Nonprofits are run by leaders at all levels. From project managers all the way to board members and executive directors, competent leaders are what keep organizations running and fulfilling their missions of helping as many people as possible.
Ultimately, an organization is only as effective as its leaders. If nonprofit leaders aren’t functioning at the highest possible capacity, every aspect of the organization suffers as a result. Therefore, it’s critical to adopt leadership habits and strategies to better manage your team and keep things running smoothly.
Especially this year as nonprofits continue enduring pandemic-related challenges like social distancing and the economic downturn, nonprofit staff and volunteers are looking to leaders for direction. However, just because you might be a confident leader doesn’t mean you have to have all the answers! Just like your team, you should be constantly learning and adapting as situations change. Additionally, effective leaders adopt these universal habits:
- Make decisions based on values.
- Stay flexible.
- Empower team members to grow.
- Inspire team members to give their all.
- Get organized.
- Lead with humility.
Here at Boardable, we work with nonprofits and equip their boards with the tools and resources they need to be productive leaders. From managing day-to-day board member responsibilities to spearheading new initiatives, we’ve seen nonprofit leaders use these habits to communicate better, inspire their teams, and help grow other leaders, too. Let’s take a closer look!
1. Make decisions based on values.
At many nonprofit organizations, change is constant. Growing organizations adopt new processes and strategies as they scale up operations and adapt to changing situations. Many leaders find themselves unsure of the best way to lead their teams through change while maintaining a high level of effectiveness and efficiency.
When challenges inevitably arise, one of the best ways to prepare yourself as a leader is to keep your core values in mind. These fundamental beliefs will guide your actions and illuminate the best path forward in times of uncertainty.
There are two different types of values you should keep in mind when leading an organization:
- Personal values: These are the beliefs that you hold most strongly and that guide your behaviors and motivations. Personal values include things like honesty, kindness, creativity, justice, and integrity.
- Organizational values: These are the core beliefs and principles that influence the culture of your organization and represent what your nonprofit stands for. These too can include the above aspects like honesty, integrity, and creativity, and can also encompass things like accountability, respect, and teamwork.
So, let’s say you’ve got an unexpected crisis on your hands or a conflict between two of your team members. At first, you might feel lost when thinking about the best way to handle the situation. This is often described as “imposter syndrome” — feeling like you aren’t equipped to be a leader, and that someone made a mistake when they put you in charge.
However, remember that you didn’t get to where you are by accident. When faced with difficult situations, reflect on both your personal and organizational values to help determine the best course of action.
These values will give you a starting point for your response, as well as expectations for your team. No matter what changes or challenges arise, your values give you a solid foundation to tackle any new situations with a cohesive approach and a positive attitude.
2. Stay flexible.
Along the same lines, one of your personal and organizational values is likely flexibility. Being able to pivot when something’s not working is a strong habit that many nonprofit leaders practice.
As we’ve all seen, the pandemic changed plenty of aspects of nonprofit work. Staff members had to adjust to remote work while attempting to inspire supporters to stay involved.
The pandemic wasn’t the first crisis to rock the nonprofit sector, and it won’t be the last. On an organizational level, no matter what project you’re working on, there’s always a chance for something to go wrong, such as:
- Your live streaming platform could crash and halt your virtual event.
- Your fundraising letters can get lost in the mail.
- Your board members could accidentally show up late because of calendar confusion.
Through any of these disruptions, if you focus on staying flexible and giving yourself chances to pivot, you’ll be able to get back to where you need to be. Always have a second, third, or fourth option. For example:
- Have a backup video streaming option.
- Save copies of your letters to send out again.
- Send frequent reminders ahead of board meetings.
Anything you can do to stay flexible will help your team and give everyone more peace of mind in the long run.
3. Empower team members to grow.
You likely have a team of staff members or volunteers under your direction who are contributing to your organization’s mission and goals. Most people who are drawn to nonprofit work already have a solid foundation of strong values and a desire to help others. As their leader, there are plenty of ways you can equip them with the tools and knowledge they need to be successful in this sector.
After all, your team members are the prospective future leaders within your organization. Plenty of people start as lower-level staff members or even volunteers and work their way up to higher nonprofit leadership positions. The first step to growing these new leaders is to consider and respond to their needs.
Do your team members value professional development and growing their knowledge of nonprofit issues? If so, there are plenty of resources such as online learning tools, books, and journals to share with your team to help them grow their knowledge. Check out this page for a comprehensive list of nonprofit professional development resources to facilitate learning within your team.
Further, do your team members desire social learning and mentorship? There are plenty of e-learning resources that facilitate virtual discussions and mentorship relationships between newer and more experienced leaders.
