Three Ways Nonprofit Leadership Falters

30 Apr

Terry HortonBy Terry Horton, senior program advisor, Philanthropic and Nonprofit Services

Since 2006, it has been my privilege to consult for two of the most outstanding nonprofit capacity-building organizations in the country: The Foraker Group in Alaska, and the Johnson Center for Philanthropy in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Over these seven years, I have met with and trained over a thousand nonprofit leaders, and I have worked with over 100 nonprofit boards. Here are a few observations on where nonprofit leadership can go awry:  

1. Corporate culture deserves proper care and feeding.

Having a shared core purpose and core values matters. Why? Because without this strong foundation, chaos, distrust, and micromanagement ensues. Amazing impact may still be occurring with programming, but it will be despite leadership, not because of it. Nonprofits that nail these two elements can hire staff and recruit the board based on them, which means creating a shared vision for the future is easier, and the management of staff is freer, more creative, and more collegial. When everyone inherently believes in what we do and where we’re going, we get to focus on the big stuff. The little stuff will take care of itself. Jim Collins says it well in his monograph for the nonprofit sector. The Zappo’s CEO says it pretty well too in his book about delivering happiness.

2. Strategic planning shouldn’t be a death march.

Most board members and many CEOs are scarred by experiences in the ‘80s and ‘90s of the arduous 8- to 12-month strategic planning process that leaves everyone exhausted and thankful it’s over – resulting in the shelving of that beautiful spiral-bound 25-page strategic plan never to be referred to or read again. Times have changed. Nimble is the name of the game. Strategic acting, thinking and learning are still required, but the process doesn’t have to be a killer. I still love the Jim Collins BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) as a unifying force within an organization. David La Piana and his Nonprofit Strategy Revolution, the self-assessment tool by Peter Drucker which asks: What is our Mission? Who is Our Customer? What does the Customer Value? What are Our Results? And What is Our Plan? or even the Business Model  Canvas are probably better ways to go.

I still love John Bryson, but most people’s interpretation of his work leads to a plodding, rather than a nimble, experience. Of course, vision statements are still wonderful, but the pie-in-the-sky vision statement is self-defeating. Don’t write it down if you don’t believe it’s possible and you’re not really willing to work toward getting there. Strategic planning with a lighter touch results in a plan that inspires and will actually be implemented. An amazing, galvanizing, doable plan. Cool!

3. Is there an elephant in the room? Candor with trust and kindness is essential. Finger pointing doesn’t work.

Board bullies are a reality, weak CEOs are, too. Not to mention sloppy financial checks and balances, or no economic engine but the federal government. These are not situations that can be ignored. It behooves boards to create a high-functioning culture when times are good. This includes trust, caring, and a belief that we’re all here for mission – no hidden agendas. A culture of healthy dissent allows you to name the elephant in the room. Name it, diagnose what to do about it, and then actually fix it. How much is Robert in the room? Robert’s Rules of Order used to the letter can stifle the type of conversation critical to nonprofit governance and it can alienate up-and-coming leaders who need a looser style.

Our friend Katha Kissman has developed two great little books worth reading if you have trouble with the board or the CEO: Taming the Troublesome Board Member and Trouble at the Top: The Nonprofit Board’s Guide to Managing an Imperfect Chief Executive.

These three are not the only ways nonprofit leadership falters, but they are some of the most common. There are resources, like those offered above, to guide nonprofit leaders around these pitfalls. Not using the available resources is perhaps the biggest mistake nonprofit leaders can make.

Most of the titles referenced here are part of the Johnson Collection on Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership at the Grand Valley State University Steelcase Library and accessible at local libraries statewide through MelCat.

Established in 1992 with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy is a university-based center serving nonprofits, foundations, and others seeking to transform their communities for the public good. The Johnson Center is recognized for its applied research and professional development benefiting practitioners and nonprofits through the faculty and staff of the Johnson Center’s Community Research Institute, Frey Foundation Chair for Family Foundations and Philanthropy, The Foundation Review, The Grantmaking School, Johnson Center Philanthropy Archives and Library, and Philanthropic and Nonprofit Services.

Grand Valley State University is a four-year public university. It attracts nearly 25,000 students with high-quality programs and state-of-the-art facilities. Grand Valley is a comprehensive university serving students from all 83 Michigan counties and dozens of other states and foreign countries. Grand Valley offers 82 undergraduate and 30 graduate degree programs from campuses in Allendale, Grand Rapids and Holland, and from regional centers in Muskegon and Traverse City. The university is dedicated to individual student achievement, going beyond the traditional classroom experience, with research opportunities and business partnerships. Grand Valley employs more than 2,000 people and is committed to providing a fair and equitable environment for the continued success of all.

The Johnson Center receives ongoing support from the Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation,Dyer-Ives Foundation, Frey Foundation, Grand Rapids Community Foundation, and W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

For more information, contact Robert Shalett, director of communications for the Johnson Center, at 616-331-7585.

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