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Six ways to be an effective nonprofit leader

Flickr image by GinasPics

Have you ever worked with a nonprofit leader that just would say NO to everything you suggested?

Did you ever think, ‘Oh M. G. I can’t take it anymore” and run out?

Did you ever want to partner with other nonprofits but feel stymied because your organization wasn’t nimble enough to take advantage of opportunities like that? Too much bureaucracy? Or maybe you just didn’t have the power to decide that partnerships could happen?

I’ve noticed some of these issues and I’ve come up with a theory of what makes an effective leader. Whether you’re getting your Master’s in Nonprofit Management or your Master’s in Public Administration, I think these can be useful for you.

Do you have what it takes to be a good nonprofit leader? As I’ve made a study of what helps people be good leaders over the last five years, I’ve come up with six key things that can make or break an organization’s effectiveness. And we all want to be effective, right?

Here are the six qualities of effective nonprofit leaders.

1. Listen to what other people tell you and say yes to their suggestions.
This is as simple as someone saying, ‘Hey, can we partner with Nonprofit X? We could get some more exposure out of it’ and then just say YES. Or if someone else says, ‘Can we get a donor database now? I’ve researched them and this is the best one’ then just say YES. It’s a principle of one of the most successful car companies in the world. Ever heard of Toyota? Anyone at Toyota can make a suggestion and it will be tried to improve the effectiveness of their processes, whatever they are. This is lean methodology, also known as Kaizen. I have a whole section in my book devoted to this concept, and it can make such a difference in terms of making your nonprofit effective.

2. Appreciate people who work for you.
You need to build relationships all of the time, and especially with the people that you work with. These people need to see that you respect them. And when you appreciate them, you show them you respect them, and why they should continue to work even harder for you. A little thank-you when they do something right can mean so much. Maybe a big smile and a “I really appreciate what you did there” at other times. But in my experience so many people don’t know how to do this. If you don’t know how to do this, watch other people who do it really well. And emulate them.

Finger puppet

Flickr Picture by Eric Schoon

3. If you have a problem with someone, meet with people and communicate with them clearly. I guess if it gets too serious, you could always use a finger puppet to say things for you?
There is so much bad communication in really tiny nonprofits, and there’s just no excuse for it except that people need to figure out how to communicate without blowing their stack. And what I find helps the most is weekly check-ins with people in your team. Even if it’s just you and the executive director. Get in there and have that meeting. Sit in the waiting area and chat about what’s going on, what you need help with, ask about priorities, etc. If you are off track, it can be corrected quickly with weekly meetings. When you are no longer meeting, communication breaks down and then it’s just a matter of time before you don’t have a job anymore.

4. Have passion for what you are doing and share credit whenever you can.
When you have true passion for the mission, when you are connected to the deepest pains of your clients or donors and you can articulate that to everyone around you, when you really love what you do and how you do it and how it all helps others, then people are going to love working around you and with you. You connect with the pain and then you can connect with a solution. Everyone likes problem-solvers. And also people who share the credit for doing something right. So when you do your work, appreciate the people who helped you do it. When you hold up people of lower status than you, that makes you look like a generous leader. And you are if you can make it a habit.

5. Push yourself to develop new skills and go beyond your comfort zone.
This means instead of saying, “Well, we’re not doing that because we don’t know how therefore it doesn’t matter” just ask someone. Say, why should we do this? What makes it a good thing? What will it get us? And then if there’s an opportunity for you to learn something, like a more effective way to deliver services, then learn it. It doesn’t take that long to learn about what other people are doing. We are getting so interconnected now that almost as soon as an innovation happens, when it’s published online, other people can get aware of it and start to replicate it, or connect with the person doing it and figure out how to make it happen on their scale. This can help you be more eligible for grants, when you take best practices of other nonprofits and apply them to your own. It can also keep you on your toes.

6. Ask for help.
This is huge. This could be partnering with another nonprofit, this could be bringing in an accountant to do your taxes, this could be asking someone to help you with board recruitment, this could be asking your board to help you fundraise, this could be even bigger, this could be getting a consultant to help you do better organizational communication, or getting a scholarship for continuing education for your employees to improve their knowledge. Maybe they just need to learn how to administer the website better. Maybe you need to ask an event manager for help. Asking for help is different than not paying for things. But sometimes, right, there’s founder’s syndrome and/or type A stuff where you think you have to do it all and be it all and you can’t show that you don’t know something, and seriously, it is SUCH a relief to ask other people to do things for you, and/or pay them, and know that it’s going to get done.

Do you agree? Disagree? Any more qualities that you think I’ve left out? Please leave a comment.