for-profits have: 1) those who benefit from the services a nonprofit provides (clients) and 2) those who pay for those services (funders).
- Multiple Players. In addition to their customer groups, nonprofit leaders must corral their board of directors, which often includes individuals with competing interests, and external decision-makers (policy makers, advocates, leaders of collaborating organizations) who have an impact on the change the nonprofit seeks. The end result is that multiple players must somehow be brought together and led in a common direction.
But in order to work toward real solutions and get out from under consensus-based mediocrity, you need to break free from the niceness trap.
Rest assured, I am not asking you to get mean and ugly. But there is a way to politely, but assertively, make sure you get what you need to succeed.
In other words, the reinvented nonprofit leader needs to:
- Say “No” to funders who demand new programs or changes to programs that detract from your nonprofit’s theory of change and your core competencies.
- Diversify revenue streams so that you are not beholden to any one funder or funding stream.
- Demand that board members invest significant time and money in your nonprofit, or get out.
- Fire under-performing staff. This is such a taboo in the sector, but with limited resources and mounting social problems to be addressed, we do not have time to invest in people who cannot deliver.
- Be brutally honest with funders and board members about the true costs of running operations effectively and stop apologizing for, or hiding, administrative expenses.
- Create a bold strategic plan that will drive your nonprofit toward social impact and sustainability, not mediocrity.
- Make an honest assessment of your nonprofit’s core competencies, competitors and consumers so that you understand and can articulate where you fit in the marketplace — and act accordingly.
- Stop waiting for your board chair, or a big donor, or a government official to allow you to do something that you know is the right way forward.
Refusing to play nice is not easy. And it often culminates in a difficult conversation, per- haps with an underperforming staff member, an ineffective board member, or a time-con- suming funder.
In order to manage these difficult conversations for success, you need to approach them in a thoughtful and strategic way:
- Gather Evidence
Do your homework before you head into a challenging conversation. If it is with a time-consuming donor, calculate how many hours you and your staff have spent addressing his questions and requests. If the conversation is with an absentee board member, tally how many meetings he has missed or how delinquent he is on his fundraising responsibilities. Come armed with the data you need to make your case.
- Determine Your Goals
Before you enter the room, be very clear with yourself about what you are trying to accomplish with the conversation. If you want a board member to choose whether they will step up to the plate or resign, then make that your end goal. Then clearly articulate that in the course of the conversation. If you want a staff member to improve their performance, clearly spell out what an improved performance looks like and over what timeframe. In order to get what you want, you have to first articulate it to yourself, and then to the offender.
- Manage the Politics
One of the reason these conversations are so difficult is because there are often underlying politics at work. You do not want a disgruntled board member or donor to undermine the rest of your board or donor base. So manage those politics before and after a challenging conversation. If it is a difficult board member, make sure ahead of time that you have the support of the board chair and other key board members. Or, better yet, bring one or two of them with you to the discussion. If it is the board chair who is the problem, identify a couple of other board members who recognize the issue and bring them with you to the conversation. If it is a challenging donor you are addressing, convince your board ahead of time why you need to have this hard conversation and make sure you all are on the same page.
- Be Transparent
Do not sugar coat it. Say what you need to say in this conversation. Be as open and transparent about what led you here and what you need from them.
Describe in detail how their behavior is affecting the larger mission and the common goals you both are working toward. Lay out the options before you and confidently tell them what you need.
- Lead the Conversation
Do not apologize, rather stand up and confidently lead where you need the conversation to go. Make sure you leave the room having addressed your ultimate goals and with a set of next steps in place. Then follow up to ensure those next steps are realized.
Enough with the nice
If you really want to get things done, you have to take a stand, be honest, and sometimes lead really hard conversations. But those conversations, and an assertive stand, are much easier to swallow when you realize they are sometimes the only way to lead real change.
Chapter 4: Embrace Strategy
When a nonprofit leader buys into the charity mindset and is too nice, their organization will lack adequate resources. The nonprofit leader often becomes protective of what she has and wary of any actions which might threaten those resources. She becomes exceedingly risk averse and fearful, focusing on keeping the doors open rather than investing time, energy and resources in long-term strategy.
