First Invest in Yourself — How Great Nonprofit Leaders Lead Their Organizations Forward

First Invest in Yourself — How Great Nonprofit Leaders Lead Their Organizations Forward

Accepting the top staff-leadership position in a nonprofit organization can be an exhilarating career move. Executives tend to move into the top staff position from either the corporate world or from a programmatic background. But even if they possess many of the talents needed to be successful, new executives often lack information or skills that would help them quickly establish a pattern of success. These early wins, it turns out, are critical for new leaders if they are to get buy-in from key stakeholders.

In the corporate world, executives engage in onboarding — acquiring the necessary knowledge early on to ensure maximum effectiveness in their new position. In the nonprofit sector, however, organizations often lack the resources and time needed to employ this technique effectively. Not to say there aren't programs out there that can help. In the Chicago area, the Axelson Center for Nonprofit Management offers a BootCamp for New Nonprofit CEOs with this exact task in mind. The program offers broad coverage of a range of topics that are critical to a new executive's success, including board development, performance measurement, financial management, marketing, strategy, and resource generation.

Although it may sound basic, we've found over the past five years of running the program that it's exactly the type of training new executive directors need. Indeed, when answering the question of what new CEOs need to know, it's helpful to consider what their more experienced counterparts cite as challenges. A survey of Chicago-area nonprofit CEOs conducted in 2009/2010 by former Cabrini Green Legal Aid executive director Rob Acton and former associate executive director Laura Zumdahl offered a telling comparison:


New CEOs Experienced CEOs
1. Maintain fiscal health and secure sufficient funding 1. Keep board members motivated and engaged
2. Keep board members motivated and engaged 2. Maintain fiscal health and secure sufficient funding
3. Strategically manage time and energy 3. Recruit effective, committed, and diverse board
4. Recruit effective, committed, and diverse board 4. Balance competing priorities: board, staff, funders
5. Juggle multiple priorities 5. Juggle multiple priorities
6. Craft and cast a compelling vision 6. Strategically manage time and energy
7. Balance competing priorities: board, staff, funders 7. Find life balance (work, family, friends, self)
8. Get board to engage in succession planning 8. Get board to engage in succession planning
9. Avoid burn-out 9. Have necessary leadership/management knowledge, skills, or experience

Although the responses of the two groups differed slightly, seven of the top nine responses were the same. And regardless of experience, the top two challenges cited by nonprofit executives were maintaining fiscal health and keeping the board engaged. No surprises there.

But only the new CEOs included burnout as a serious challenge. It's great to see that with experience comes perspective; there was a time, not that many years ago, when the sector was burning out executives as quickly as it could train them. The 2011 Daring to Lead survey also validates this finding: of the executives who participated in that survey, an impressive 91 percent reported that they were very happy in their jobs and/or had more good days than bad.

At the same time, while a unique concern for more experienced CEOs is having the necessary knowledge and leadership and management skills, it's interesting to note that new CEOs didn't rank it among their concerns. One possible explanation is that we don't always know what we don't know.

But for those of us who provide leadership development programs, it's a challenge. A leader, to be successful, has to want to learn and be willing to seek out knowledge, resources, and expertise. Some new EDs enter the job fully expecting that their passion, commitment, and years of experience in program delivery will be enough. But program knowledge is only a piece of the puzzle. For most executives, knowing how to effectively engage and lead both internal and external stakeholders is their Mount Everest.

And it is something few of them have mastered. Daring to Lead found that 63 percent of executives reported that the human resources function of their job was the most energy-depleting, while more than 50 percent said they did not spend enough time on marketing/communications, fundraising, or networking/external relationships.

Of course, resources, or lack thereof, is another reason that nonprofit executives don't pursue leadership development. Professional development, coaching, conferences, certifications, and the like all require a monetary investment up front. Which means nonprofit executives who really want to succeed in their job may need to have a conversation with their board to explain the importance of this type of investment. Another option is to check with your funders whether there might be an opportunity to add a line item for professional development in your next grant application. Although some funders still hold to the age-old position of funding "programs, not overhead," many have come around and now see leadership development and capacity building as offering a significant, even a great, return on their investment.

Obviously, there are times when EDs don't seek funding for these kinds of investment because they fear that either their board or a funder will question whether the investment is valid. Or they believe the request will reflect poorly on their leadership ability. In a recent conversation with me, a Chicago-area nonprofit executive shared this exact sentiment: "My board hired me because they believed I could run the organization. If I ask for help, they'll feel they made the wrong choice."

One way around the issue is to build your case using research. A 2006 Bridgespan study found that "skilled management is the single most important determinant of organizational success." And the Daring to Lead study recommends implementing leadership development programs across the entire organization. Making such a commitment to ongoing leadership development will help prevent burnout among key staff and help ensure the organization's continuing success.

I recall a conversation I had a few years back with an alumna of our BootCamp. Having assumed that her many years as a business owner and board chair had prepared her for the role of executive director, she was surprised by how much she gained from participating in the program. And she shared some of the key takeaways she gleaned from our training:

  • Leaders don't lead alone; they need followers who believe in their vision.
  • Passion in a leader is essential, but it is only one of many things needed to effectively run an organization.
  • Your board, staff, constituents, and/or funders can make or break you.
  • Because the sustainability of any organization is based largely on trust, the quality of your relationships — and how much a leader invests in them — is critical.
  • Marketing is an organization-wide function.
  • If leaders don't "walk the talk," they won't get the support they need from staff and external stakeholders — and are unlikely to be around very long.

Although it isn't always easy, as leaders we must give ourselves the time and space to build our knowledge, skills, and capacity to be better leaders. The future of our organizations — and our sector — depends on it.

Pier C. Rogers, Ph.D., is director of the Axelson Center for Nonprofit Management, North Park University.