3 Commitments Nonprofit Leaders Can Make in Times of Great Uncertainty
As a leadership coach, I talk to hundreds of nonprofit executive directors and CEOs every year. Leading always has challenges. Many leaders feel overwhelmed. Some even feel ground down by the board-executive director organizational structure that makes them have the responsibility for running the nonprofit but without the overall authority to make change.
The overwhelm can seem close to immobilizing.
Leaders always need to make decisions. But this year, the amount of decision-making required to lead feels crushing. So much so that many nonprofit leaders are delaying big decisions. Rather than gathering new information, they are putting off making needed decision
Leading When Overwhelmed
There are two approaches to leading your nonprofit through uncertainty. Picture yourself as a captain navigating a ship through a storm. One captain becomes so overwhelmed by the wind, the rain, and the tossing and the turning that she puts off making decisions. She opts to drift. She hopes to only act when she can see more clearly. So she tries to ride out the storm.
The other captain, in the same storm, looks at all the chaos around her. And decides what small actions she can take. She doubles down on the basics. She makes what decisions she can. And she gives her crew small but meaningful tasks. Tasks that fit their expertise and help sort through specific areas of the chaos around them.
Both captains are facing overwhelming uncertainty, but which one would you rather be? The captain leading through the storm whose crew maintains a sense of purpose and pride? Or, the captain who chooses to drift and whose crew feels increasingly demoralized and helpless in the middle of the storm?
You have a choice. Even choosing not to make that choice is still a choice.
Navigating the Challenges
We are seeing a level of shared overwhelm unlike any we’ve seen in most of our lifetimes. As we are in — and hopefully coming out of — a global pandemic, we are all in the storm. Here are three things nonprofit leaders can do to navigate this very challenging time.
1. Commit to the Basics
Write a list of the non-negotiable tasks that need to happen. For example, payroll needs to happen. And since that comes with unforgiving regularity, fundraising also needs to happen. Some of the basics of fundraising include mailing appeals, applying for grants and making phone calls.
Then ask yourself, are the calls getting made? And are the follow-up calls being completed? If these basics are not getting done, work with your team to commit to becoming consistent again. Identify phrasing or actions that might need to be adjusted given the high levels of uncertainty people are facing. But remember: there’s nothing kind about not asking.
What other basics need to still be completed? Revisit these and see where you can stop drifting.
2. Commit to Learning
In times of stress, our brains are designed to focus. But that focus causes us to miss opportunities. In times like these, nonprofit leaders need to be able to gain a different perspective.
Your learning may be going to where your organization’s mission is carried out — talking with the staff, visiting with the beneficiaries, etc.
Or, it could be learning more about how humans interact with each other. Often lessons can be discovered through personality assessments or frameworks, like the Enneagram.
Revisiting your mission and learning to communicate more clearly can help you carve out a bit of calm in the storm — and grow back some confidence.
3. Commit to What Is Not Changing
One of the most powerful things a nonprofit leader can do is to remind their team of what is not changing. This is often by regularly reminding others of the organizational values.
Leaders are then able to be both honest and reassuring with their teams by saying something like, “We don’t know exactly what lies ahead. But we do know how we will face it.”
Leaders can also remind the team of the organization’s core values, commitment to treating people with respect, having each others’ backs or trusting each other.
No matter what comes, your core values will stay the same. And knowing these core values will help you make better and faster decisions, no matter what storm you’re facing. You may not know how a decision will impact your team, but you will be able to decide anyway because it is in alignment with your core values.
These are some of the most challenging times people alive have faced, but humans have gone through many overwhelming times over the millennia and we are still here. We will get through this, too.
As you face your leadership responsibilities each day, commit to what you have the ability to influence. The storm may still be raging, but you will find yourself leading more confidently and your team re-energized by the meaningful work you helped to lead.
Concord Leadership Group founder Marc A. Pitman, CSP, helps leaders lead their teams with more effectiveness and less stress. Whether it’s through one-on-one coaching of executives, conducting high-engagement trainings or growing leaders through his ICF-accredited coach certification program, his clients grow in stability and effectiveness.
He is the author of "The Surprising Gift of Doubt: Use Uncertainty to Become the Exceptional Leader You Are Meant to Be" He’s also the author of "Ask Without Fear!"— which has been translated into Dutch, Polish, Spanish and Mandarin. A FranklinCovey-certified coach and Exactly What To Say Certified Guide, Marc’s expertise and enthusiasm engages audiences around the world both in person and with online presentations.
He is the husband to his best friend and the father of three amazing kids. And if you drive by him on the road, he’ll be singing '80s tunes loud enough to embarrass his family!