This reactive approach creates a vicious cycle where the nonprofit contributes less and less value and social change to the community. Real social change requires smart strategy, which includes:
- An articulation of what the nonprofit exists to do (a theory of change)
- A disciplined strategy for creating that change, and
- A way to measure whether the change is actually happening
And to get there, the reinvented nonprofit leader realizes she must move from a reactive to a strategic approach, like this:
- When a financial crisis hits the organization, the reactive approach is to focus on keeping the doors open and staying afloat. But a strategic approach focuses on what caused the crisis and how to fix the underlying problem, model or system so that they never return again.
- When a funder wants to award a significant sum to an organization for new programs that detract from, rather than bolster, the organization’s theory of change, a reactive approach focuses on the increase in revenue, but a strategic approach recognizes the misalignment and turns the money down.
- A reactive approach allows program staff to continue with a status quo method of program delivery, but a strategic approach constantly asks hard questions, tracks results, pushes outcomes, restructures inefficient processes, gets underneath the surface to make programs better, stronger, more effective, more sustainable.
- A reactive leader arrives at board meetings with reports, charts and status updates, gets a rubber stamp on day-to-day activities, and breathes a sigh of relief that the board did not ask too many questions. But a strategic leader analyzes the unique contributions each individual board member and the board as a whole can make and leverages those contributions effectively, engages the board in meaningful discussions about where the organization is going and trends in the external marketplace, and focuses board work on big picture issues and opportunities, creating key external networks, and building a strong financial future.
- A reactive leader helps the board recruit new members that fit narrow definitions of experience, gender, ethnicity, and size of pocketbook. A strategic leader compares the long-term goals of the nonprofit to the competencies, networks, experience and resources required of the board and creates an intentional board recruitment strategy to find the right people.
- A reactive leader crosses things off his daily to do list and feels satisfied because the trains ran on time, crises were avoided, and everyone received a paycheck. A strategic leader is rarely satisfied and constantly works to build key alliances with external partners, learns new skills, pushes his staff harder, evaluates his work, continually refines the model and responds effectively to a constantly changing environment all in the name of greater impact.
- A reactive leader allows the natural uncertainty of running a nonprofit to cause fear and inaction. A strategic leader takes an entrepreneurial approach by recognizing the opportunity for innovation that uncertainty offers and continually molds the nonprofit’s solution to meet the external market of community need and funder interest.
- A reactive leader follows the individual suggestions and tangents of individual board members or funder interests. A strategic leader leads the disparate individuals that make up the organization toward a common and larger end goal.
- A reactive leader lets their personal baggage get in the way of smart decision-making. A strategic leader thoughtfully analyzes all options, gathers necessary data and makes reasoned decisions.
The reinvented nonprofit leader continually asks some very key strategic questions of the board and staff of his nonprofit:
What is our end goal?
You must understand internally and be able to articulate externally exactly what your nonprofit is ultimately trying to accomplish. Who are you hoping to help? How will your intervention change lives? And how will those changes to individual lives contribute to larger social change? This is all part of your theory of change, or the value proposition of your nonprofit organization. It is the fundamental building block for determining your future strategy, for convincing funders to support you, and for measuring whether you are achieving anything.
What are our core competencies?
In order to develop the right strategy for achieving your end goal you need to understand what your nonprofit is best at so that you play to your strengths. If you excel at running a pre-K reading program, a strategy that includes a new math program might not be a good fit. Included in this question is the follow up: Are we doing things that someone else does better? If so, let them. Focus on what you do best.
What is our strategy for getting to our end goal?
There are many ways to get from point A (where you are now) to point B (your end goal). The trick is figuring out what the right strategy is given your core competencies and the external environment in which you work. Because you cannot get to point B by doing something you are not good at, or something someone else does better, or something that will not solve the problem. So you need to figure out the right way forward.
What is the most sustainable model to get there?
This is a piece that is sorely lacking in much of the nonprofit sector. Once you have figured out what you want to accomplish, you must figure out how you can structure your resources (money, staff, volunteers, board, advocates, assets) in a way that puts them to their highest and best use and actually ends up accomplishing your end goal.
What people and networks do we need with us?
To accomplish anything you need momentum. So you must be strategic about determining what people, organizations, and networks you need in order to execute effectively. You need to assemble the right board, advisors, partners, alliances, advocates, decision makers, and supporters. In order to reach your end goal, you must marshal a whole army of people and organizations with specific, key assets. But you will not build that army without first figuring out what it should look like.
These are not easy questions, and finding the right answers is even harder. Often it is challenging enough to get a diverse group of people (board, staff, funders) to agree on a common end goal, let alone to agree on all the steps and structures necessary to get there.
But that is true leadership.
The reinvented leader does not separate big picture strategy from the day-to-day work of the nonprofit sector. Every effort, every resource, every staff member is engaged in the larger strategy. And it becomes part of the everyday culture of the organization, not just the purview of the few at the top, or an exercise conducted a few times per year.
Because the reinvented nonprofit leader understands that real social change is only a pipe dream if it is not connected to smart strategy.
Chapter 5: Use Money as a Tool
In the nonprofit sector a huge, and often ignored, part of strategy is money. But the reinvented nonprofit leader recognizes that money is an incredibly useful tool for achieving their nonprofit’s ultimate end goal.
Instead of viewing the money that flows to her nonprofit as a side note, or worse, a completely uncontrollable force, the reinvented nonprofit leader views money as a necessary and fully integrated function that is just as important as her nonprofit’s programmatic function.
In order to use money as a tool you must:
Add Money to Every Conversation
When your board is discussing launching a new program, make sure
someone asks the question “What are the financial implications of this decision?” And when you develop a strategic plan, spend as much time on financial goals as you do on program goals. Money should never be far from your thoughts because there is no mission without money.
Create a Financing Plan
You cannot just hope that the right amount and kind of money will magically appear at your doorstep. Instead, you must develop a financing strategy that answers the question “How will we raise the money we need to achieve our goals?” A strong financial plan describes how much money you need, over what time frame, and what activities are required to make it appear. A comprehensive financing plan creates long-term sustainability for your organization, which means you are more likely to achieve your end goal.
Make Every Board Member Contribute Financially
You will not have every board member thinking about money if they do not each have a role in the financial engine of the organization. I am a firm believer in a mandatory give/ get requirement for every board member. But let me be clear, I am not suggesting that every board member write a big check, or even have friends who can write big checks. Rather, there are countless ways for board members to contribute to the financial bottom line of their nonprofit, from explaining to prospective donors why they serve, to analyzing a business plan for an earned income venture, to negotiating with a vendor for a lower price. Make sure that every single board member contributes to your financial engine.
Ask For Investments, Not Donations
If you are begging for money you aren’t using money as a tool. Money is what makes your theory of change a reality. So instead of putting out the tin cup, create a message of impact that describes how your nonprofit transforms community resources into better lives and stronger communities. Your organization is about solving problems. Articulate that and find partners who want to invest in that social change work.
Raise Capital, Not Just Revenue
A critical, but rarely employed, use of money is to build a stronger nonprofit organization. Nonprofits can no longer scrape by with inadequate technology, staff, materials, and systems. Nonprofit leaders must create strong, sustainable organizations around their missions. Instead of piecing your infrastructure together day after day, launch a capacity capital campaign to raise the money you really need.
Money does not have to be a feared, sidelined element in the nonprofit sector. It can be an incredibly powerful tool for creating social change. Indeed, the only way for a nonprofit leader to really succeed is to embrace all that money has to offer.
Once you recognize how useful money can be to your mission, step back and assess how well your money function operates by analyzing the following seven key areas of your nonprofit:
Does your nonprofit have a long-term strategy that integrates money, programs and operations? Does your strategy help articulate the value your nonprofit provides the community in order to compel outsiders to invest? Does your strategy include measures for whether that value is actually being created?
Mission and Vision
Does your nonprofit have clear, compelling vision and mission statements? The two statements are not “nice to have” marketing language, rather they articulate the very essence of why your nonprofit exists. Does your vision paint a bold description of the social change you seek? Does your mission describe the day-to-day work towards that vision?
