If you’re like me, the best lessons you learn are the ones you learn the hard way. 
• Cutting corners usually comes back to bite you
• Eating a big breakfast so you can cut down on your lunch and dinner-not so much
• Cramming for a test the night before-good luck with that

I’ve tried them all, including the ones mentioned above, and they all taught me important lessons I’ve carried with me as I grew up. Some of us just fall in love with the lesson so it takes a while before we finally “get it”.

The same principle applies to nonprofit leadership. I see it time and time again. Here are 6 lessons I see many leaders learning the hard way.


1. Building an Effective Board Requires Forethought 

Too often, leaders fill open seats by inviting friends or supporters to serve on the board. While this can work sometimes, it usually ends up a disaster. Good volunteers, major donors, or friends and family don’t always translate into qualified board members.

Strive to thoughtfully build your board with candidates who bring specific skills or connections that can help advance your mission. Effective boards don’t just happen. You have to constantly be on the lookout for “good-fit” candidates who can step in when openings occur.


2. Funding Doesn’t Just Happen 

Funding for your organization isn’t going to fall into your lap – you have to go out and get it.

Challenges can arise, such as donor preferences changing. Foundation and other grants usually have a specific timeframe and amount, so their funding isn’t guaranteed. And, if you’ve ever had to rely on government funding, you know how unreliable that source can be.

As a leader, you should always be looking for ways to strengthen funding relationships and identifying new ones

Expenses on the other hand, that is a whole different thing. Like death and taxes, expenses always show up. At the same time, those expenses just keep on piling up if you don’t manage them aggressively. They especially start piling up during slow fundraising times, like the summer months.


3. Capacity Building is NOT an Option.

By capacity building, I mean periodically and consistently improving the agency’s ability to deliver its services and programming. Sadly, some agencies try to make their initial processes and procedures work far too long, even as they grow the number of clients and services.

As your agency grows, it is tempting to put all your revenue into services, but it’s critical to reinvest in the systems and people that will make the agency function better. Leaders stifle an agency’s impact when they fail to capture the benefits (both cost-wise and service-wise) of upgrading systems.

I would recommend investing in training, hiring skilled staff, and upgrading computer or phone systems. I’d also include social media and marketing strategies into groups of critical systems that need periodic upgrades.


4. Metrics are Your Friend

Some nonprofit leaders believe measurements, deadlines, and specific goals make an agency feel more like a business. I get that.

However, those tools keep your staff and board laser-focused on your mission and ensure the most effective use of your precious resources. One person said measurement and goals are the gravity that pulls an organization closer and closer to its ultimate goals.

Metrics are also helpful when speaking with donors and would-be donors to demonstrate how successful the agency has been and how worthy it is for additional support.


5. Staff and Volunteers Don’t Always Tell You Everything

This is perhaps the scariest one of all. An agency’s team is tightly bound together by a common cause – its mission. Even with all that said, leaders do not always hear the straight scoop. 

You may get bits and pieces of what is happening but you might not always get the plain (sometimes ugly) truth you need to be an effective leader. As a CEO, I used to walk around our building periodically listening and speaking with everyone I could.

While some issues brought up were what I’d call “one off’s”, I would pay close attention when I heard the same issue coming from several people. A mentor friend of mine said, where those bits of information from separate sources start to criss-cross, there is usually enough substance there to merit further investigation.


6. High-Value Directors Need to be Engaged

The good thing about high-value directors is they bring unique talents and motivation to make a difference. The bad thing is once you recruit them on the board, they need to feel purposeful and engaged. If leaders let directors sit around like potted plants, they will soon leave and join another board. 

Good board candidates are always being asked to serve on other boards, so it is important to keep them engaged and make them see how important and valued their involvement is.

Are you struggling with board challenges, team issues, or making tough decisions? Check out my nonprofit leadership coaching program, Leading for Impact and work one-on-one with me. Get the support you need to further your mission and become the leader you were always meant to be.

Leading for Impact