Nonprofit Leadership Lessons for LEAP Year

10/28/2019: Day 3 of Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s JCamp180 conference in Springfield; photo credit: Shana Sureck Photography.

By Natasha Dresner

Leap years come once every four years. However, my employer – the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in Agawam, Mass – has decided to make every year a leap year. In the Fall of 2018, we instituted a new program called LEAP, the Leadership Engagement and Advancement Program. Through the program, which I have been privileged to run as part of my consulting role for the foundation’s JCamp 180 program, we offered the Board Chairs and/or Vice Chairs of the nonprofit camps we work with the opportunity to participate in a year-long program designed to improve their and their camps’ leadership skills and practices. Specifically, the curriculum focused on the key elements of every Board Chair’s/Board President’s job and role – nonprofit governance and board development; Executive Director support and supervision; effective board meetings; organizational culture; fundraising; listening, facilitating and coaching skills; and much more.

As it turns out, very few nonprofits offer formal or informal Board Chair training and support in these critical areas, particularly the kind where you can rub elbows not only with nonprofit experts, but also with peers – Board Presidents of other nonprofit organizations. That’s why we saw the need to start the LEAP program and why we structured it in the way we did. 

In October of 2019, we graduated our inaugural class of twelve exceptional leaders or, to use our language, a dozen LEAPers made their leaps toward being better leaders of their organizations. There were many lessons we learned together over the course of the year, however, in the interest of time and with a nod towards leap year coming only once every four years for the rest of you, here are four LEAP lessons that I think are worth sharing and applying to your organization.

1. Our organizations are more alike than we think.

In the group, we had experienced board chairs and those who never served as chairs; we had fiduciary boards and nonfiduciary ones; organizations that used term limits and those that didn’t; and so on and so forth. One of the participants – Gary Lazarus, Vice Chair of the URJ Henry S Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi – said “You know what really strikes me is how different we are on the one hand, but how similar our challenges are on the other.” The rest of the group nodded vigorously. “I guess at the end of the day,” Gary continued, “that makes us more alike than different.” So the lesson we learned that day was to stop ourselves from unhelpful thinking and statements like “yes I hear you, but we are different,” or “that’s great, but it won’t work for us” and, instead, learn from the experiences of others.

2. If you bring people together, make their time valuable.

We can bring people together, but the gathering may not be valuable or productive, unless a lot of thought, time, and energy is put into it before, during, and after. As leaders, we need to be mindful of the role we play in making our gatherings valuable – whether it’s a gala (which I’m against, but that’s a separate article) or a board meeting. It is your responsibility to take care of each individual and to ensure that they become greater than the sum of their parts. LEAP participants started as 12 random individuals (or so it seemed) and, by the end of the program, they became a close group of peers, colleagues and friends, who have relied on each other for advice, support, and honesty and will continue to do so for years after the program is over. There is lots that contributed to that transformation – from participants learning more about each other before they ever set foot in the same space to incorporating fun, social activities and food into the program.

From the space being set-up in a thoughtful and we-are-in-it-together way to the agenda’s every minute being thought through carefully ahead of time (although without being rigid about it). But the most important component, perhaps, was the fact that the participants committed to the key rules of the Program before they were accepted into it. For example, one such rule was to agree to have their board and top professionals participate in a survey evaluating each participant’s performance, which ensured that the participants were people who were willing and eager to learn, valued feedback, and didn’t think they did everything perfectly. It made it much easier to bring people together and make their experience more valuable. 

3. Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

You may be familiar with this famous quote by Peter Drucker, and we should all pay more attention to it. One of the specific examples we used in LEAP was this: you can send your board packet to people to read a week before the board meeting – that’s a strategy – but, if people are not going to read it – that’s a culture – your board meeting will be considerably less productive. So, during the program, we spent a lot of time talking about organizational cultures and understanding the behaviors that form them. We talked about the behaviors that help you support the culture you want to have as well as the behaviors that prevent you from having it. We connected everything we talked about – board recruitment and orientations, listening and feedback giving skills, fundraising policies, and more – to their organizational cultures. We used our program as a microcosm to have and explore these new and somewhat unfamiliar conversations; see what questions people ask, how they react, when and why they push back. The Board Chairs then continued these conversations with their boards and staff, investing the time into something we normally don’t make time for. They understood that replacing one strategy that failed due to organizational culture with another strategy was a waste of time without addressing and changing the culture. They also understood that their ability and willingness to hold themselves and others accountable was at the core of the culture change.

4. Just because you are the Board Chair doesn’t mean you know everything you need to know.

Do you invest in your nonprofit mission by seriously investing in your volunteer leaders? Our beloved nonprofit organizations cannot succeed without strong volunteer leadership. Particularly, the main volunteer leader – the Chair or President of your Board – whose day job and expertise, in most cases, has absolutely nothing to do with nonprofit governance and board “chairmanship” skills.  In other words, no matter how capable your board leaders are as professionals in their fields, most of them don’t know what their role as a nonprofit Board Chair is and how to execute it in the most effective way. Even experienced Board Chairs need professional development to continue to be effective in their role and to keep up with rapidly changing nonprofit governance rules and practices. Despite every chair’s hope and promise to make a real difference and take their organization to new heights, many chairs find themselves at the end of their term treading water, wondering what happened and where the time went. Being part of a professional development program like LEAP, that not only teaches you skills and best practices, but also allows you to learn and explore with your Board Chair peers is often a key missing element in your Board Chair’s ability to make a lasting impact.

I hope these lessons will help your organization make that impact, and LEAP ahead into the leap year and well beyond!

Natasha Dresner is an organizational development consultant and mentor with JCamp180, a program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in Agawam, MA. She can be reached at Natasha@hgf.org

Originally published in The Berkshire Eagle; reprinted with permission.