The Nonprofit CEO: Collaborator-in-Chief
I still remember the first CEO I worked for nearly 20 years ago. He was a near mythic figure who, as best I could tell, breezed into the office around 10 a.m., barked a few orders that his trusted lieutenants scrambled to implement, and then spent the better part of the day drinking wine and reading The New York Times at an Italian restaurant around the block from our office. This might not be a fair assessment of what he was actually doing, but there was no question he was the boss. What he decided is what we did. Quickly.
At a nonprofit today, that sort of dictatorial style is about as likely as a dinosaur strolling around Manhattan. The world we work in has fundamentally changed. By the time I was CEO of a nonprofit, board members, donors and staff members all expected to have a voice in decisions. More importantly, I needed their voices to help me make the right decisions. The role of nonprofit CEO has evolved to that of collaborator-in-chief.
Ironically, alongside that collaboration, true leadership is needed more than ever. Our sector seeks to achieve impact at scale on some of society’s greatest and most persistent challenges. For today’s nonprofit CEO, the key to success is collaboration—striking a balance between making decisions from the middle and leading from the front. Nonprofit CEOs who do this effectively see their organizations accomplish their missions. We need more CEOs like that.
Making Decisions From the Middle
Nonprofit management has gotten complex. The challenges my first CEO pondered as he drank wine pale in comparison to those I found when I assumed a CEO role 10 years later. The oversight, legal issues, public relations climate, customer expectations, workplace environment and speed at which it all comes at us changed dramatically during that time. One person cannot possibly keep up with that. Meeting the challenges requires collective brainpower and collaborative decision-making.
For the nonprofit CEO, it is imperative to consult and collectively make decisions with four key constituencies:
• The board: It is important that both the CEO and the board understand their roles. Board members should not be making day-to-day decisions. But a CEO who harshly draws that line and goes it alone won’t do so for very long. Eventually, boards remember that their responsibilities include hiring and firing the CEO. A CEO should be focused on working closely with board leadership to continually refresh the board with smart and talented members, and the CEO then needs to put them to work. Have a regularly scheduled meeting with your board chair at least monthly just to discuss how things are going and seek advice on key decisions. Meet individually with each board member multiple times per year to think out loud. Engage them intellectually in your challenges, and listen to their advice.
• The chief development officer: Having spent much of my career in fundraising roles, I’ve seen firsthand how important and valuable the relationship between the CEO and the chief development officer is. The CEO needs to be able to trust and confide in his or her chief development officer as the lead fundraiser for the organization. And, in turn, the chief development officer needs to understand the CEO’s mindset, intentions and relationships. The unique perspectives chief development officers glean from the external-facing nature of the their job can help them to see challenges differently and advise the CEO accordingly.
• Investors: More than ever, individuals and institutions investing philanthropically in nonprofits have an expectation that their voice will be heard on both long- and short-range vision and decisions. Nonprofit CEOs must invest time in donors—not just in soliciting their support, but in building a trusting relationship and seeking advice. Similar to board members, collaboration and discussion is key. I am not recommending you let your philanthropic investors dictate your decisions, but I assure you they will offer valuable insights and, ultimately, more funding if you seek their input appropriately and regularly. For your largest donors, this is one-on-one meetings. But, for others, I would ensure there are opportunities for input via either larger group-meetings or surveys, so they feel their voice matters.
• Staff: In what would surely be a mortifying turn of events for the first CEO I worked for, staff members no longer just do what you tell them to do. Or, at least, the good ones don’t. It is tempting (and easy) to blame those pesky Millennials. But it’s not just a Millennial thing—this started years ago, and has accelerated as new generations have entered the workforce. Staff members want to understand why an organization does what it does. And they want their voices heard, especially in nonprofits, where passion for their career and their organization drives many employees. Asking staff for their opinions—and explaining strategy and decisions—will elicit new insights and encourage greater commitment.
Leading From the Front
It’s a seemingly silly thing, but I always sit in the middle of the table for staff or other meetings. I want to be physically in the middle of the team—not commanding it from the head of the table. Through this small action, I’ve seen how teams crave leadership. They want a vision that inspires them, and will work harder for a leader who can articulate that vision.
Two other attributes are critical for effective nonprofit leadership: enthusiasm and confidence.
Everyone involved in nonprofit work goes above and beyond to achieve impact and advance the mission. They’ll only continue to do so if it’s fun, and it is leadership's job to set that tone. Nonprofit CEOs need to bound into the office each day with a smile. And they have to believe in the work and the good they are doing. If the CEO doesn't have that confidence, why should anyone else?
It is not easy collaboratively leading a nonprofit as CEO. But there is no more satisfying or fun job in the world. Engaging the right constituents in decision-making, and then leading the implementation of those decisions, is so much more fulfilling than spending the afternoon drinking Chianti.
Craig Shelley (@craigshelley) is a managing director at Orr Group, which provides nonprofits with strategy, fundraising, leadership and management solutions and has offices in New York City and Washington, D.C.
Craig brings an entrepreneurial approach to fundraising, nonprofit management and strategy. Prior to joining Orr Group, Craig served in a variety of positions with the Boy Scouts of America, most recently as the national director of development and corporate alliances. He serves on the executive committee of the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ New York City Chapter and the editorial advisory board for Nonprofit PRO, and is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE).