3 Key Practices for Evolving Nonprofit Management
Creativity and organization were always my strong suits, both of which have served me well in my career. In my role as CEO of global cleft repair charity Smile Train, my atypical leadership style and willingness to think outside the box have led to some of my most successful management decisions.
Since I joined as CEO almost three years ago, Smile Train has revamped its brand, expanded staff significantly, taken steps to make key regions self-sustainable and reached the incredible milestone of transforming 1 million lives through cleft repair surgery. Along the way, there have been three key common underlying practices to our evolving management system: hiring hard workers, breaking down barriers and operating like a business.
- Hire hard workers
When recruiting talent, it’s crucial to look beyond the traditional definition of a strong hire and evaluate the rarely-discussed aspects of a person’s background. In my experience, a candidate’s academic training or professional resume is not necessarily a precursor for success. More important are the core values that each candidate brings to the table, which serve as building blocks for success and pave the path for managers to promote from within.
High grades and prestigious academic programs aren’t the only important criteria for me. Instead, I gravitate toward considering applicants like former waitstaff and babysitters—those who show they worked during high school and college, know the value of hard work and are hungry to make a difference. Not all of us at Smile Train have traditional nonprofit backgrounds. Some hail from all over the map, from sales to politics to marketing and public relations.
- Break down barriers
The most successful organizations—whether nonprofit or for-profit—don’t operate in silos, because they can’t. Adherence to rigid divisional divides can stifle productivity and cause budding talent to be overlooked. That’s why managers should take the time to get to know each employee—not just in terms of their individual role, but the strengths and skills they bring to the organization as a whole.
Whether encouraging cross-divisional partnership, convening all-staff brainstorms or even meeting staffers’ family and friends, managers should make a point of identifying opportunities for staff to share insights and collaborate. This not only cultivates camaraderie and fresh ideas, but also ensures that no idea or talent is left untapped.
It’s common for nonprofits to attribute fundraising successes to individual employees, which can adversely affect team morale and productivity. By fostering office-wide teamwork, we motivate the staff to move past their individual contributions and think about our global mission holistically. When Smile Train began the rebranding process in tandem with our 1 millionth-smile milestone, we gathered everyone into one room for a collective dialogue and idea-exchange about our vision for the organization’s future. Ultimately, this constructive discussion led to the development of a successful new approach that has since impacted every element of our internal and external communications.
- Operate like a business
At Smile Train, we apply a for-profit approach to running our nonprofit. Drawing upon more than two decades of experience in operational roles, I place particular value on establishing measurable objectives, competitive benchmarking and long-term decision-making.
As the adage goes, you can’t improve what you can’t measure. From strategic planning to resource allocation, every decision we make is considered in the context of quantifiable goals. That way, we can easily determine if we’re meeting our objectives, and if we’re not, we can examine by how much we’ve fallen short so we can reset and put next steps in place.
After all, we’re functioning in a competitive giving climate. Like for-profits, nonprofits are competing for eyeballs and support. Charities must constantly monitor the industry landscape in order to differentiate their brand and attract advocates. Successful nonprofit managers know the importance of keeping a close eye on donor attitudes, giving trends and other initiatives that could yield key learnings, inspire ideas and apply to their own work, whether in the near future or down the road.
Most for-profits develop long-term business plans to guide sound decision-making, and nonprofits could benefit from following suit. Although evaluating opportunities with an eye toward the future may not always yield immediate results, investments with long-term vision in mind can help nonprofits build deeper cause awareness and donor engagement. For instance, investing in our Virtual Surgery Simulator—the first free, Web-based 3-D training tool that guides surgeons worldwide through the intricacies of cleft repair surgery—has enabled us to foster self-sustainable cleft care in many regions around the world.
When it comes to managing a nonprofit, there’s no one right way of doing things. The nonprofit world is so vibrant largely because of the diversity in leadership styles and approaches to cause awareness. But a willingness to think differently and challenge the norm can go a long way in executing game-changing ideas, attracting the best and brightest and creating a community of advocates committed to pushing boundaries in the service of global change.
Susannah Schaefer is CEO of Smile Train, where she oversees the charity's mission and day-to-day operations. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.