It’s been said before and it will be said again: A nonprofit executive director, much like nonprofit staff in general, wears many hats. Except, in the case of the executive director, these hats are especially public and often come with the weight of funding, visibility and programmatic success heavily attached; the responsibility to lead an organization to success is not one of brevity.
Leadership is defined as the ability of one to influence and guide others. Yet, the question of what makes a great leader is somewhat subjective, in part because leadership is just as much a process as it is a set of personality traits. With that said, there are certain hallmarks that are undeniable indicators of leaders that every nonprofit would benefit from finding in an executive director. We’ve pulled together a top ten list of these hallmark traits, along with tips for encouraging them in all employees. Enjoy!
Nonprofit leaders are…
- Focused on the mission
An effective leader keeps the organization focused on its goals and strategic plan and makes sure that the board and staff are always on target. They set the example for all others of how to live the brand and work to accomplish a mission while communicating both internally and externally. Designate time during regular meetings to discuss what everyone is doing as a team to advance the mission that week or month as a means of encouraging mission focus. Or, distribute Pens or Sticky Notes with your organization’s logo and the phrase “How are YOU advancing our mission?” to serve as friendly reminders to keep the ultimate goals in mind always.
Leaders not only consider the organization’s present role, they look down the road to anticipate its future role. They understand the “big picture” difference they stand to make within the organization and the community it serves. Additionally, they have a desire to innovate and consider out-of-the-box solutions to get things done, especially when budgets are tight. In order to support a visionary and innovative atmosphere, approach obstacles as a team and reward those who participate in brainstorming sessions with creative tokens of gratitude like a Picture Frame Clock or a Mobile Pouch.
One word: Cheerleaders. Nonprofit leaders motivate others to not only produce work that contributes to the mission, but to raise funds, recruit volunteers and to feel an overall sense of pride in the organization at the end of the day. Whether through encouraging notes, heartfelt thank-you e-mails or verbal kudos with Tokens of Gratitude in meetings, nonprofit leaders aren’t afraid to express excitement and gratitude toward other staff.
For some, nonprofits and business are two very different things. Yet a true nonprofit leader can still recognize the value in approaching obstacles with an analytical, business mind, knowing that although profit is not the goal viability is. Decisions are made not because they are emotional or appear to benefit everyone, but because decisions have been analyzed from every business perspective and decidedly beneficial to the mission, the people and the bottom line. Encourage this trait in staff by rewarding critical thinking and urging staff to problem-solve with their minds, not just their hearts.
A good nonprofit leader has the ability to step back from a situation and make a rational decision, based on fact and free of bias. Mission creep is often an indicator of a nonprofit leader that is simply not capable of remaining objective, constantly bringing new programs and focus to the table in order to serve a personal agenda. When that occurs, it’s practically impossible for a nonprofit to communicate effectively and promote the efforts that truly are focused on the overall goals of the organization.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but nonprofit leaders need to be honest: Honest with staff about expectations, honest with the government in financial reporting, honest with donors on the impact that is being made, and honest with themselves about the health and future of the organization.
There’s nothing wrong with graciously accepting acknowledgement of a job well done, but a good nonprofit leader recognizes that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts—without each team member contributing to an organization, no one person can take responsibility for a success…or a failure. This trait will ultimately help to motivate staff and build trust, too.
Nonprofit leaders are required to communicate publicly what it is that your organization does, the difference it is making, and the success of its programs. Each team member should be able to give an elevator speech about the organization, recite its mission, and share at least two to three statistics on service numbers. Consider offering an in-house professional development session in which staff members take turns practicing how to confidently and clearly talk about the organization.
Life is not a popularity contest, but nonprofit leaders know that when they are outgoing and likeable, they are presenting a positive and relatable image to the public and constituents. Nonprofit leaders are often required to open doors of opportunity for the organization, respond to criticism or praise and to seek funding.
The truth is, nonprofit leaders aren’t just executive directors. Executive directors don’t just lead an organization, they lead its staff by setting an example and encouraging leadership skills in everyone because they know that those who lead, succeed.