nonprofit leadership and management

Nonprofit Leadership and Management: How to Modernize Now  

Developing best-in-class nonprofit leadership and management skills may, at first glance, seem like an easy thing to do. Leadership development may seem like something that just “happens on its own,” without any support.   

Or, maybe you subscribe to the “born this way” philosophy. You believe that true leaders are born with that special “X factor.”  They have it or they don’t.   

Perhaps leadership and management skills don’t really matter that much. 

If you work in a nonprofit setting, you may look to executives to provide leadership for everyone else. 

But these perspectives are only partly true. 

While nonprofit leadership and management competencies can evolve slowly over time, they can grow more quickly with direct intervention, training, and support.  And, though some people have a greater inclination to be “natural born” leaders, there are plenty who learned it in the trenches.   

What’s more, leadership is an equal opportunity endeavor.  It has less to do with the position you hold in an organization and more to do with what you do as a co-worker, partner, and ally. 

In volunteer organizations, leadership can be found at all levels, including volunteers.  

And, these skills are vital to develop in those who are responsible for leading volunteer talent. 

In fact, I often argue that leading an unpaid volunteer workforce is much more difficult than leading paid employees.  Volunteers can and do “vote with their feet.” They simply aren’t tethered to a paycheck.  

Exceptional leadership and management skills in the nonprofit context are about having influence over others that, in the end, benefits the greater good.  

While we often “blame” the volunteers for lack of follow-through, the loyalty and dedication of a volunteer team is a direct result of the quality of their leaders.  

Great leaders understand who we are leading and how they can meet the needs of their team, as well as their own. 

A Nonprofit Leadership and Management Model for Volunteer Organizations 

If today’s volunteers are anything, they’re pragmatic. They expect more from the organizations they serve and don’t want their time wasted. Volunteers expect their nonprofit supervisors to be adept leaders that can facilitate exceptional experiences. 

Consider the comments of those who were interviewed for this New York Times article.  One of the key motivations for volunteering is to use and expand their skill sets while they are making a difference in the world.   

But what specific leadership skills are needed to inspire these kinds of volunteers?  

For many skilled volunteers, helping out with mundane tasks around the office or repetitive administrative tasks they can complete from home isn’t going to add to their resume.  It also won’t promote their own sense of accomplishment.   

Likewise, being blindly assigned a role through a vertical, top-down approach isn’t likely to appeal either.   

Many volunteers want a higher level of responsibility.  They want to be included in the decision-making, and they want to have a fair amount of autonomy as to how they complete their assignments.   

They also need plenty of support, encouragement, and inspiration along the way. 

Does the customary top-down management style really mesh well with this reality?  Not really. 

A model of shared leadership may be a better option. 

In their book “Shared Leadership: Reframing the Hows and Whys of Leadership,” leadership experts and researchers Craig Pearce and Jay Conger define shared leadership as a “dynamic, interactive influence process among individuals in groups for which the objective is to lead one another to the achievement of a group or organizational goals.”   

The distinction between more traditional hierarchical models of leadership and shared leadership, they explain, lies in decentralization, “Leadership is broadly distributed among a set of individuals instead of centralized in hands of a single individual who acts in the role of superior.”   

It’s a huge paradigm shift to be sure.  It means transferring real power from the few to the many.   

And, it brings up all kinds of questions about accountability, productivity, and identity.   

Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of case studies to choose from.  Research literature about shared leadership is abundant in the education sector.  Not so for nonprofits.   

But I think it’s worth looking into.  

Shared Leadership Skills for Leaders of Volunteers 

If we are interested in transitioning to shared leadership, what best practices can we adopt from others?  And, what new skills will our volunteer managers need to hone?   

Below are a few to get us started. 

  • Listening — An oft overused term, listening isn’t just about individual conversations.  How do we better “hear” our stakeholders at all levels, through a variety of channels? If we learn to listen, we’ll be better able to make decisions that are best for the common good. 
  • Consulting — A second cousin to listening, consulting with a wide swath of sage experts and observant novices, can bring a tremendous amount of clarity to a decision.  If consensus can’t be reached, in the end, someone must decide, but if many ideas and solutions are aired, the decision can be said to be shared. 
  • Tolerance for Ambiguity — The more cooks in the kitchen, the more complicated the broth.  Chaos is inherent in broad collaborations and has to be managed to some extent.  At the same time, leaders have to develop the courage to live with ambiguity as issues are sorted out. 
  • Speaking for the Team as a Whole — As the saying goes, there’s no “I” in Team.  When authority is truly shared, team members are unlikely to defer responsibility to others.  And, members share a group, versus individual identity.  Items that affect the common good take precedence over individual priorities. 

These are only a few of the skills that leaders throughout an organization would need to develop to be successful.   

Steps Toward Better Collaboration  

To be effective shared leadership relies on true collaboration between leaders and followers. In the end, everyone becomes both a leader and a follower at some point. 

A few years ago, I sat in on an interesting webinar through the Harvard Business Review.  In the presentation, Professors Herminia Ibarra and Morten Hansen discussed four key aspects of leadership within innovative companies that have experienced phenomenal growth.   

They argued that collaborative leadership was a critical element to their success.   

Businesses must pull resources and talents from a variety of sources and take advantage of the connectivity across communities to impact their bottom lines, not simply work within long-held silos.  

Sound familiar?  It should.   

Many nonprofits already understand the need for working with external resources to get the job done.   

We look to connect to volunteers, community partners, donors, and in-kind contributors to help us fulfill our missions.   

And, yet we still struggle.  We either experience barriers to connecting with who we need to, or we experience resistance to making the necessary changes that move us ahead.   

This may be due, in part, to our leadership styles.   

Most people tend to either lean toward a command and control model, with strong direction from the top or strive for complete consensus, getting mired in endless discussion with no result.  According to Ibarra and Hansen, a more balanced approach works better.   

The Four Keys to Leadership Success  

keys to leadership success

So, what do successful leaders do, and how can we tap into that mojo?  Ibarra and Hansen point to four leadership cornerstones they feel contribute to the phenomenal success of the companies they studied. 

1) Become a Global Connector — Look for innovative alliances and strategic connections outside your normal sphere of influence.  

As leaders, we tend to spend the majority of our time focused on managing our internal world.  The most successful resources and ideas are often found in unlikely places.  

To unearth new solutions, have conversations in entirely new environments.  That way, you can better understand current global trends and what meaning they may have for the future of your program.  

Find innovative ways to link people, resources, and ideas that will help your organization move forward.  This may be by attending conferences outside your specialty or connecting with new communities you’ve never been to.  

2) Engage Talent from the Periphery — Studies show that diverse teams bring better results.  And yet we often talk to people who look just like us. 

Take a look at your teams, paid or volunteer.   Are they a mirror image of you?  

Although homogenous teams may work more fluidly together, their collective experience is extremely limited.  Blind spots abound.  Beyond simply a moral call for affirmative action, ethnic, cultural, and generational diversity ensures that more ideas are brought to the table.   

Look for ways to bring diverse points of view to the party.  Ask young people to mentor older generations.  Make sure people from a variety of nationalities have a seat.  

Finally, take steps to ensure there is a process in place to identify and communicate cultural misunderstandings.  Miscommunication will inevitably occur; make sure it is resolved quickly and does not become a barrier to success.  

3) Collaborate from the Top First — This means leading by example. 

If your management team is embroiled in turf battles and power struggles, do you expect the greater community to follow you?  

Set your management team on a course that encourages healthy interdependency.  Make sure your collaborative projects and operational plans are aligned.  

Develop incentives that reward collaboration versus individualism.  Focus performance reviews on both individual and team outcomes.  Communicate that learning goals will trump short-term performance goals.  This doesn’t mean letting go of accountability; it means focusing that responsibility on collaboration.  

Finally, be as transparent as possible about your efforts to change and their results, both good and bad.  

4) Show a Strong Hand — Not to be confused with a top-down approach, being a strong leader in this sense means being agile enough to initiate and disband collaborative teams, versus having a rigid structure.  

Teams must be provided clear direction on decision rights and responsibilities within their group.  To ensure that decisions are not delayed because consensus can’t be reached, put a process in place that describes when a final decision will be called and by whom.  And, clearly outline that it is everyone’s responsibility to get behind and support decisions, once they are made.  

Collaborative leadership means engaging the team members and communities in the organization’s decision-making process.  Beyond brainstorm sessions and opinion surveys, collaborative leadership welcomes a diverse range of people and makes room for them at the table.   

Paradoxically, a successful collaborative style also requires strong leadership in setting the tone, the structure, and the expectations for your team.    

It’s not easy, but the outlay of initial effort may prove as worthwhile to you as it was to the business leaders Ibarra and Hansen studied.   

Collaborative strategies are rapidly replacing command and control models in innovative and successful companies.  It may be time to sharpen our partnership skills so that we, too, can take our organizations to the next level.