By: Crystel Anders
As the former leader of an organization that raised funds for more than 60 nonprofits it was easy to be focused on our financial strategy. And yet, if we were going to achieve our mission of providing support and visibility to our members, as well as deliver on our intended outcome of building a social and environmental change movement, it was critical to focus more broadly on sustainability. Sustaining a nonprofit over the long-term requires leaders to place equal emphasis on financial strategy, mission impact and leadership. If we recognize that change is inevitable – whether that is funding streams, board and executive leadership, or the ever-changing needs in our communities and world – we must acknowledge that investment in current and future leaders is a key to sustaining the organization over time.
As an executive director, I understood that I would not be with the organization forever. I frequently observed other nonprofits struggle through an executive transition that resulted in decreased effectiveness and sometimes failure. As an important funding entity in the community, I wanted the organization to be prepared for the many transitions it would face including my eventual departure. To that end I concentrated on expanding the internal capacity of the organization. By incorporating shared-leadership principles, creating an engaged board, being intentional about organizational values, and establishing organizational systems I was able to leave the organization in a position of strength.
In its most basic sense, shared leadership is providing opportunities for others to lead. I used simple steps such as giving others the chance to represent the organization in the community, foster relationships with donors, or manage projects as ways to increase confidence and skills. I encouraged others to implement innovative strategies to improve their work and experiment and take calculated risks. I also integrated opportunities for staff to reflect upon and learn from their experiences. And finally, I invested in staff training and appreciated a diversity of perspectives and skills to create the foundation needed to sustain transitions.
I learned over time that the best board leaders were highly engaged because they understood how our programs fit into the broader community. I realized that board leadership is a continuum that begins with recruitment and orientation. The elements I found most successful included:
- Identifying what skills and/or community connections we needed to increase our organization’s impact before we recruited new members;
- Asking specific questions of all potential board members to ensure their values and passions aligned with our organization’s priorities;
- Providing information on current programs and priorities during recruitment and then reviewing those priorities during orientation;
- Mentoring new members as preparation to lead;
- Sharing progress on our priorities and seeking input;
- Focusing board discussions on programmatic priorities; and
- Celebrating successes.
All organizations have a culture that reflects their values and connects to their mission. Jeanne Bell refers to this as the leadership ethos and goes on to say that “as organizational and movement leaders, we must become conscious of how the practices of leadership we are employing and cultivating in others reflect (or not) the broader ethos of our work.”  The organization I led was focused on social and economic justice and it was important that the mission was reflected in our work. A representative board, collaborative decision-making, and an open membership recruitment practice served as spaces for us to live our mission. But there were also many subtle components such as:
- Being intentional about partnerships;
- Supporting and participating in events/activities with local organizations led by a diversity of people;
- Developing authentic relationships with other leaders;
- Utilizing businesses that reflected our values, (i.e. Cooperatives, Unions, women and minority owned);
- Increasing competencies related to diversity, equity and inclusion;
- Establishing a cultural competence plan;
- Compensating people fairly and equitably; and
- Promoting and modeling work/life balance.
All organizations have infrastructure, standards and benchmarks that need to be tracked and managed. Effectively coordinating these systems requires oversight and maintenance. Too often practices for tracking and directing resources, policies, bylaws, and internal procedures are not regularly reviewed or updated and yet these systems reflect the organization’s beliefs and provide transparency for staff, board and supporters. I believe that these systems are the underpinning of the work and their worth is evident during moments of change.
Focusing on leadership development across the organization will serve nonprofits well when executive transitions occur and with every day strategy. By cultivating and using all the talent in the room, nonprofits create a base for greater impact. And finally, this approach will strengthen the sector over time by developing its future leaders now.
By JEANNE BELL NPQ’s winter 2017 edition, “Advancing Critical Conversations: How to Get There from Here.”