Board and Staff Leadership
Does your board have the skills, experience and networks necessary to execute on your strategic plan? Are they engaged and invested? Are they actively connecting the organization to people, resources, and partnerships? Does your staff have the knowledge and experience necessary to make money flow? And are they structured and managed effectively?
Program Delivery and Impact
Without a compelling and effective delivery of services to clients, funders will not fund those services. Is your nonprofit strategic about which programs to grow and which to cut? Do you measure the effect of your programs on clients? Are your programs financially viable, or are too many of your programs mission-rich, but cash-poor?
Marketing and Communications
Do you make a compelling case for your work and why people should support it? Once you’ve made the case, are you using the right marketing channels (website, social media, events, email) to attract and engage your target funders, volunteers, advocates, board members and other supporters?
In order to move the mission forward and attract funders, volunteers, and advocates, you must be strategic about building alliances that make sense. Do you have the necessary external relationships to execute on your strategy? Are you constantly working to strengthen or grow the right partnerships in the right ways?
And only now do we look specifically at money. Because without all of the previous elements in place (thoughtful strategy, compelling vision and mission, strong leadership) money will not flow. Does your funding mix fit well with your mission and core competencies? Are there other revenue streams that make sense to pursue? Are there fundraising activities that are actually costly rather than profitable?
When money is not working the way she wants it to, the reinvented nonprofit leader does not stick her head in the sand. She takes a hard look at how well money integrates with the rest of her organization and leads board and staff to embrace money as an effective tool for achieving social change.
Chapter 6: Break Down the Walls
The world as we know it is changing rapidly. The reinvented nonprofit leader understands that a nonprofit can no longer exist in a vacuum. He willingly opens his organization to let the world in as fully engaged partners in the work.
And he does this in two ways:
- By constantly analyzing the external marketplace is which his nonprofit operates, and
- By opening the organization to outside partners, advocates, collaborators, allies, and supporters who can contribute to the change his nonprofit seeks.
Analyzing the External Marketplace
In order to ensure that your nonprofit continues to create community value, and ultimately social change, you must constantly monitor the external marketplace of changing client needs, demographic and economic trends, competitors and partners, and funder interests.
Until recently, market research, or understanding the marketplace in which a nonprofit operates, had no place in the nonprofit sector. Once the sole purview of entrepreneurs and corporate brands, market research is quickly (and rightly) becoming a skill set that nonprofits embrace.
Because in an increasingly competitive landscape, if you do not understand the needs of your clients, who else is addressing those needs, what your funders want, who else they are funding, and where policy makers and decision makers are moving, you are sunk. But for many nonprofit leaders market research seems nebulous, inaccessible and expensive. It does not have to be.
Here’s how you can start to wrap your head around market research.
The first step is, with board and staff, to map the marketplace in which your nonprofit operates. A nonprofit is best positioned where its core competencies intersect with a social problem, apart from where its competitors or collaborators are strongest.
Which looks like this:
The idea is that if a nonprofit leader can figure out what part of the solution to a social problem her organization offers and how that relates to the piece her competitors or collaborators have to offer, then her nonprofit can (for a start):
- Better articulate to funders what the nonprofit is uniquely positioned to accomplish
- Forge partnerships with organizations who supplement the weaknesses of her nonprofit
- Stop wasting resources on “doing it all” and focus on the 1-2 things her nonprofit does exceptionally well
- Reduce competition for funding
- Chart a sustainable future direction
But it is not enough to simply ask board and staff where they think your nonprofit fits in this map.
Once your board and staff have taken a stab at it, you need to go into the marketplace to determine if your assessment holds true. This is where market research comes in. You need to understand current and future trends in your competitors and collaborators and the social problem you are trying to address.
So you need to find the answers to questions like:
- Is the social problem you are working to address growing or changing? In what ways? Why? What does the future hold?
- How else is this social problem being addressed?
- What is the future strategy of your competitors and collaborators?
- What are the core competencies of your competitors and collaborators?
- How do key decision makers (policy makers, funders) feel about your competitors/collaborators? What do they think your role in addressing the social problem is?
