How Can You Lead Better? 

After serving on several boards and consulting with many others, I have seen many problems, strategies and decisions made by leadership that resurface again and again. These issues hold boards back from giving their best effort and performance. If any of these seem familiar, you should see what you can do to address them.

25 Best Practices For Nonprofit Leadership

  1. When nonprofit agencies use metrics to challenge an individual’s performance, it often just demotivates that person. Instead, use metrics as a magnet that draws you more quickly to success by identifying the best and shortest pathway to accomplish your goal.
  2. If boards meet infrequently, smart leaders engage with directors between meetings. Leaders keep valuable directors involved and feeling needed. 
  3. Successful leaders know they must deal in facts to make good decisions. It is important to hear truthful, complete, and honest opinions when speaking with others. Try meeting with directors outside of board or committee meetings with no agenda. Just meet one-on-one to pick their brains, listen, or solicit their honest feedback on issues the agency is facing. Create a safe space for them to open up and share honestly. If you have an advisory council, use it. Council members do not appreciate being recruited and then rarely being consulted. Also, be sure to keep them in the loop of important goings on so they can feel informed and ready when you seek their opinions. 
  4. Healthy conflict on the board is OK. Confident leaders encourage diverse opinions when making decisions. Often, that is how the best decisions are made. Don’t stifle disagreements unless the discussions get personal. Then, stop them immediately, remind everyone that personal comments or attacks are out of bounds and try again.
  5. Board chairs and executive directors who don’t have the moral courage to speak truth when necessary usually end up with bigger problems later on than the ones they are avoiding now by skirting the truth. 
  6. Intentional volunteer management is an often overlooked role in a nonprofit agency. Don’t let volunteers show up with little or nothing to do. They want to work, feel helpful, and valued.
  7. Strive to engage the entire board in discussions as much as possible. Avoid letting senior directors crowd out newly recruited ones during board discussions. Be sure to try reaching out intentionally to new directors who are quiet or seemingly afraid to join the discussion.
  8. Don’t forget to thank the spouses of you directors. They are serving and sacrificing, too.
  9. Executive directors and development directors work hard to develop relationships with donors. Unsuccessful ones look at donors as walking check books and so will rarely be as successful in the long term as they might have been.
  10. Smart leaders delegate as much as possible to others. Agency leaders should delegate most assignments to subordinates to develop them and to remain available for other work only the leaders can or should do. Board chairs can make extensive use of board committees to study and investigate pending issues before bringing them to the board for action.
  11. Collaboration with other agencies can be beneficial to your clients and less expensive to you. Give it a try whenever possible.
  12. To impact one’s community, leaders need a robust strategic plan. That is how leaders can ensure everything is in alignment and supports it. This is how a leader ensures all decisions, goals, budget, staffing, and structure are all working together.
  13. Communicate with staff and volunteers more than you think you need to it. Continue doing so until your key messages have been repeated several times.Even when it feels like you are overdoing it, you should probably continue repeating your key messages and talking points. People do not “get” things the first few times they hear it. They need time to fully understand what you mean.
  14. Top running agencies provide subordinates and new directors with chances to take on challenging assignments That is how they professionally grow and derive enjoyment in their service.
  15. Let others lead specific events whenever possible. Don’t feel you have to do absolutely everything yourself.
  16. When recruiting new director candidates for board service, take time to clearly explain your expectations. This would include meeting attendance, committee participation, financial support, volunteer commitments, etc.  It is better to lose them now rather than once they are on the board officially. Boards undergoing turmoil can trace their problems to poor on-boarding of new directors.
  17. Don’t let your leadership style focus only on the little details and processes. Periodically, pull back, go somewhere quiet and take a 50,000 foot view of the agency as a whole. Ask yourself, how it is doing, what is working, what isn’t, what is needed to get the agency to the next level of impact? Would someone want to merge with us or acquire us, if they had a chance?
  18. Translating donations is always effective. When asking for donations, clearly explain what a donor’s monetary gift translates into regarding client assistance. For example, “$100 will feed a family of 4 for two weeks”, or “$100 will provide 10 children with school supplies when school starts”.
  19. Leaders who do not develop their subordinates usually lose them to other agencies.
  20. Board chairs who allow meetings and discussions to drag on and on endlessly will lose high value directors and end up with a mediocre board, at best. Don’t be a weak chair- don’t be Atilla the Hun either – but don’t be a weak chair. Boards and directors want to be led.
  21. Don’t let meetings adjourn until the board secretary has captured all the agreed upon future action steps, assignments, and due dates that arose from board discussions.
  22. Always be recruiting potential board chairs onto the board, not just directors, to build a strong bench of candidates capable of filling the top board spot. It is better to have too many qualified candidates than too few.
  23. Don’t let disengaged, disruptive, or disinterested directors remain on the board. Work to counsel them to get their performance or behavior back up to expectations or create a plan for their removal and replacement. There are only so many seats on your board so each one has to perform.
  24. Top leaders I know are not afraid of criticism, being challenged, or changing their minds when facts deem it appropriate. Be a top leader. You will be more effective and respected by your team and board.
  25. Where board chairs and executive directors work closely together, agencies run well, have no hidden agendas, and effective carry out their mission. They stay in touch and hold back nothing so the agency can succeed.

I find honest and timely discussion help board members to avoid most operational or relational problems. Don’t hold back or avoid bringing things up when necessary. Setting clear expectations helps nurture top performing board because everyone will remain focused on the main issues before them.

Try bringing some of these practices into your agency and your leadership style. Good luck!

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