It’s Leadership, Stupid

Great leaders are everywhere — in corporations, nonprofits and even in athletics. Recently I observed leadership in a group of runners taking cues from their trailblazer. She was shepherding the group forward, motivating them the entire way, because that’s what a leader does.

We want the same to be true with 501(c)(3) leaders. Staff and volunteers should be inspired by them, collaborators should enjoy working with them and they must resonate with donors. Once I worked with a small cultural organization where we tested this concept.

We were producing a brand new artistic performance, which was unquestionably the spotlight program of the year. It required some inventive fundraising, so our chief development officer (CDO) outlined a solid strategy. Through rigorous efforts, this led to cultivation of one particularly generous donor (let’s call this person “Major Donor”) whose support totaled 50% of our revenue goals. Huzzah!

The CDO departed soon after, and following some development staff restructuring, the executive director (ED) made the questionable choice to take on the lion’s share of fundraising. When the performances finally arrived, the ED’s behavior — disinterest in understanding basic performance etiquette, lack of presence and uninformed communication with Major Donor — led to unfortunate missed stewardship opportunities. After much damage control, Major Donor was pleased, and saw their philanthropy bring the performance to life. (Note: Performances continue to this day, supported still by Major Donor.)

This was an arts experience, though key takeaways can apply to all organizations contemplating or evaluating leadership:

  • Find leadership with a love for the mission. There are certain skills that can be learned, though passion is not one of them. If a savvy leader is truly interested in committing to an organization, their commitment is more likely to permeate beliefs and behaviors.
  • Reality-based understanding of what an organization does and how it happens goes a long way. Engagement stems from mission delivery, and a mission is carried out through programs, special events and other endeavors. Constituents get involved in personally meaningful ways, and leaders will serve best if they take the time to match their interests with an institution’s real abilities.
  • For those who have found their mission-driven, pragmatic leaders, proper staffing is really important. This doesn’t always translate to the ED or CDO being on hand at all times. It means that during those times of mission delivery — performance, 5k run/walk, clothing drive — the right leadership is present, valuing the mission and managing stakeholder expectations in real time.

George Harrison mused “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” Organizations often know their destination — balanced budgets, thriving programming, engaged staff, happy constituents — and intelligible, bold leaders can absolutely shepherd the journey.

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