Charity executives, here’s a simple suggestion for improving your job satisfaction, for feeling proud about your organization’s accomplishments, and becoming known as a one of our sector’s shining stars. Own your title. That’s right, be what’s printed on your business card.
For over 30 years I’ve worked in, or consulted with, nonprofit organizations and I’ve served on the Boards of several others. I’ve worked with many chief executives. Almost everyone was highly-skilled, well-educated, and experienced. And almost everyone of them spent most of their time coping with being actively challenged, or passively thwarted, by people who had fewer skills, less education and experience. For many years I bought the idea that these miscreants were solely to blame. I listened emphatically when CEOs told me that they had great ideas for advancing the missions of their organizations but were being blocked by dim-witted Boards and incompetent staff. I attended, and even led, countless workshops about managing up, coaching, servant leadership, and building dynamic teams. But nothing changed.
I challenge us to now view this issue from a different perspective. Perhaps we’ve over-emphasized (or misunderstood) the concepts of stakeholder inclusion or servant leadership. What if CEO’s just take charge? That’s right: what if you just unapologetically lead? My observation is that you’re not leading, you’re following. The 19th century French politician, Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin said, “There go my people, I must find out where they are going so I can lead them.” I fear that we’re seeing a similar approach to leadership in our sector.
Of course, it’s imperative to understand the aspirations of your stakeholders. But once those have been identified, those folks expect you to activate those goals. Yet I frequently see a strange circular dance occurring. Boards create strategic plans and approve budgets. But then when professional staff – led by the CEO – should take over and animate these documents, they keep asking the Board “how to” questions.
Here’s an example. The strategic plan call for the expansion of services to an under-served group. A couple of months into the execution of the plan, the CEO returns to the Board and talks about difficulties reaching the new group. She then asks, “what do you think we should do?” The Board is confused. Its members likely lack the ability, knowledge, and expertise to answer the question. If the CEO is lucky, they say that. But usually, they try to answer the question and their suggestions aren’t good. The CEO gets frustrated. Board members start to worry that she’s not capable of enacting the plan. Trust declines.
There are good ways to engage stakeholders; to get support and enliven passion. But most often I see poorly executed short-cuts that create frustration and stagnation.
When you engage volunteers and staff, are you dumping problems on them, or are you inspiring them with exciting ideas to consider? Dumping gets you unworkable solutions. Inspiring gets you praise, and people motivated to help the organization move forward.
Do you promote bold action, or are you afraid to move until everyone agrees. Do you complain about the quality of your Board, but don’t actively participate in a recruitment process to get great people involved? Do you despair at being disrespected, but at every meeting recite a long list of operational problems, ask for help, and then wonder why people consider you weak and incompetent?
In fact, you are not incompetent. You know what needs to be done. You have the skills to make it happen. You feel badly when your organization fails to soar. So what’s up? You’re afraid. I get it. What if you push for change and it doesn’t succeed? What if you challenge incompetence and people get hurt or hate you? What if a faction of your stakeholders disagrees and leaves? What if you fail the people you’re called to serve? What if you get fired?
Bold action is risky. But here’s what we know: history celebrates the people who took action in spite of fear. Do you want your legacy to be that you did a mediocre job, or do you want to be remembered as one that truly made the world better?
In the coming weeks, I’m going to explore our sector’s hunger is for leadership. We see evidence all the time. Donors asking about impact. Organizations finding it impossible to recruit great volunteers and staff. An endless parade of new charities. A public so tired of the status quo that it will choose destructive change over competence.
I see some great leadership in our sector. I also see people who have the potential to be great leaders, if they could just rise above their fears. It is difficult. But there are tactics and incremental steps that people can employ to become the leaders they aspire to be. Next week: managing your Board of Directors.
Denny Young is a Professor at Humber College, and Coordinator of its prestigious Fundraising Management Postgraduate Certificate program. He has been in the profession for over 25 years and shown exemplary leadership as an executive, educator and mentor. His experience includes senior fundraising and communications roles in a number of sectors including health, social service, and the arts.