Opening Your Nonprofit to Outsiders
Once you break down the walls and better understand the marketplace in which you operate you want to develop a new approach to leadership that brings more people together to drive your strategy forward.
The nonprofit of the 21st century should not be led by a single individual. Rather it must be led by a diverse and distributed army of people both inside and outside the organization.
In order to have truly sustainable and effective leadership a nonprofit must integrate four key elements into the leadership of the organization:
- An Empowered Executive Director
- Emboldened Staff (beyond the nonprofit leader)
- Invested External Stakeholders (funders, regulators, advocates, policy makers, collaborators)
- Elevated Board of Directors
These four groups should each have a role to play in the strategy of the organization, like this:
If you develop an integrated leadership model like this, the organization is not overly reliant on any single element to keep it going. And, more importantly, an integrated leadership model like this guards against a nonprofit becoming insular and thus irrelevant and ineffective.
In order to determine whether your nonprofit has an integrated leadership model, start by asking yourself these questions:
- Does your staff feel comfortable speaking their mind at staff and board meetings?
- If your executive director left tomorrow would your nonprofit survive?
- Does your board get excited and engaged at most board meetings?
- Do they have and express diverse viewpoints?
- Do they drive the strategic direction of your organization?
- Do funders, board members and external stakeholders have working relationships with staff members beyond just the executive director?
- Do you have a robust and always growing list of external individuals and organizations (policymakers, decision-makers, advocates, supporters) that are aligned with your work and help move it forward?
If your nonprofit is not truly open to outsiders you are less likely to achieve your end goal. So you must take a big step back and:
- Create a groundbreaking board that focuses on strategy, not the day-to-day, and structures itself for engagement.
- Have staff members actively participate in board meetings and encourage them to develop strong relationships with board members and external stakeholders.
- Make external stakeholders a key part of your organization by including them in committees, meeting with them regularly, and constantly soliciting their insights and support in moving the work forward.
- Employ social media to identify and empower targeted individuals outside the organization to move your mission and work forward.
Momentum comes from building a committed army of supporters with diversity of experience and networks. Break your nonprofit free from its insular world and think carefully about whom else you need at the table working for the change you seek. Think big and think broad. Move beyond your traditional networks and find the right allies.
Your nonprofit and mission will not get far if you stay inside the same four walls. To achieve results in a rapidly changing, increasingly competitive world you have to identify and engage a diverse, invested army of supporters committed to contributing to the change you seek.
Chapter 7: Demand Real Help
If you are going to break down the walls, use money as a tool, and embrace strategy, you will probably need some help.
But admitting you do not know it all is often an incredibly difficult first step. And the normal operating procedure in the nonprofit sector is for nonprofit leaders NOT to admit when they need help. Let me give you some recent examples I have seen of nonprofit leaders not demanding the help they so desperately need:
- 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. Although the executive director was desperate for the organizational capacity help, she did not argue with the board.
- 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 did not 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. Neither the executive director nor the development director pleaded their case.
It takes courage for a nonprofit leader to admit that she does not know how to do something and needs help. But there is a freedom that comes from admitting when you simply do not know. That moment of honesty can lead to transformation.
The reinvented nonprofit leader does not have to know it all. In fact the best leaders recognize and actively work to address their weaknesses. The first, and often most difficult, step is openly admitting (to your board, your donors, your staff) what those weaknesses are.
And the good news is that you are not alone. 73% of nonprofit leaders in a recent Center for Effective Philanthropy study said they lack resources to build their leadership skills.3
And a recent Meyer Foundation Executive Director Listening Project found that nonprofit leaders’ biggest challenges are fundraising, human capital management and board of directors management — all leadership challenges.4
So instead of continuing to bear that enormous burden, take a step back and admit that you simply do not know how to do it all. You need help, guidance, advice, support, organization building.
In the for-profit world, leadership development is often taken as a given. It is understood that good leaders need help and counsel along the way. They are always learning how to be better. But in the nonprofit world, leadership development is seen as a luxury.
The only way that will change is if the reinvented nonprofit leader demands help to develop as an even stronger leader.
