Seven Secrets to Great Nonprofit Leadership

1. The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers. RALPH NADER

In other words, let your leaders lead.

I worked as part of a five-person development team for a large organization for twelve looooong months.  During that time period three development directors came and went, not to mention program staff, membership staff, the CFO and more.

The problem?  A CEO with a brilliant knack for finding and hiring talent … coupled with an utter inability to let loose of the reins and let her people do their jobs.

2. You learn far more from negative leadership than from positive leadership. Because you learn how not to do it. And, therefore, you learn how to do it.

Learn from bad leadership (see above).  But don’t forget the lessons learned by observing a genuinely good leader either.

We’ve all heard the horrible board stories, yet how many “good board” stories have you heard?

I had the good fortune to work with one Executive Director who was nothing short of brilliant at putting together a remarkably cohesive board (and this for a tiny nonprofit agency with a yearly budget of $500,000) of remarkably diverse individuals.  Every member of that board brought their own unique gifts to the table, whether it was in terms of connections, education, creative thinking or – let’s be blunt here – plenty of money.

3. Leadership is an active role; ‘lead’ is a verb. But the leader who tries to do it all is headed for burnout, and in a powerful hurry. BILL OWENS

Learn how to delegate.   Given half a chance, people will rise to meet the level of your expectations of them.

4. Leadership is unlocking people’s potential to become better. BILL BRADLEY

Allocate for training.

One of my all time favorite employers mandated that every employee take a minimum of two enrichment courses per year.  Thanks to her leadership, staff was always up-to-date on the latest software and business techniques.

By the same token, in nearly every nonprofit position that I have held, I have paid out of pocket for books and training (for shame!).  Next to your donors, your employees are your greatest resource.

5. No man ever listened himself out of a job.  CALVIN COOLIDGE

Listening involves more than sitting down with your board members and staff.  Real leaders aren’t stuck in hierarchal notions.  Real leaders will occasionally take on receptionist duties or data entry to gain perspective and stock of the public’s perception of them.

6. If there is anything that a man can do well, I say let him do it. Give him a chance. ABRAHAM LINCOLN

Respect creativity and give it a chance.  It may work … then again, it may not.

I once proposed setting up an eBay account for a nonprofit organization I was working with.  Board members and donors donated items and I photographed, listed them, sold them and shipped them.  It netted over $8,000, but was, in the long run, a disappointing venture in terms of the time and effort involved.

7. You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.  ABRAHAM LINCOLN

Prepare for the future by acknowledging that, like fine wine,  donor-centric fundraising is your long-term solution – and it takes time.

6 Responses to “Seven Secrets to Great Nonprofit Leadership”

  1. I love the part about learning from “bad” leadership. When I was a Field Director I worked at a place where the Executive Director encouraged in-fighting and pitted the staff against itself. When I became an Executive Director it was my central goal that we all work as a team, have fun and get along. I learned from that bad leadership and determined I would lead differently.

  2. Thanks for these insights. I guess we all have our war stories.

    I was spoiled early in my career – my first boss in a development office was always encouraging me to learn and try new things. As a grad fresh out of college he had me giving presentations to senior staff in the hospital. As you mention in your points, he empowered his staff, encouraged them to learn, wouldn’t ask anyone to do anything he wouldn’t do himself, and generally lived by the principles you outline above!

  3. Xan Nelson says:

    Third sentence under #1 describes my boss to a “T”

  4. Pamela Grow says:

    How true Kirsten.

    I was spoiled by my first boss – but in an entirely different way. I was given utter free reign! The ED knew nothing about fundraising and was grateful for someone who did. Likewise, the board were not fundraisers and were pleased to do whatever I asked of them. No interference.

  5. Pamela Grow says:

    You knew that I was describing someone that I worked with, didn’t you?

    So sad. She hired truly brilliant, creative people … and then wouldn’t relinquish control of anything.

  6. I especially like the qoute from Abraham Lincoln with which you conclude your post. Whenever I am called in to assist an organization that is in financial trouble, it is quickly apparent that the problems reach well into the past. It is unusual for a truly healthy, well-run organization to decline overnight.