The Nano- Micro- Mini- Nonprofit MBA: Leadership (Course 2)

In August, my colleague Curt Klotz wrote a blog post that he dubbed The Nano- Micro- Mini- Nonprofit MBA. He promised a series of succinct posts over a few months that will cover the gamut of practices and knowledge needed to manage a nonprofit. The inaugural post (Course 1) covered five crucial financial management topics vital to the success of any nonprofit leader. Curt challenged the rest of us at Propel Nonprofits (formerly Nonprofits Assistance Fund and MAP for Nonprofits) to develop our own five topic courses to add to the curriculum. Here, then, is installment two of your latest higher education endeavor.

The Nano- Micro- Mini- Nonprofit MBA, Course 2: Leadership

Can you learn to be a leader? Much has been written about how to identify and develop nonprofit leaders. Stories about effective leaders often portray a unique combination of attributes and strengths that have been leveraged with knowledge, skills, and experience to produce the right combination at the right time. The syllabus for this leadership course builds on five essential characteristics of great nonprofit leaders share.

Help wanted: Nonprofit Executive Director

Requirements: Passion, Curiosity, Boldness, Vision, and Kindness

Course requirements: Learning and developing these attributes takes practice and support, so homework is required.

  1. Passion. A leader must believe in the organization to their core with passion and commitment. This certainly takes heart – and it also takes knowledge about the problem/opportunity the organization exists to address and the complex environment in which they work. Nonprofit leaders are students of their field and the work of their organization, continually searching for and absorbing new information, ideas, and research. Understanding the history, trends, and developments in your field, your community, and your clients equip you to advocate for continuous improvement. Nonprofit leaders know how to tell stories about their organization’s work supported by data (and how to accompany their data with a great story.)Homework assignment: Make some time every week to stay current in your field by reading journals and blogs and attending meetings and conferences with your peers and community leaders. Staying current feeds and informs your passion. For advanced students: take a leadership role in your field, research and write articles, and participate at a public policy level.
  2. Curiosity. Nonprofits are business enterprises with many interconnected, moving parts. Effective leaders are curious and excited about this puzzle and want to figure out how to make the organization work better and to adapt to changes and new developments. Executive directors learn to be both mission leaders and business leaders and to set the tone that the business and the mission are components of a whole. It takes curiosity and tenacity to integrate them in planning, organizational structure, and management practices. Once you have some success, it’s even fun.Homework assignment: Embrace your role as a business leader and dive in to the strategic, organizational, and financial areas. For a jumpstart read the article An Executive Director’s Guide to Financial Leadership.
  3. Boldness. Are you willing to tackle challenges, rebound from setbacks, deal with conflict, and be held accountable for your decisions? Good. Leadership sometimes demands bold decisions and actions, often based on less than perfect information. There is a big difference between being the sole “decider” and leading a group of people through a discussion and consideration of important decisions together. In the end, the leader takes responsibility and owns the decisions. Boldness is often needed when a nonprofit is considering changes or contraction in programs. Organizations, communities, and funding opportunities change, and the mix and balance of program activities may need to change. Every program at an organization has advocates and supporters, though, and decisions to redesign or let go of a program can be difficult. Change is hard, and leaders are willing to show the way.Homework assignment: The Mission Money Matrix has been a valuable tool for understanding and assessing a nonprofit’s full portfolio of programs. Assessing the programs is step one. For many nonprofits, making changes – taking action – has been harder than expected. Join me on October 25th for the “Mission Money Matrix: Now What?” breakout session at the MCN 2013 Annual Conference.
  4. Vision. Where are you headed, why, and how will you know if you’re getting there? Nonprofit leaders learn to stay focused on the organization’s purpose and goals despite the pulls that come from every direction. Like passion, leading with vision takes heart, and it takes knowledge and skills. Visionary leaders bring people together to understand their environment, develop plans and strategy, analyze and adapt their business model, and measure and evaluate progress. One of my favorite leadership quotes is from Max DePree, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor.”Homework assignment: Develop a financial vision that aligns with your mission and strategic plan. Read the article Transforming Nonprofit Business Models and join my colleague Phil Hatlie on October 24 for the “Financial Butterfly Effect” breakout session at the MCN 2013 Annual Conference.
  5. Kindness. We all want to work with leaders who demonstrate empathy, compassion, patience, caring, openness, and humility. Nonprofits are made up of people – staff, clients, patrons, partners, board members, donors and funders, and neighbors. They all bring history, talent, strengths, foibles, and assets with them, and they deserve a kind, generous, caring leader.Homework assignment: Pay attention to the people around you. Listen more than you talk, and pause before you respond. Repeat daily.

Class dismissed – but you never graduate from this leadership course. You just keep practicing, learning and discovering what’s next.

Stay tuned for Course 3 of this series in a future posting. We don’t promise a diploma or convocation, but we do hope you’ll be inspired and challenged by your continuing higher education.

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