Ineffective Nonprofit Leadership: When Is It Time to Go?
Let's talk about ineffective nonprofit leadership, shall we? Some time ago, I passed along a VP of development job opportunity that came across my desk to a former colleague who was looking for a new position. I got a text back saying, “Jeff, I wouldn’t touch this one with a 10-foot pole. Did you see how long the executive director has been there… 15 years! Not a good sign.”
Remember the “good old days,” when longevity in a job meant you were a stable, hard-working person that took pride in their work? Those days are long gone. In fact, from my colleague’s reaction, it’s just the opposite.
I recall a few months ago sitting around a conference table delivering a sales pitch about Veritus Group. Previous to that meeting, I was having discussions with the CEO of the nonprofit who was not happy with his director of development. “He is just not on the bus with us, Jeff,” said the CEO. “I think I need to move him out.”
In the meeting, the tension around that table was palpable. You could tell from both people that this was not a good working situation. There was a lot of blaming and passive aggressive behavior.
Later, I was speaking to someone that knew more about the “situation” at this particular nonprofit. She had another story. “Jeff, the CEO there is trouble. He’s been there for over 20 years and if you don’t do it his way, you are gone. It’s been a revolving door for development directors and major gift officers (MGOs) for years there. Be careful on navigating your way around that situation.”
Well, okay… good advice.
Then, Richard and I were involved in two situations last year where the founder of the organization, while no longer the CEO, is still “hanging on” as board chair. Both of these organizations have what is called “Founderities,” the CEO cannot do their job properly because the founder, who is heavily invested emotionally, cannot let go of the day to day running of the organization and causes havoc resulting in a revolving door of CEO’s come in and out.
Finally, over the years, Richard, our Veritus team and I have worked with many MGOs who have been working at the same organization for decades. While on the surface, you can admire their dedication to the mission, when you dig deeper, you realize the passion has left a long time ago and now it’s more about a paycheck and fear that there is nothing out there for them they could do.
This is terribly sad and unfortunately much too common in our industry.
While you could look at each of these situations and say, “Well, these people have just been in those position for too long,” I would challenge that notion and say it’s not about length of time, it’s something else.
You see, for every story I could tell you about someone who is hurting their organization because they have “just been there too long, “ I can also tell you story after story of good people—founders, CEOs, development directors and MGOs—who have been at one organization for years and years, and they are highly effective, successful and loved.
So, what is the difference then between those folks who have been at an organization for years and need to leave today and those who should continue? Here are some thoughts.
1. Effective Leaders Continue to Learn
They don’t think they know it all. They are always open to new ideas, thoughts and opinions. Ineffective leaders hold on to what used to work and keep pushing that same agenda. Richard and I have seen some really toxic nonprofits because the leader was “stuck in their ways,” and it paralyzed the organization.
2. Successful Nonprofit Leaders Know How to Hold On Tight Enough
A book about golfing by M. Scott Peck always struck me; he used golf as a metaphor for life. He said, “Great golfers know how to hold a club… not too tight, not too loose… and they swing with ease.” This is how good leaders lead.
I’ve been in the office of CEOs who founded and ran nonprofits; they sit across from you, and they have an aura of wisdom and love about them. It’s because they know exactly when to push and when to let go; when to hold tight for a bit and when to release. Conversely, leaders whose time it is to leave an organization usually run the place with an iron fist. They run the organization by fear. This is also where a founder gets into trouble. They had such passion and vision to start the organization, but they don’t know when to let go, so that others who have the skills to do so, can take it to another level.
3. Real Leaders Are Self-Aware
Richard and I have known some incredible development directors and MGOs who know exactly who they are, what their strengths are, what they are not good at, who they need in their lives to make them better, etc. These are usually folks who know they need others in their life to hold them accountable and to stay focused. They welcome honest feedback. They don’t shy away from healthy conflict if it leads to some kind of enlightenment.
Unfortunately we see many who have been in organizations for years, and they are dug in. They don’t know who they are and everyone has to “tip-toe” around them to get things done.
So, I don’t think ineffective leadership, whether you are a founder, CEO, development director or MGO is about being in the job or at a particular nonprofit for “too long.”
It’s really about you.
Are you open to learning new things? Do you know when to let go? Do you know who you are? Are you willing to change… and then change again if you need to? Can you put other people first? Can you hire people that are better than you? Do you still have passion for your mission and your donors? Can you let other lead when they need to? When you wake up most mornings do you still have that desire to want to change the world?
If you can't answer yes to all of these and if you are really honest with yourself for once… it’s time to go. You will do yourself and the organization a huge favor. But, if you still have the fire, I don’t care if you have been at your nonprofit for 40 years… carry on!
Jeff Schreifels is the principal owner of Veritus Group — an agency that partners with nonprofits to create, build and manage mid-level fundraising, major gifts and planned giving programs. In his 32-plus year career, Jeff has worked with hundreds of nonprofits, helping to raise more than $400 million in revenue.