Executive Director. CEO. Board Chair. No matter the title, if you’re in a position of leadership in a nonprofit, your real job (no matter the size of the organization) is Master Plate Spinner.


Is balance in nonprofit leadership even possible?


I think we all can agree that life as a nonprofit leader can be a challenge. And often leaders of small or start up nonprofits have an even tougher time. As the official “face” of the agency, you’re constantly pulled in many directions at once — either by people or important issues — needing attention, with each seemingly just as important as the last.

Even experienced leaders of well-established — and smoothly running — agencies can get caught up in the push-pull of the day during certain times during the year.

As a nonprofit leader you make several important decisions every day to determine where to invest your time, constantly reprioritizing everything on your plate. How do you ensure you’re making the right decisions? Doing the right things, in the right order, leading others successfully, all while remembering to do your own important work, too?

Some leadership experts call this the tyranny of the urgent. But the wrong decisions can eventually collapse your leadership, and could be detrimental to your organization and mission.

Recently I was talking with an old friend of mine. He is a successful business owner now, and I wanted to learn how he was able to keep it all together in the beginning — especially before he was able to add a significant support staff. I asked him how he dealt with all the roles he had to play in the beginning, all the priorities he had to address, and all the distractions he frequently faced.

He told me about a system he created. I call it the 25% Solution. He said the only way to keep things straight and on track, when he was basically doing it all, was to divide his activities into four quarters on a daily or weekly basis. I thought his take was quite insightful, so I want to share it with you.

4 quarters

He believed his major activities as a one-person business fell into four buckets and he worked hard to put equal time into each bucket on a daily or weekly basis. They were:

  • Client servicing
  • Continuing education
  • Marketing
  • Administration (building up his “back room” support)

While some days got out of his control due to his client responsibilities, he always kept a running account of how he was doing balancing his four buckets. This helped him to stay focused on what mattered in the NOW while still keeping his eye on building for the future.

So my question to you is this. Would this work for your nonprofit? What are your buckets and how much time should you devote to each one?

I speak regularly with many nonprofit leaders of small, start up, and larger-sized nonprofits and they all tell me how easy it is to work hard but not get the most important things accomplished. It can be challenging to stay focused and keep the main things, the main things. What could the 25% Solution look like for your nonprofit? Here’s a starting point for you to try.

  1. Financial
    1. Fund Development
    2. Financial management
  2. Marketing and Community Outreach
  3. Administration
    1. Board responsibilities and director relationships
    2. Staff Professional Development
    3. Strategy and Implementation
  4. Community Impact
    1. Client services
    2. Program effectiveness

Should you spend equal time on each bucket? You’ll need to try out this strategy and test it to fit the needs of your specific agency. Experiment a little and see what works…

leadership balance

If these buckets don’t adequately cover your issues, then create your own. The important thing is to pay attention to where you’re spending your time. Is it balanced (overall) in the different areas, or do you spend most of your time on just one area — like client services? While I completely understand that there will be times one area may pull you stronger in a direction for a little while, it’s vital that you shift your attention to each of the areas, if you want to keep your nonprofit running well now, and on the right track for the future.

I know at first this approach might feel constraining, and perhaps a bit inhibiting for your leadership style. But in order for you to be a successful leader you have to lead in all areas, setting appropriate boundaries where necessary, and even saying no occasionally when needed.

I challenge you to try the 25% Solution out for 30 days. Take a few moments to map out your four key areas, and identify the critical elements of each. Use a weekly calendar to track where you are spending the bulk of your time. Keep in mind… the goal is not to create a perfect system, but to establish balance within your organization, and help shift your focus from each of the areas that need your leadership.

You may find the experience to be eye-opening, and by the end of the 30 days you may also see a dramatic shift in your organization.

Do you think the 25% Solution will work for you? 

Struggling to find balance in your agency? Download the free 5 Powerful Questions Workbook to learn how to keep your agency moving forward, in spite of daily challenges.