It has been my experience that relatively few people including non-profit Board members themselves truly understand the special circumstances under which their non-profits operate. A better appreciation of them can go a long way toward making your participation more enjoyable and your contributions more meaningful. I know. In 1991, I made the crossover from the corporate world. Even though I had served for some non-profit groups, taking on my new role as the CEO of a high profile non-profit was a real eye-opener – easily as challenging as any of the for-profit turnarounds I had previously been involved with. It wasn’t just this experience, but subsequently working with other non-profits that has really impressed upon me that if we share a better understanding of how non-profits work, our efforts toward our causes will be even more effective.
1. Non-profit leadership lacks leverage. Most non-profits are understaffed with many critical functions performed by volunteers. This is particularly true of the Board of Directors, member committees, and governance responsibilities. Though often volunteers will have had many accomplishments in their field, their participation in a non-profit gets juggled with more primary responsibilities in their life, their business, family, or perhaps even their hobbies. Spending some time with their favorite charities where they can offer “a few pearls of wisdom” and provide guidance makes them feel good and important, but they are usually not prepared in advance for what is properly expected of them. For many, their non-profit work might best be described as a hobby.
Secondly, often for-profit leaders who volunteer their time to non-profits have become “delegators” and no longer “doers” so that when they are tasked with “doing something,” they become uncomfortable and don’t respond well. Being volunteers, non-profit leadership lacks the same leverage to coach and correct that would be available to them in the for-profit world. When people attend meetings unprepared, don’t respond to communications, or don’t follow-up on their commitments, the non-profit leadership and the staff is left with the delicate task of trying to make up the difference while keeping everyone reasonably happy. Do you fire or discipline a volunteer? Of course not, and you never want to embarrass anyone.
A competent non-profit leader has several tools to overcome this – quiet, private diplomacy, peer counseling, and advance board orientation of what is expected being three of these items.
Before accepting a task or position, ask yourself if you are prepared and willing to complete it in a way that would reflect proudly of you? On the flip side, your non-profit staff should also appreciate that your involvement with this cause is just one of many responsibilities you balance in your life.
2. Non-profit supporters tend to have less respect for non-profit leadership. The reasons are several. First, they view their non-profit counterpart not so much for the delicate balancing act they must perform, but rather for the smaller staff and tiny budget they see in comparison to their for-profit world. Sometimes unless the members were intimately involved in selecting the leader, they may not know the person’s background or they may be less committed to that person. Finally, occasionally some volunteers may have special accomplishments in their chosen field and at a very personal level tend to look down upon those lacking the same skills or accomplishments. They bring this ego to every function.
These factors come with the territory and anyone who aspires to non-profit leadership must accept this and be prepared to gain the support and respect by the job they do – not on the basis of their resume.
3. Differing agendas. Within the first twenty-four hours on the job as CEO in my first non-profit, I was bombarded with as many separate agenda requests as I had board members. Not only were these agenda directions scattered all over the map, but also many of them were in direct conflict with one another. The stronger personalities among my Board wasted no time bypassing the proper channels of communications and governance to pitch their passions.
Your executive must be able to say “No.” Moving forward, the use of nominal group techniques is an exceptional way to develop a strategic consensus and buy-in among diverse groups. Once accomplished, there is a legitimized mission and subsequent operating strategy to move forward with no room for renegade agendas – and your staff is better protected from renegade requests.
4. Resources are limited and easily squandered. Did you ever realize that in most non-profits, the more you satisfy your stakeholders, the more you drain your resources? For those who come from the for-profit world, that is just the opposite and a big learning adjustment for them.
It is incumbent upon your leader to constantly communicate this challenge as opportunities come up for consideration. Are you building your non-profit with a quality staff that has the resources to accomplish what is expected in a sustainable way? Do prospective opportunities really fit with your non-profit’s long-term mission, and is your organization adequately equipped in manpower, skills and finances to support them?
