Paper boat leading the fleet
Leadership Published Date, 2022

Leading The Business Of Philanthropy: Shhh… How Quiet Leadership Can Power Nonprofit Organizations

Created By: Kelly Dunphy
April 7, 2022

Orr Group’s “Leading the Business of Philanthropy” series explores what we’ve learned over the years from collaborating with client organizations and their ambitious leaders. Here, Managing Director Kelly Dunphy weighs in on the power of quiet leadership. We welcome your responses on Twitter and LinkedIn. Use the hashtag #LeadingPhilanthropy.

When we think of leaders, many of us picture orators like Winston Churchill or Martin Luther King, Jr., who inspire followers with their powerful speeches. However, not every great leader is great at the podium. Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012) celebrates the contributions of introverts like Rosa Parks and Mahatma Gandhi who motivated others through powerful actions and soft-spoken pronouncements. Where extroverts tend to talk, socialize, and emote, introverts tend to read, listen, and contemplate.

>>> Learn more: Susan Cain’s TED Talk, “The Power of Introverts”

Over the course of my 20-year nonprofit career, I’ve learned to leverage my introversion in my work helping to advance the missions of Orr Group’s partner organizations. This has meant leaning into what I do best, though I’m also capable of stepping out of my comfort zone when the situation calls for it. Just last week, I led a board retreat, which required being “on” and leading and facilitating a group for two straight days. My fellow introverts know what kind of energy that takes out of you!

Nonprofit organizations need a mix of extroverted and introverted talent to accomplish their missions. When it comes from a place of mutual respect, this partnership can be the basis of innovation and greater success than either type can accomplish on their own. It’s important to recognize what introverts and extroverts bring to the table. As Cain writes, “To understand how to maximize these employees’ contributions is an important tool for all leaders. It’s also important for companies to groom listeners as well as talkers for leadership roles.”

The Quiet Nonprofit Executive

Nonprofit boards are responsible for hiring executive directors and evaluating their performance. This is one of their most important functions, but given how busy board members tend to be, first impressions often carry the day. In job interviews, the board may instinctively gravitate toward the candidates with the most charisma or—more damagingly—those who most remind them of themselves. Unless boards intentionally examine their unconscious bias, they run the risk of overlooking the quiet (or relatively quiet), efficient, innovative leader their organization may need.

Don’t underestimate charisma. In a crowded field, it can attract new supporters to your cause and make them feel like they are part of something that is changing the world. Certainly, this is the case in political campaigns, and organizations with an advocacy mission need compelling speakers on the team. Remember, however, that it’s a mysterious and subjective quality, and not everyone responds to charismatic personalities the same way. Even when you have a leader in place with indisputable magnetism, someone on staff better be good at fostering deep relationships and ensuring the smooth operation of all the daily tasks that go on behind the scenes.

The Quiet Fundraiser

Raising money sometimes depends on delivering a persuasive pitch, but it’s also crucial to listen to donors in order to understand what motivates them. Picture a dinner party with a low roar of small talk and a gregarious board chair holding court. You might think that’s where the action is, but there are also one-on-one conversations taking place that matter just as much. When we listen to a donor’s stories about their children, private struggles, or professional accomplishments, we not only solidify relationships; we gather data that might be useful for further engagement. After the event, an invitation for a site visit or a follow-up note showing that you heard what they said can turn a casual donor into a committed supporter.

Organizations have the best chance of connecting to donors when introverts and extroverts (the difference between whom, it bears repeating, isn’t always clearly demarcated) come together around fundraising goals. This recipe works for foundations and corporations as well as individuals.

What Your Introverted Colleagues Want You to Know (But Probably Aren’t Saying Aloud)

Introverts sometimes need encouragement to speak up in meetings and advocate for themselves. If you have one on your team, here are some of the things they might be thinking but not saying out loud.

  • We’ve learned a lot from listening and from reading. If you give us time to think and space to speak up, we’ll share our views.
  • Sometimes the first or loudest thought in a meeting or brainstorming session isn’t the best. We admire your ability to start the conversation and hope you’ll pause soon to hear what we have to say.
  • We’ll try to speak up more, but please don’t try to turn us into extroverts. As Cain writes, “We can stretch our personalities, but only up to a point.”

What am I missing? If you classify yourself as an introvert, what do you wish people around you understood better?

With practice—and mutual respect—teams with a balanced makeup of introverts and extroverts can harness the strengths of both.

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