Put On Your Own Mask First: 5 Ways to Get the Nonprofit Leadership Support You Need

5 min
nonprofit leadership support
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Contributing Author

Joan Garry is the principal of Joan Garry Consulting and a founder of the Nonprofit Leadership Lab. She is also the author of “Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership,” with a second edition available for preorder now.

I was a lucky duck to join Classy’s event, the Collaborative: Virtual Sessions, this past June as a keynote speaker. It was a remarkable event and the folks at Classy were blown away by the attendance, with over 10,000 registrants joining the virtual conference. I wasn’t surprised.

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Nonprofit leaders are hungry—desperate, actually—to find the “golden ticket” that will drive resources to their work. It is the question I am asked most often, the biggest fear leaders have. How do I ask for money at a time like this? PPP funding was a lifesaver, but the clock is ticking—help!

This question makes sense, of course, but I’d like to make a case that there is a different kind of support that nonprofit leaders need. It’s foundational and will lead to all kinds of success, including—but not limited to—fundraising strategies that work.

They need to invest in their own abilities to be more effective leaders. That means professional development support, and it also means moral support.

Never before have I seen nonprofits struggle so much, and never before I have I seen the need for their work any greater. Sit with that for a second.

Imagine you run a homeless shelter. We are in the midst of a deep, dark depression driving more folks to the streets, and you can see the need growing exponentially. Then you look at your cash flow and realize that payroll is around the corner. You begin to sweat. That kind of pressure is just difficult to imagine.

Leaders need to recognize this pressure and need, and seek out nonprofit leadership support. It’s time for all of us to realize that there isn’t going to be a “new normal.” It may be time to eliminate the word “normal” from our vocabulary. Leaders need to fortify themselves to lead, to be ambassadors for the work of their organization, because on “the other side,” the need for services and nonprofit leadership support only gets greater. To do this work, nonprofit leaders need to take care of themselves.

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We live in a world where folks should be wearing masks. It’s time for leaders to don theirs. In this case, the mask I refer to is an oxygen mask.

As someone who champions nonprofit leaders and supports them in a variety of ways, I have some suggestions on how to strengthen yourself as a leader. Here are five of them.

1. Get a Coach, Mentor, or Thought Partner

In these times, this is the best investment you can make. Find a thought partner, someone on the outside who has a kind of peripheral vision. Someone to help you game out strategies to engage your board, have difficult conversations, you name it.

And if there is any cell in your body that thinks this is indulgent, snap out of it.

There are myriad coaches of all different kinds, approaches, styles, and prices. First, define what success looks like for you, and as you interview many potential coaches, ask how they can help you get there.  The most important thing is to find a good fit. Will you feel comfortable telling this coach what’s really going on? Could you share your vulnerabilities with them? And most importantly, is this person a compassionate truth-teller? Remember, you are not hiring a public relations person or an advocate. You have to be ready to hear things you might not enjoy hearing.

As a seasoned coach for nonprofit leaders, I interview candidates carefully to make sure that I can be of value and that I see an enthusiasm about growing and learning. I’ve written a lot about this; here’s a piece from the Chronicle of Philanthropy you may find useful.

No money at all? There are folks out there who have been in your shoes and would like to help. I’m thinking specifically of recently retired nonprofit executive directors—folks with great reputations willing to spend 90 minutes with you monthly to untangle knots together. This is a more informal route but can be very valuable.

2. Read and Share

I have grown to appreciate how often executive directors who say they have no time will swallow whole an article, a TED Talk, or a book in an effort to enrich their leadership abilities. The best leaders know what they don’t know and look to be enhanced and built up by resources of all sorts. The following are a couple resources I’d highly recommend for you:

  • Managing The Tensions of Change—This is a podcast of mine where Michael DePass from The Center for Creative Leadership talks through a way of navigating organizational change that honors what you are changing from while concurrently looking forwards.
  • Great by Choice—Run, don’t walk, to read this book by business author Jim Collins. It is about how organizations thrive (yes, I said thrive) in a time of crisis.