Leadership coaching is quite prevalent in the business world, and it could have a transformative effect on the nonprofit sector. When a struggling nonprofit leader has a strategic partner who helps her think through staffing, fundraising, board management and strategic decisions, instead of having to figure it out all on her own, it is transformative.
Leadership coaching is one-on-one strategic counsel from someone with deep management, financial, and strategy expertise. With a coach, a nonprofit leader can find solutions to issues like how to:
- Create the most effective staffing structure for growth
- Recruit and engage an effective board
- Diversify and grow funding streams aligned with the nonprofit’s specific mission and operations
- Analyze strategic opportunities for the organization
- Develop effective collaborations that build on the organization’s assets
The return on investment of leadership coaching can be really exciting, for example:
Increased Board Fundraising
Fundraising is such a tricky business. Often nonprofit boards are fairly ineffective at it, largely because they and their nonprofit leader do not know how to focus the board’s efforts. Through leadership coaching, both with the executive director and board
Clearer Strategic Thinking
Nonprofits are constantly bombarded with new opportunities, new partnerships, new funding ideas. A coach can help a nonprofit leader think through how a new opportunity might fit with the overall organization strategy, ask hard questions and analyze the costs and benefits. In this coaching role, I encourage nonprofit leaders to take a step back and examine all of the implications of a decision, how it might draw resources away, what impact it will have on the larger work, how it moves the organization closer to or farther away from strategic alignment, and so on. Coaching can move nonprofits away from groupthink and towards smarter, more strategic decisions.
More Productive Staff
Management of staff is one of the hardest jobs of being a leader in any setting, but it is particularly tricky in the nonprofit sector, due to tighter resources and the “niceness” of the sector, which we explored in Chapter 3. In coaching around staff challenges, I help a nonprofit leader create an effective staffing structure for the organization, analyze and resolve staff conflicts, and make sure all staff are playing to their strengths.
Once you freely admit what you lack, you must ask for it. Whether you need more staff, better technology, leadership coaching – demand it.
And here’s how:
- List Your Needs
Create a detailed list of what will make you more effective as a leader.
This could be training in fundraising, or leadership coaching, or more staff to support the work, or fundraising training for the board. Clearly delineate what is holding your nonprofit back and what it would take to solve those issues.
- Add a Price Tag
Do the research to determine how much board fundraising training costs or how much salary and benefits for a new Development Director would be, or how much new computers cost. Put a researched price tag on the various elements of what your nonprofit lacks.
- Make the Pitch to Your Board and Close Funders
Then connect the dots between the elements you need (more staff, more training, coaching, technology), and how they will contribute to your nonprofit being able to provide more services and outcomes. It may be obvious to you that if you have a Development Director who increases your revenue by 50% you will have much more money for programs, but board members and funders may not immediately connect those dots. Clearly paint the picture for them and make a confident, compelling case for investment in the help you desperately need.
Once you have the courage to admit that you lack the tools you need, you just might finally get the help you as social change leader so desperately need.
Chapter 8: Remember the Dream
Nonprofit leaders are inherently optimistic, passionate, driven people who have never been content to sit idly by and watch problems go unsolved. They are the visionaries who believe, who have always believed, that change is possible. And they couple that passionate vision for change with the courage, tenacity, and optimism necessary to bring it to fruition.
Because if you are a leader working towards fundamental change to a social problem you must be inherently optimistic. The beliefs that a better world is possible and that you can do something to make it happen are, by definition, optimistic ones.
But every social change leader has moments of deep despair when confronted with a growing and seemingly insurmountable list of problems. Social change is incredibly hard, draining work. There are days when it hardly seems worth it.
However, it is unthinkable for social change leaders to remain in the grips of despair. It is up to those leaders who have envisioned a world without poverty, or homelessness, or uninsured children, or crumbling schools to face the challenges head on, dust themselves off, and find their way again. Because we are relying on you — in fact, our very future is riding on you
The reinvented nonprofit leader recognizes that facing the wall of despair is a predictable part of social change work, but there are things that she can do to scale that wall.
