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Nonprofits must make leadership a priority

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Don Wells

Don Wells

Don Wells

Nonprofits face many challenges.

They include the seismic exodus of executive directors in the near future; the difficulty of recruiting knowledgeable and committed board members; low pay and exhausting work hours; and stressful economic times that force downsizing as demand for services increases.

All these are significant challenges that impact leadership.

Yet the greatest leadership challenge is rooted in that ubiquitous devil, the lack of time to both lead and to cultivate new leadership.

Leadership requires time to reflect, explore creative ways of working, and carefully discern the path of action.

It is a constant journey to be centered on the edge – away from the cocoon of the status quo.

Cultivating leadership in others also takes time, for leadership cannot be taught, but it can be learned.

It is learned through mentoring, in-depth situational analysis and the passing on of tacit rather than explicit knowledge.

All these processes are time-intensive and require intentionality to both make time and take time for them.

But, alas, the overwhelming demands of nonprofit management invariably trump the time card, erasing the making and taking time to address leadership.

Of course, excellent management is critical for an agency’s success.

But management deals with the status quo and is bound by chain of command, guided “by the book” and based upon positional power.

It takes time, and more time, and then more time because “there is always something.”

Effective leadership is patently not bound by the book.

It is working without a net.

Of course, working without a net is a bit scary, and the risks of failure drag down potential leadership flights like an anvil.

It is basically constructing a vision that captures passions to achieve the extra-ordinary.

If passions are not captured, followers will not have the courage to earnestly join in achieving the extra-ordinary, for the goal being sought is unfamiliar, strange territory.

Yet passions generally come from deep within us, from our hearts and the right side of our brain.

Calling them forth in others means we have to go deep down to form the vision, and that reflection takes time.

So what to do?

Put time in your day-minder to both lead and cultivate emerging leaders.

For a nonprofit staff, have a monthly meeting that centers around leadership. In it, explore:

  • How might you better meet your mission and vision?
  • What opportunities are out there that you might address?
  • What are you presently doing that you can drop?
  • What can you add?
  • Who would most miss you if you were gone?

For boards, an annual retreat is a must.

Is a three-hour gathering a retreat?

No: A three-hour gathering is a long meeting.

When recruiting board members, be clear that attendance at a day-long board retreat is a requirement for board membership.

During the retreat, pose similar questions as those posed above for staff.

And brainstorm – not thinking outside the box, but thinking as though no box even exists.

To meet the leadership challenge, agencies must make leadership a priority.

When it is a priority, we make time for it.

When we don’t, it is subsumed by the pressures of management.


Don Wells is the principal at Don Wells Consulting in Cedar Grove, N.C., and former director of the Certificate Program in Nonprofit Management at Duke University.

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