Creating, Renewing, and Leading Nonprofits in the 21st Century: A Review

By Stephen Donshik

(Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World: Platforms, People, and Purpose by Hayim Herring and Terri Martinson Elton; Rowman & Littlefield, 2017, New York)

Every once in a while a book appears that calls out to be read by leaders, board members, committee members, and staff of new, emerging, and existing congregations and nonprofits – and this is such a book. This book is so helpful in this environment of constant change that I suggest it be required reading in preparation for strategic planning processes that examine not only how the organization is functioning today but also how it plans to respond to future challenges. The book is also a valuable tool to help organizations use social media not only to develop their leadership but also to be more effective in reaching out to clients, donors, and volunteers, as well as providing needed services.

The unique contribution of the book is its approach that combines the realities of today’s ever-changing world with the key concepts of what it takes to create viable nonprofit agencies and congregations. Herring and Martinson Elton argue that we need to change the way we think about our leadership’s group dynamics. We should not be bound by the traditional structure and pattern of a collection of standing committees, but rather should use a dynamic approach that reflects the behavioral needs and styles of today’s leaders. They emphasize three rules to guide us in developing that dynamic approach. First, let go of some of our control over the process and replace it with more openness that invites people not only to share their opinions but also to have real involvement in decision making and ownership of the nonprofit. Second, develop new ways of doing things. And finally, create clear lines of decision making that are not cumbersome. Social networks may pose a challenge, but they also give people an equal voice, support their involvement, and help realize their potential to become active and committed leaders.

Although conventional wisdom emphasizes the difficulty of developing committed leadership, the authors demonstrate how providing people real, substantive roles encourages their true engagement in the organization. This is facilitated by creating a participatory culture that is based on open access to the information necessary for people to make important and relevant decisions together.

The authors make a very strong case for more openness on the part of the leadership as the means to create an authentic process that supports and encourages continual engagement, innovation, and an entrepreneurial approach. They discuss not only how to create such a process but also the difficulties in doing so. One key issue they cover is the importance of creating a sense of intimacy among those active in the nonprofit, based on trust developed between executives and members of the board.

Of course, there is a risk in initiating this type of process. What happens when something does not work out? Not every effort, idea, program, or service will be successful. Part of being a leader is knowing when something is not working, how to make the necessary changes, and which alternative plan is needed. If committed, engaged, and active leaders are involved in the planning processes, then appropriate changes can be made that strengthen the organization and move it in different directions, as more effective programs or processes are implemented.

The book has a user-friendly design. In addition to each chapter’s conceptual discussion, each has suggested readings and exercises to assist readers in experimenting with the suggested approach. I believe that the authors’ approach is essential to the success of 21st-century nonprofits and synagogues; in fact, I gave a copy of the book to an organization I care about deeply and suggested it be used as a tool to look at future directions as it makes a change in its executive staff.

I urge you to also read this book and apply its approach to strengthening the organizations with which you are involved and feel passionate about.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a retired lecturer at the Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School and occasional contributor to