So the next time it all just seems too much, remember to:
Find and Keep Your True North
As a nonprofit leader you probably receive advice all day, every day. From board mem- bers, to donors, to staff members, to colleagues, everyone has an opinion about how you should do your job. So close your eyes, take a deep breath, and find your true north. Do not 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.
Get Brutally Honest
If you are continually hitting a wall perhaps you don’t have the right intervention, or the right supporters, or the right board, or the right staff. If you truly want to achieve the dream, every once in awhile you may need to assess, very objectively, whether you are marshaling resources in the best way. Ask yourself some hard questions and give some brutally honest answers.
When you hit a wall, read the words or experiences of other social change leaders (like Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Emmeline Pankhurst). Or get out of your office and wit- ness the change that is happening every day in your own nonprofit’s program. Ask your staff and board members what they love about the work and why they are passionate about it. Ask donors why they think the work is so important. There is passion all around you, tap back into it.
Share War Stories
As a nonprofit leader you often have to put on a brave face to your funders, staff, board members. So you must have people outside your work with whom you can be real. Find neighbors, family members, or fellow leaders to whom you can honestly express your fears, your doubts, your exhaustion. The simple act of pulling back the curtain can get you back on track.
Become A Better Cheerleader
This is not a one person show, rather you need to view yourself as the cheerleader of a vast army of people who are making social change happen. So if you are burning out, perhaps you are doing too much of the work and not enough of the cheerleading. Figure out a way to delegate more of the day-to-day so that you can get back to more of the visionary, inspiring, cheerleading that is critical to the dream.
One thing I absolutely love about social change leaders is their undying commitment to the cause. There is a deep calling for the work they do. But that can also have a dark side. You can become so passionate that taking a day off equates to letting down the cause. You may picture yourself as Superman and deny your very human need for rest and regeneration. Do not fall into that trap. Allow yourself the space you need.
You are engaged in a marathon, not a sprint, and you cannot burnout after the first five miles. Long-term change takes time. Pace yourself. And most importantly, remember why you are here in the first place.
Because at the end of the day, we are all looking to you, our fearless, reinvented nonprofit leader, to lead us to a better day, a stronger economy, healthier cities, a better future for our children.
Lead us there.
Oh nonprofit leaders, I love you so. You are brilliant, beautiful human beings doing truly amazing things.
We desperately need the solutions you are offering. Indeed, our very future depends on those solutions.
But we will not get there if you do not lead us. And I mean truly lead us.
So stop burying yourself in a tired, old definition of what a nonprofit leader looks like. Unlock the charity shackles, refuse to play nice, embrace strategy, use money as a tool, break down the walls, demand real help, and remember the dream.
Leadership is really hard work, but lead you must. So own it. And get to work.
Here are some ways you can get started becoming a Reinvented Nonprofit Leader:
- If you need help making the case for leadership development support to your funders, check out the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund’s Knowledge and Learning web page here.
- For articles, assessments and tips on leadership check out the National Council of Nonprofits’ Leadership web site here and The Bridgespan Group’s Leadership Effectiveness site here.
- Learn more about the Leadership Coaching I offer nonprofit leaders, or email firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a free consultation with me.
- Read case studies of other nonprofit leaders who benefitted from leadership development coaching on the Clients page of our website.
- Check out the library of other Social Velocity books, guides, webinars and tool bundles at the Tools page of our website.
This book was designed to help you think about transforming your nonprofit. If you want a customized approach, or need help engaging more board, staff and donors in the change process, call (512) 694-7235 or email email@example.com to schedule a free consultation with Nell Edgington.
Social Velocity is a management consulting firm that helps nonprofits become more strategic, sustainable, and above all, more effective at creating social change.
- The Nonprofit Almanac 2012, by Katie L. Roeger, Amy S. Blackwood, and Sarah L. Pettijohn. The Urban Institute.
- “Non-Profits Are Seen as Warm and For-Profits as Competent: Firm Stereotypes Matter.” Jennifer Aaker, Kathleen D. Vohs, and Cassie Mogilner. Stanford Graduate School of Business, 2010.
- “Nonprofit Challenges: What Foundations Can Do.” Center for Effective Philanthropy, September 2013.
- “Executive Director Listening Project.” Meyer Foundation. 2013.