Perhaps more so than in the for-profit sector, leadership is crucial to the success of nonprofits in which nickels need to be stretched not into dimes but quarters.
Nonprofit CEOs, executive directors and board chairs need to wear multiple hats and be effective in multiple roles. After three decades in the sector as an executive director, development officer, board member and now consultant/trainer, I have an enormous respect and admiration for nonprofit leaders —, both those who are paid to go the extra mile and those who go the extra mile without being paid at all.
In the era of COVID-19, nonprofit leaders have been challenged and tested like never before and have passed with flying colors.
What does it take to lead a nonprofit in 2021? There’s no magical short list, but I would like to highlight the following seven attributes.
- Inspire your team. At the end of the day success will not be measured by what you achieve individually, but rather by what you motivate, encourage or beg members of your staff, board members and volunteers to do to champion the cause. In the case of staff, you don’t do their jobs for them, but do everything possible so they can be successful. The same applies to board members and volunteers. Each brings different strengths to the table and needs coaching and mentoring in different areas. You need to believe in your team, and by doing so they will believe in you. Think of everyone — staff and volunteers — as part of a cohesive team. Be there to nurture, unify and tap the wisdom of the whole.
- Make your case for support easy to understand. Start with this daunting reality: Donors don’t choose between the good and the bad but are forced to make difficult choices between the good and the good. The nonprofit’s job is to get donors of precious gifts of time and money to know, like and trust them. The mission has to be simple to understand and stand out in how it serves needs not met by other organizations.
- Embrace partnerships. There are some 1.5 million nonprofits in the U.S. If ever there was a time for collaboration, it is now. Nonprofits don’t exist to perpetuate their own reputations and satisfy egos. Instead, they must touch, improve and save more lives. Collaboration in all forms will lead to greater impact and all kinds of efficiencies.Donors deserve this!
- Serve as solicitor-in-chief.Many staff, and especially volunteers, will be afraid of asking for gifts. That is simply human nature. The leader sets a positive example and welcomes this essential responsibility every chance he or she gets. Major donors expect and deserve to be solicited by leadership. The leader also conveys to board members and volunteers that they can play huge roles in developing resources without ever asking for gifts themselves, by supporting discovery, cultivation and stewardship of donor prospects.
- Make meetingssomething to look forward to. I know what you’re thinking: This means flipping perceptions upside down. Far too often, whether in person or now virtually, too many professionals and volunteers can’t wait until meeting time is concluded. Those meetings are likely held too often and are too one dimensional, dominated by management reports. Nonprofit leaders need to create an open environment in which everyone participates and no one dominates. There is a clear agenda that is followed meticulously with assignments, due dates and projected outcomes carefully captured.
- Celebrate thanking others. If there’s one thing a nonprofit leader should genuinely enjoy doing every day, it’s thanking team members, donors of time and money and other friends who help advance the mission. You can never thank someone too much or too sincerely. Be sure your praise is specific and speaks to the singular contribution of the individuals to whom you are conveying gratitude.
- Have courage to dream big dreams. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t inspire America to get on the right side of history by proclaiming, "I have a strategic plan.” Sure, we need detailed plans to move us from Point A to Point B, but at the end of the day, it is our vision of a better world that inspires others to believe in our dreams, embrace our dreams and invest in our dreams with gifts of time and money. The leader’s passion that more is possible needs to be infectious.
This is not the job description for Superman or Superwoman. Our nation is blessed with millions of such leaders — who live next door — and make our nonprofit sector formidable enough to confront massive challenges like pandemics, poverty and social injustice.
Jim Eskin's leadership roles span more than 30 years in fundraising, public affairs and communications in the San Antonio area. His consulting practice Eskin Fundraising Training builds on the success of his fundraising workshops and webinars, and provides the training, coaching and support services that nonprofits need to compete for and secure private gifts.