Philanthropy journal – New blood – Change at the top

By Todd Cohen

United Way of America has named a new CEO, and the American Red Cross needs one.

Strong stands on controversial issues cost both leaders their jobs.

And while the two groups are among the largest U.S. charities, they share with most nonprofits the huge job of finding leaders who can handle crisis and change.

In addition to the nuts-and-bolts skills needed to run an organization, including the ability to inspire and motivate people and help them work productively with one another, a chief executive must connect the organization to the outside world — raising money, mastering policy issues, marketing the nonprofit’s message and services, and forming entrepreneurial alliances.

And in times of stress and flux, a chief executive must be resourceful and nimble enough to adapt and find new ways of doing business, particularly in the face of evolving social needs and changes in technology and the workforce.

The job of hiring chief executives falls to nonprofit boards, which themselves face challenges in filling board seats and ensuring that board members get the sophisticated skills they increasingly need.

To cope with the increasingly complex demands on nonprofits, board need members as savvy and flexible as the staff they hire.

While many boards continue to keep their distance from the inner-workings of the nonprofits they oversee, for example, many others are taking a hands-on role.

So in addition to their traditional role of setting policy, approving budgets, raising money and overseeing senior staff, many boards are getting involved in day-to-day operations, putting their managerial, entrepreneurial and strategic know-how to work for the organization.

Running a nonprofit is a tough job, seeming to leave little time – if any — for the work of finding and developing board members and staff leaders.

But nonprofits cannot afford not to invest time, attention and resources to building and developing strong leadership teams.

Fortunately, a growing number of programs have emerged to help board and staff members strengthen their leadership skills.

To name just a few, these programs include national groups like the National Center for Nonprofit Boards, statewide associations of nonprofits, local management assistance centers like CompassPoint in San Francisco, graduate and continuing education programs in philanthropy and nonprofit management, and groups like InnoNet and the Center for What Works that provide assistance on issues such as best practices and benchmarking.

Nonprofits can make productive use of these programs only if they recognize they must invest in equipping their board and staff to be strong leaders.

The future of our society hinges in large part on the ability of nonprofits to tackle the complicated problems we face, and business as usual won’t work.

Leadership is a job that requires continual learning, thinking and training – critical skills needed to cope with change.

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