In a time of crisis, Nonprofits need to shift to Doing Things Right

By Todd S. Polikoff

I’ve spent a good amount of time recently thinking about Leadership. Given the current challenges that our world is facing, two people have come to mind. The first is the legendary explorer Earnest Shackleton. The second is the distinguished management guru, Peter Drucker, who said, “Leadership is doing the right thing, management is doing things right.”

One of the frequently referenced decisions that Shackleton made on his ill-fated scientific expedition centers around a banjo. When his ship, the Endurance, became hopelessly wrapped in ice in February of 1915, Shackleton understood that the primary mission had shifted to saving lives. He commanded his crew to jettison everything that was not vital for survival. Simultaneous to that order, he instructed the crew to save one non-survival item, a meteorologist’s banjo. While the banjo may seem insignificant and irrelevant, its inclusion defined Shackleton’s abilities as a leader. 

Despite standing in the middle of a potentially fatal situation, Shackleton personified Drucker’s model of leadership. He did the right thing – focusing on survival – and did things right – discarding the scientific equipment, while saving the banjo. Harvard Business School Professor, Nancy Koehn, succinctly described Shackleton’s decision making ability, “He’s able to simultaneously see the big picture – keeping his crew alive and returning them safely – and small details, such as the banjo’s ability to entertain the crew over long, dark days with little to do.” 

In 2020, the COVID19 pandemic has once again laid bare the importance of leadership, the consequences of its absence, and the role it plays in surviving a crisis. All sectors of life and business have had their “True North” shifted. What was once considered mundane and routine is now a disorienting moving target. There is an apparent consensus that the nonprofit sector, and arguably our society, won’t look the same when this pandemic subsides. In this environment, many leaders are “Doing the right thing” by shifting to survival mode. Budgets have been cut, personnel have been furloughed, and a more stringent definition of mission creep has dislodged entire departments. But survival mode is not a sustainable existence. Leaders must plan their organizations migration to “Doing things right” by ensuring that their professional teams and service recipients are supported and positioned to successfully endure this pandemic.

An exciting and generational opportunity exists within a leader’s ability to navigate beyond survival mode. As this pandemic continues, the number of those relying on the services of nonprofit organizations is growing exponentially. The increase in needs, and the reallocation of organizational financial and human capital, have brought about a new era of creativity in the nonprofit sector. It is through the lens of Shackleton and Drucker, and doing things right, that nonprofit leaders can harness this malleable moment in time, and the innovation it is breeding, to successfully define what their organizations, and the nonprofit sector, will look like post-COVID19. 

Todd S. Polikoff, MBA is the Chief Executive Officer of the Jewish Community Board of Akron.