5. Management by consensus requires different, but just as rare and special skills sets as those styles required in the for-profit world. In most any corporation, the mission statement quickly binds everyone together though there may be many variations in the “how.” Be that as it may, everyone brings their own mission with them to a non-profit and there are apt to be just as many “hows.” This translates to endless consensus building, slower decision-making, and even being slower to act. This is not a result of your staff, but rather the input that your staff must digest.
Management by consensus requires a different personality and operating style on the part of your non-profit executive. In counseling non-profits, I have discovered that it is an unusual circumstance in which a successful for-profit executive will quickly be as successful in the non-profit world. I know that I had to learn “patience” very quickly. Rather than becoming frustrated with your leader because they may not share your strengths or passions, these differences may actually constitute the very essence of what is required.
6. Approval processes differ and are much slower in non-profits. In the corporate world, an accomplished executive running an operation can often quickly enact movement and change. In the non-profit arena, the savvy leader will need to take far more time building a consensus among key stakeholders to include: board members, donors, influence-makers, partners, community, and staff. Just as this paper outlines many nuances that previously were little understood, so too must your Leader and staff take the time and effort to also educate different stakeholders.
Are you and your leadership making an effort to understand and support each other in affecting growth and change?
7. Governing emphasis in non-profits will often be on the wrong areas. How do you measure success? All to often in governing non-profits there is the inward emphasis upon managing costs rather than the outward focus of affecting positive change. Are you more interested in overhead costs or operating results? Are you more interesting in attracting and building a world-class organization to support your mission? Too often Boards try to squeeze a lot of output from a meager, ill-prepared staff. If so, you will experience expensive staff turnover and never develop the “institutional memory” that a sustainable staff can provide. Of course, there should be a balance in the two directions. In many ways, a competent non-profit staff should be as “entrepreneur” as any in the for-profit world because they have to be more creative in stretching themselves and providing a valuable service.
Where is your interest and how do you measure the success of your staff and non-profit?
8. Time Pits. You’ve heard of “money pits,” but with any non-profit there can be “time pits” as well where staff must sometimes spend an inordinate amount of time servicing a very few individuals – at the expense of other people and issues. Yes, donors. Board members or other stakeholders may take an inordinate amount of your staff’s time for whatever reasons. Simply realize that as a volunteer or donor, your organization probably doesn’t have the organization “slack” to be able to have everyone access leadership and staff all the time.
Are you respectful about the time and resources you require? Are you careful not to divert your non-profit staff’s time from their mission?
9. Patience and passion. Many for-profit executives can be excited about the prospect of crossing over to the for-profit world, but if they lack patience and passion for your mission, you will have a virtual revolving door of turnover with your non-profit leadership. Yes, business acumen and people skills are paramount to success, and technical or the mission-specific knowledge embedded in the non-profit can quickly be learned, but the very attributes that aided a leader in the for-profit world may immensely frustrate them working with non-profits. Some people do, in fact, successfully transition, but my advice is to let them crossover with someone else’s organization.
Resist your temptation to be impressed by someone you’d be excited to hire in your for-profit organization. Rather analyze does he or she have the consensus and people skills, fortitude, enthusiasm, and patience to succeed. Unless your organization is quite large, a “generalist” who can wear many hats and “roll up their sleeves” can be good too.
10. Let your Leader lead. If you continually feel that you must micro-manage your leader or staff, you probably have the wrong leader. Every organization may have a person or two that have to have their handprints over everything. If that is someone you know, try to help them resist that urge. Having assisted in the search and coaching processes for leaders of non-profits, it has become apparent that too much supervision can drive a competent, passionate non-profit leader running for the exit. You hired them to lead so let them do it.
Does your leader possess the people skills, business acumen, energy, and enthusiasm to do his or her job? Does your leader continue to have their eyes on the target? Are you and the other stakeholders adding value or distracting? Is the organization moving in the right direction? Are the finances, the staff skill, and Board’s skill sets improving? And lastly, how might you better serve your non-profit?
These are all good questions to ponder and even discuss. Keeping in mind these points, you will likely be a more valuable and a much more fulfilled contributor!
Bob Fagan is Western Vice President of The Callahan Group, LLC and has led or consulted with non-profits since 1991. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.