Nonprofit Leadership Needed

by Todd Cohen

Nonprofits need to lead, and quickly.

At home and abroad, we face serious threats from multiple, cascading crises, including shattered economies and financial systems; toxic and gridlocked politics; poverty, disease and illiteracy; global terrorism; natural and ecological disasters; and, in the U.S., a culture infected with greed, blame and intolerance.

Missing in action in taking on those problems is leadership, a role that nonprofits can and must play.

Yet with the social and global needs they exist to address escalating rapidly, nonprofits themselves are stressed and increasingly broken by crises of their own over who will lead them, the role their organizations should play, and the business models they will need to survive and thrive.

The challenges facing nonprofits are huge, and meeting them will require leadership that is exceptional.

Nonprofits need leaders who can help rebuild their organizations; set a vision for what they aspire to accomplish; and identify and develop partners and supporters they will need to effectively take on community problems.

But nonprofits as organizations also need to be leaders.

In a speech last month at the annual conference of the N.C. Center for Nonprofits, James Joseph, former U.S. ambassador to South Africa and a former president of the Council on Foundations, urged nonprofits to help fill the void in the U.S. in moral leadership.

To do that, nonprofits need to shape a “post-crisis narrative” about the role they will play, get over their “fear of public life” by getting involved in policy work and public debate, and recognize that their assets consist of more than simply financial capital, said Joseph, a professor emeritus of the practice of public policy at Duke University.

The nonprofit sector is the “custodian of values and resources,” and the “conscience of our democracy,” he said, and should serve as an “independent moral voice” and develop messages to “build the national will” in addressing the urgent problems we face.

To be effective leaders for social and global change, however, nonprofits first need to get their own shops in order.

Also last month, at the first session of the second annual course offered by the Leadership Gift School, an initiative in Charlotte, N.C., to build the philanthropic culture of local nonprofits and the community, fundraising consultant Karla Williams told teams of staff executives and fundraisers from a dozen local nonprofits that leadership and philanthropy are “philosophically intertwined,” rooted in an innate desire to fix a problem or improve a cause.

So truly advancing a nonprofit’s mission requires a business model that integrates strategies for building the capacity of the organization and for serving the community.

That requires leaders who can build relationships and communicate, both within their own organizations and in their communities.

Leaders, whether individuals who lead organizations, or organizations that exercise moral leadership, can lead effectively if they can and will listen, share, include, think ahead, and take risks that make sense.

Leaders in the nonprofit sector must help develop and share the story of the community needs their organizations address.

They must develop partners and supporters who care about community and can work together to identify critical assets and resources, and put them to productive, innovative and collaborative use.

Sadly, many nonprofits lack true leaders and themselves fail to lead, stuck in the mindset that they and their causes are victims.

Instead, nonprofits need to look for ways to grow and partner, and to find the community assets they can use and share to make a difference.

At the Leadership Gift School, Williams cited Max De Pree, former CEO of Herman Miller and author of Leadership is an Art.

The first job of a leader, he said, is to “define reality,”

The second is to be a “servant.”

To successfully navigate today’s crises, nonprofits must step up and lead by telling the story of the urgent social and global problems we face, and serving their communities by shaping the vision, and developing the partnerships and resources, needed to fix those problems.

Todd Cohen is editor and publisher of Philanthropy Journal; reprinted with permission.