Trend Spotter: Learning and leading nonprofit organizations in uncertain times

By Joanne G. Carman and Richard M. Clerkin

Nonprofit organizations rely tremendously on the knowledge, experience and talents of their leaders. In North Carolina, nonprofit leaders are taking advantage of vast array of professional development training, as well as formal and informal peer to peer learning opportunities. They also describe receiving considerable support for their leadership development efforts from their boards of directors, staff and peers, in spite of the fact that they continue to report that they are experiencing financial uncertainty and management and capacity challenges.

Because nonprofit leaders are so busy trying to meet the demands of the job, it can be hard to find time to reflect and learn, as noted in Learn and Let Learn, a report issued by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and NYU Wagner’s Research Center for Leadership in Action. The report is part of the Scaling What Works Initiative.

In the fourth survey of Trend Spotter, a special project of the Institute for Nonprofits at NC State University, we asked small North Carolina nonprofits with budgets under $600,000 to tell us about how they were learning to lead their organizations. Sixty-six nonprofit organizations completed the survey.

Eighty-eight percent of participants reported that they had engaged in some type of activity during the last two years designed to improve the way they lead their nonprofit organization.

More than three quarters of the respondents took part in some type of training or workshop. Half participated in webinars or professional development conferences. One third reported that they joined in some type of peer learning community, retreat, or summit. Others looked to websites, journals, or trade magazines for information about how to improve the way they lead their organizations.

Though less frequently, some respondents also noted that they participated in mentoring relationships, took college or university courses, pursued professional development opportunities (such as fellowships or licensing opportunities) and engaged in online discussion boards.

When we asked which leadership development activities or experiences had helped the most, the majority of the respondents cited professional development training and learning from their peers.

With respect to professional development training, many respondents identified specific training programs and workshops provided by local providers as being particularly helpful, including professional development and capacity building efforts offered by: Blue Cross Blue Shield North Carolina Foundation’s Healthy Community Institute for Nonprofit Excellence, which is headquartered in Raleigh; Center for Civic Engagement at Davidson College; Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro; Leadership Triangle of Wake, Chatham, Durham and Orange counties; N.C. Center for Nonprofits in Raleigh, and Western North Carolina Nonprofit Pathways in Asheville.

Some respondents described how being a member of a professional group, such as the Association of Fundraising Professionals and the American Society of Association Executives, was also helpful. Others, like Amy Nalley of the Boys & Girls Club of Eden, located near the North Carolina-Virginia border, noted how professional development training provided by national affiliate programs, like the Boys & Girls Club of America‘s Advanced Leadership Management Program, was helpful too.

In contrast to focusing who was providing the training, other survey respondents described how the specific content of professional development opportunities was helpful. Among these respondents, workshops and trainings relating to legal compliance for Internal Revenue Service’s Form 990, developing policies and procedures (i.e., internal financial controls and conflict of interest policies), using social media, fundraising, and raising awareness were the most helpful.

Some respondents described how specific community college courses, certificate courses and master’s degree programs helped them to improve their leadership skills. As one respondent noted, “I recently took a class at the local community college that helped me a ton.” Another explained, “Getting my master’s degree in counseling has helped me be a better supervisor of staff and programs.” A third described how a graduate program has provided him with “a wealth of knowledge and tools” that will help him to improve the way he leads his organization.

The survey respondents also described how they appreciated the applied nature of peer learning activities. As one respondent described, the most helpful leadership development activities she participates in are “activities that are moderated by professionals in my field who can relate directly to what I do on a daily basis. This generally comes in the form of trainings that include hands-on techniques that can be immediately implemented in my organization.”

These peer-to-peer learning opportunities ranged from casual meetings and conversations with peers to participating in formal, peer learning groups or communities. One respondent noted that “talking to other leaders that are in the trenches every day” was most helpful.  Others described how they attended national conferences to meet, learn and network with peers. Another respondent said “peer learning communities have helped me the most. My peers face similar issues and this creates a unique understanding of some of the challenges I face.”

Findings from this Trend Spotter survey echo the findings of The Power of Learning: How Learning Communities Amplify the Work of Nonprofits and Grantmakers (2012), a report commissioned by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and produced by NYU Wagner’s Research Center Center for Leadership in Action. As the Executive Summary describes, “participants in [a learning community] not only learn from each other, but learn how to behave as members of the community, including how to exchange knowledge, acquire skills, and change their practice.”

According to participating Trend Spotters, these experiences can be very rewarding. As one respondent noted, “I worked with group of peers from other organizations to prepare federal grant application. We each brought our strengths to the program design, application components and implementation. I really enjoyed the teamwork.”

Others described how they enjoyed participating in professional conferences, retreats with other agency heads, webinars and peer learning communities, and developing better connections with other leaders. More than three-quarters of these nonprofit leaders reported that boards of directors, staff and peers were somewhat or very supportive of their leadership development activities. When we asked these nonprofit leaders to describe challenges that they face as a leader, about half of the respondents cited issues relating funding, describing concerns about declining budgets, budget shortfalls, funding cuts, the economy and generalized uncertainty about the future. Others identified a range of management and capacity issues. Yet, for most of these leaders, participating in learning communities, fostering peer to peer relationships, and engaging in professional development is a bright spot during uncertain economic times.

Joanne G. Carman is an Associate Professor in the Political Science and Public Administration Department at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. Her teaching and research focuses on program evaluation and nonprofit management, and she is the coordinator of the Graduate Certificate in Nonprofit Management. Richard M. Clerkin is an Associate Professor in the Public Administration Department at NC State University. His teaching and research focuses on philanthropy and management and he is the director of the Graduate Certificate in Nonprofit Management.

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