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NONPROFIT LEADERSHIP: A DIFFERENT THING ALTOGETHER

So far I have focused on leadership in the corporate setting in this blog. But today I’m going to address some leadership issues in the nonprofit space.

I actually have a separate venture with some partners with the sole purpose of elevating leadership development for nonprofits. Check out the whole story and services at saroga.org. Since I spend a great deal of my time with these organizations I just want to make a few points here.

If you happen to be a nonprofit leader and find decent advice (enough the stuff found here!) as useful but not exactly hitting the mark you are not alone. What my partner, Gavin Fenn-Smith, and I discovered was that the tools and models that we use everyday in the corporate world really don’t translate so well to this very different context. Long story short, we founded Saroga and began building models and tools that DO work. You can learn all about it on our website so I won’t repeat myself here.

But let me just provide a few insights here.

Passion is not enough.
People are drawn to work at nonprofits because they have a deep passion for a particular cause. Why else would they endure the low pay, idiosyncratic operating norms, limited career paths and continuous fundraising? I just read an article in yesterday’s Sunday NYTimes about graduates who are opting for 35K jobs that make a difference versus 100K starting salaries in consulting. It is about a set of strong core values and missions that are deeply felt.

This is all fantastic and certainly the price of admission. But when it comes to running an effective organization that is able to achieve these lofty goals, passion is never enough. In fact, passion can sometimes get in the way. There is much more heart and soul in these nonprofits and these can influence policies and standards in ways that can become counterproductive. I’ve seen many places that don’t hold staff accountable for outcomes or provide pointed feedback or draw boundaries around practices. This is all in the name of trusting that people will do the right thing or demonstrating compassion for someone’s circumstances or simply not wanting to create a place that feels “too corporate”.

Bottom line: you can create a productive environment that has practices, tools, policies and management that also reflects your values. These are not mutually exclusive sets. So learning how to manage and lead is at least as important as passion.

Nonprofit leadership roles are extremely fluid and demanding. I have yet to meet a corporate executive who would gladly embrace the full range of activities that define the role of Executive Director. These are lean, flexible and collaborative organizations that require leaders to cover everything from administrative tasks to daily operations to fancy fundraising galas. It is a roll-up-your-sleeves- doing environment where delegation would be great if only there were people to turn to.

There is a looming gap in the number of nonprofit leaders that are needed and the number of people who are ready to take over these roles. But let’s face it: how many of you would find these leadership roles appealing? How many of you want to give over your life to an enterprise that may or may not achieve the impact (not to mention the financial stability) that you wake up each morning hoping for? You’ve got to be committed and have boundless energy and be willing to do that for much less than you would be worth in the greater job market.

Make talent development a priority. It is because of these first two points that I strongly believe the way to harness the value of the passion and navigate these expansive roles is to make a serious investment in leadership development. You can’t keep having nonprofits flounder and leaders burn out. Unfortunately, right now there is limited support for leaders. Some of this has to do with funding requirements (strict parameters around money designated as “overhead”) and some of it has to do with the outlook in these organizations. Saroga is called upon at certain predictable moments: a new leader is coming on board to fix stuff, staff is demanding some career development or boards and donors are asking for greater accountability around outcomes. In other words, it is not baked it. It is a reaction to pressure.

If I could change one thing in nonprofits it would be to build in a mindset/value that emphasizes “we can only achieve our mission if we invest in our leaders and staff”. I wish there was a fundamental understanding that the time and expense of creating outstanding and productive leaders is essential. Nonprofits are tackling big issues with multiple partners. You simply can’t get there without great leaders and staff.

So for all you leaders in the nonprofit space, think about what you need to learn. Think about how your organizations need to be managed. Think about saving some of that passion for yourself.

 

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