The Strength of the Nonprofit Lies in Delegating Responsibility

Many years ago there was a TV commercial that showed an exchange between a mother and daughter. The daughter was under a great deal of pressure and feeling the pain of a terrible headache. When her mother attempted to help her with something, the daughter turned to her and said, “Mother, please, I would rather do it myself.” How many times have we said something similar when someone offered to help us? And how many times have directors and supervisors responded in this way to their subordinates who are in the process of implementing a program or project.

How to delegate responsibility is not a issue unique to nonprofit organizations, but it is of such importance because of its implications for the productive use of human resources. Often the greatest asset of the nonprofit is its professional staff and volunteer leadership. If they are not utilized to the optimum the agency is selling itself short and stunting the growth of both the organization and the staff.

This posting is directed to senior professionals, those who have had years of experience directing programs and projects. The challenge is for those of us who have had administrative responsibility for other staff members to realize that our role is greater than just the implementation of a specific project. Instead, we should be focusing both on the program and on the development of the subordinate staff and the volunteers we supervise. This way we are strengthening the agency through broadening and deepening the skills of its professional and volunteer human resources.

Yes, when we are directing a program or overseeing a project for a long time, we know what works and what does not work. This is especially true when we have experienced both successes and failures. We do want the program to be successfully implemented and built on the years of experience. When someone else is delegated the responsibility for the program we would like them to build on the agency’s past experiences. However, everyone needs their own professional space. At the same time we try and balance what has taken place in the past with what our imprimatur on the program.

Most of us begin our careers by being responsible for the nuts and bolts of service delivery. As we move up the administrative ladder we find ourselves one step removed from the actual program. At that point we are supervising others who will develop and implement the programs that were our responsibility in the past. We then face the challenge of deciding how close we want to remain to the program.

Do we trust the people we have hired to work with the program? Do we trust our judgment in hiring them? Are we prepared to provide them with an opportunity to make mistakes and learn from their mistakes?

We need to answer “yes” to all three questions. If we interviewed and selected those staff members, then we need to have confidence in our judgment and their abilities. We have to assume that they will be invested in their own success and, in so doing, will do their best to make sure the program is a success.

Delegation means realizing we cannot run the entire race ourselves, and we have to hand the baton to the next runner on the team, even though he or she may drop it.

Yet, delegating responsibilities does not mean being hands-off. We should not assign tasks to the worker and then exit the scene with the feeling that we have fulfilled our obligations. Our focus should not be on implementing the program, but rather on providing the support, encouragement and assessment of the staff member’s efforts. The supervisory process provides the opportunity for the staff member to understand his or her professional practice in the Jewish community’s third sector.

Supervision needs to be conducted on a regular basis: A 1 to 1 1/2-hour meeting with supervisees every week to 10 days is an appropriate framework. The goal of supervisory sessions should be to not only hold staff persons accountable for their progress but also to empower them through helping them understand what they need to do to be more effective in their position. The process can develop professionals who are skillful and knowledgeable.

Yes, mistakes will be made, and sometimes a program will not achieve its goals. However, we all learn from being less than perfect. We can analyze what went wrong and what should have been done differently. Experiencing this kind of process enables us to look at ourselves and the role we played in implementing the program or project. Whether as an entry-level or senior professional or a volunteer leader, if we do not have the opportunity to take responsibility, then it will be difficult for us to test out our ability to use our knowledge and skills.

When we delegate responsibility, we have to realize that the tasks we assign will not be done in the same way we would have completed them. However, such delegation does mean that the organization is demonstrating its confidence in the staff member/volunteer. Through delegation we strengthen the organization by having the staff build on and learn from their experiences. The next time we ask a staff member or a volunteer to take responsibility for a program or project, it behooves us to make sure we have indeed delegated a meaningful task that enables them to make a contribution and learn from their work.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.