Paper boat leading the fleet
Leadership Published Date, 2021

Leading The Business Of Philanthropy: The Five Skills Nonprofit Executives Need To Lead Change

Created By: Craig H. Shelley, CFRE
October 29, 2021

With this essay by Orr Group’s Craig Shelley, we kick off a series – “Leading the Business of Philanthropy” – on nonprofit leadership, outlining what we’ve learned from collaborating with client organizations and their ambitious leaders. We welcome your responses on Twitter and LinkedIn. Use the hashtag #LeadingPhilanthropy.

I like change. I’ve always thrived most personally and professionally when trying something new. As a leader of teams and organizations throughout my career, I’ve learned, often the hard way, that most people do not thrive in changing circumstances. The comfort of the familiar allows them to act effectively and within boundaries they understand. The world around us isn’t particularly kind to that mindset, however, with change becoming more constant and more fast-moving than ever before. More than ever, leading effectively during change is table stakes for nonprofit leaders.

Leading organizations and teams during times of change becomes the norm for leaders at all levels of an organization. Successfully navigating through change requires deliberate action, with a focus on:

  1. Goal setting. You have to define where you are going in objective and measurable terms. This is the only way you can be certain you’re making progress. Once the benchmarks are established, day-to-day agendas snap into place. Leaders reinforce these objectives in all-staff meetings, one-on-one with key staff, and in each and every email and interaction. While the mission remains fixed, the best strategies for getting there will inevitably change–especially as the ground beneath our feet shifts. Setting clear goals doesn’t mean being rigid; leadership demands flexibility and adaptation of new, more realistic objectives.
  2. Storytelling. Beyond the measurable indicators, it takes a compelling story to mobilize staff, donors, and other stakeholders. What is the narrative arc of the change your organization is pursuing? How will the world–or your corner of it–be different once you attain success? It’s up to the leader to communicate a sense of purpose that unites and compels, framing the mission in concrete, relatable terms. Writing last year in the Harvard Business Review, coach and consultant Jeff Gothelf defines storytelling as “how you build credibility for yourself and your ideas. It’s how you inspire an audience and lead an organization.” Stories drive change; when there’s no story, the vacuum can be ruinous.
  3. Consensus building. Unanimous agreement is an unrealistic expectation. In fact, if you find yourself in a room full of people who agree with your every utterance, you might want to invite different people into the room. Healthy debate actually supports consensus building. Strong leaders are strong enough to relinquish the details. Instead of adopting a command-and-control stance, they ensure everyone is moving in the same direction by engaging in open, honest dialogue. “The best way to show that you care is to start listening to the people you want to persuade,” writes management consultant Terina Allen. “In order to persuade people, you have to understand their challenges, struggles, pain points, etc. And then you need to ask thoughtful, open-ended, questions that serve to expand the conversation toward an area close to where you want to go.”
  4. Taking Initiative. If you don’t define the future, the future will define you. As we’ve all learned in the past two years, circumstances beyond our power are always waiting around the corner, but this fact makes it all the more urgent to proactively set the course towards the change you want. With a clear vision and ongoing strategic planning, anything is possible. Leaders don’t try to do it all themselves. They learn how to find and activate the right organizational levers. When I asked Karen Torres, President and CEO of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Washington D.C. how to persuade a large number of stakeholders, she told me, “I focus on finding the thought-leaders in any group. I then present a compelling motivation for the change to those leaders to form a coalition of supporters to help drive the change.”
  5. Patience. The nonprofit executive suite is inhabited by overachievers. The women and men who lead nonprofits are, for the most part, relentlessly driven in their careers. What happens when this unswerving pursuit of achievement comes up against an organization comprising individuals who don’t wake up at 5 a.m. and drive themselves hard all day long? The difference can lead to frustration and misunderstanding on both sides. Patience is a skill. The most effective leaders have learned to slow down the constant drumbeat and to expect change to happen at a sustainable pace that works for the entire organization.

Underpinning all of this are your personal and organizational values. As Artis Stevens, President, and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters America shared when I asked him about leading change throughout his career, “The most important focus I have in driving change in an organization is ensuring we are upholding our values through the process. Change can be hard in any situation. What I have learned from so many leaders and experiences is knowing, communicating, and living your values through change. Key to my values in any circumstance includes staying true to our mission and outcomes, representing myself authentically, leading with integrity, being inclusive of all voices, and keeping my commitments. My values are my constants and help me to navigate change more effectively.”

Change will never be easy for most people. A deliberate approach guided by your values and focused on the skills described above can help to ensure your organization not only survives the current environment of rapid change but thrives.

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