Take these opportunities to invest in your team members’ growth and development. The more knowledgeable your team members are, the more they’ll be able to effectively contribute to your nonprofit’s overall mission. Plus, people derive greater satisfaction from their work when they know their managers are invested in helping them nurture their skills. This promotes better staff and volunteer retention rates.
4. Inspire team members to give their all.
In a similar vein, it’s important to not only nurture your team members’ professional development but also their passion for the work. People can’t put their all into something they’re not passionate about, and even your most ardent team members can experience burnout. Nonprofit work is demanding, and it can often feel like there are too many problems in the world to be able to truly make a difference.
You can help mitigate burnout and rekindle your team’s passion by leading by example. Here are a few examples of how to do this in practice:
Example #1: Nonprofit Board Chairs
Let’s say you lead a nonprofit board. According to Boardable’s guide to being an effective board chair, one of your major responsibilities is to facilitate board meetings and foster the board’s success. If your board members are ineffective, the effects trickle down to every other aspect of your organization.
One of the best ways to inspire your board and keep them engaged is to develop an environment that is positive and inclusive. Take each meeting as an opportunity to set an energetic, motivational tone. Between meetings, focus on building relationships with members to create trust and familiarity.
Through these actions, you set an example for fellow board members, and the positive culture you generate at the top will infuse all other aspects of your organization.
Example #2: Volunteer Managers
If you’re a volunteer manager at a nonprofit, your job is to inspire people to contribute their time for free to aid your organization.
Double the Donation’s volunteer management overview explains that there are several aspects involved when it comes to energizing volunteers, including:
- Recruitment: Promoting your organization’s opportunities and finding new people to help out.
- Empowerment: Training volunteers and placing them in roles that align with their skills and interests.
- Communications: Giving volunteers the information they need to get involved while also offering opportunities for them to provide feedback.
- Recognition: Acknowledging and thanking volunteers for their hard work and commitment.
Throughout each aspect of the volunteer journey, it’s important for volunteer managers to maintain a positive outlook and provide individuals with a fulfilling experience that aligns with their values and skills. By meeting them where they are and nurturing their skills, you can help your most motivated volunteers become leaders in their own right.
Each of these examples demonstrates the power you have to facilitate experiences that strengthen team members’ commitment to the cause, and by extension, your organization as a whole. Focus on igniting team members’ passions by developing their personal growth and connections to your organization.
5. Get organized.
The most effective leaders know that it’s impossible to keep everything organized and keep your team focused without a system in place to standardize your processes.
Use a combination of technology and your own effective habits to stay organized and demonstrate reliability to your team.
For example, if you’re a board chair or an executive director, you can boost board involvement by using tech tools such as an Agenda Builder, Votes and Polling feature, and a Task Manager to assign and delegate tasks and provide clear direction to team members on next steps.
Even if you’re a first-time leader managing a project or program on your own, you can implement good habits into your workflow that promote order. For instance, you can:
- Take notes during meetings or delegate note-taking tasks.
- Share timely recaps and updates with your team.
- Prioritize important tasks with a system such as the Eisenhower Matrix, which helps separate urgent and important tasks from less urgent ones.
- Think ahead to set schedules, define goals, and track progress.
These are just a handful of habits that will help you systematically sort your tasks and keep your team on target to complete its goals. Figure out the organizational systems and processes that work best and encourage your team to use them through repeated reminders.
6. Lead with humility.
As a strong leader, you might often have the urge to present a perfect image. You’re worried that if your team members see you struggling, they may have less confidence in your abilities as a leader. But in reality, the exact opposite is true.
Feeling uncertainty and anxiety about if you’re doing a good job means that you care about your work and that you want to see your team succeed. By leaning into this discomfort throughout your leadership journey, you can start to look for answers within yourself, rather than constantly seeking outside sources of validation.
When you start to get comfortable with discomfort, you’ll build your confidence and begin to lead from a place of humility. You’ll recognize that you don’t have all the answers, and you can bring your team members on the journey with you to work through challenges and find solutions.
This is what Concord Leadership Group defines as the “Focused” leadership stage — the ability to lead yourself and others with grace and flexibility.
Leading with humility is a skill that can only be learned through repetition. The more you strive to embody these qualities, the more success you’ll have throughout your leadership journey.
Ultimately, you can embody all of these qualities through repeated use and practice. By sticking to your values, empowering your team members, getting organized, and practicing humility, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a more effective, inspiring leader at your nonprofit. Remember that leadership training, along with powerful management software, can assist you in this journey and help you establish the habits that work best for you. Good luck!
About the Author: Jeb Banner, CEO of Boardable
Jeb is the founder and CEO of Boardable, a nonprofit board management software provider. He is also the founder of two nonprofits, The Speak Easy and Musical Family Tree, as well as a board member of United Way of Central Indiana and ProAct. Jeb is based in Indianapolis, Indiana.