Illustrate your leadership not by just reading or listening to these resources, but also by sharing them with your board and your team. Consider sharing something you have read with your board before a meeting to ignite a discussion about leadership.

3. Build a Posse of Organizational Leaders

Just in case you were wondering, let me set the record straight. You can’t do this by yourself. And you don’t have to. You shouldn’t have to. Work with a group to dig out or build the path forward. Get nonprofit leadership support from the cream of the crop within your board and staff. Bring them together for a “what now” brainstorm session. Get a commitment for 90 minutes every 3 weeks for a few months.

I have found two framing devices quite helpful for working groups like this.

  • Celebrating Strengths and Prioritizing Areas of Vulnerability

Think just a bit more broadly than your cash flow statement and assess the situation from 5,000 feet instead of from the tarmac. I have a list of 14 attributes of a thriving nonprofit and encourage folks to look at where you are on each on a scale from “messy” to “thriving.” Folks who participate in my Nonprofit Leadership Lab use this as an exercise with their staff and board and find themselves pleasantly surprised about their strengths. The exercise also allows them to create real focus to double down on where the organization needs work.

  • The Smaller Organization Exercise

Many organizations ask, “What do we do with less?” I am pleading with you to ask a different question, and I’m strongly encouraging you to ask it to the “posse” I recommend that you create. Here’s the question.

First, what is a reasonable or achievable revenue budget for the coming 12 months? This should be a number your executive director, lead development officer, and board feel comfortable with.

Now, imagine someone donated that amount of money to you to start an organization with the mission you have today. I bet that this amount of money would offer you an incredible opportunity to make a difference. It would be a different kind of difference, but you could have real impact, right? Okay, now it’s time to design that organization, from the ground up.

This exercise allows you to think from a place of abundance, focusing on the dollars you have and not the ones you lost. You would also have to confront what you would actually do. This makes it much easier to make the list of things you would stop doing.

4. Find Your Kindred Spirits

Surround yourself with people who inspire and energize you to advance your mission. There are a few ways you can find these people.

  • Colleagues in Community—It’s time to say “enough already with competition,” and time to pick up the phone and invite a colleague ED to have a virtual cup of coffee. In fact, invite five or six. Create a community of leadership who can share best practices, vent, and hold each other accountable. It was a community of leaders who supported me in my darkest days as an executive director.
  • State and Regional Resources—Most states have organizations offering convenings and resources for nonprofits in your state or region. I only wish more nonprofit leaders would take advantage of these individuals and their assets. In fact, some chapters of national organizations don’t even do it. I spoke to a development director of a state chapter of a national organization who told me she didn’t realize until two years into her role that the national office offered trainings and professional development.
  • Online Resources—There is quite a lot of online training, but I can point my own Nonprofit Leadership Lab as one such source that offers content and community to board and staff leaders of small nonprofit organizations.

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5. Touch the Work

No list here, just a simple directive. Step away from your desk. Take your hands off the keyboard. Run, don’t walk. Go see your work in action. Walk down to the stable and see the magical horse providing therapy to military vets. Pick up the phone and talk to someone touched by the issue you advocate for. Call your old college roommate who admires you so much because, remember those long monologues you offered about injustice? Your college roommate or your best friend remembers them all too well and admires you for walking the walk.

Quakers talk about each of us having a light. Other faiths think of it as a soul, but I myself like this metaphor of a light. I think of it as a pilot light. Nonprofit leaders seek out this work because their light burns bright. But it must be stoked.

And cash flow statements don’t do the trick. Seeing your work in action? Yes, that’s the ticket.

Let’s face it. Everything in our world is different and everything will be different for as far as the eye can see.

It’s time for you as a nonprofit leader to be different, to act differently, and to take care of yourself—because our society is going to need you more, not less.

Because if you do, your work will have impact for as far as the eye can see.


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