If there’s something of value to be salvaged from a brutal election season, it’s a serious reflection about leadership. Deep consideration of the qualities we expect from those making choices on our behalf is top of mind.
Every day, executive directors and board members of nonprofit organizations make decisions on behalf of our community and use philanthropic dollars to fund them. They tackle human service, environmental, animal welfare and educational opportunities that impact all of us.
Outside of the knowledge and critical thinking needed to act wisely, what qualities should these leaders have?
Some characteristics seem especially relevant today.
1. The gift of seeing more than one perspective.
Nonprofit leaders represent diverse people, needs and circumstances. Clients are shaped by complicated experiences. Donors give for unique reasons. People have distinct visions of how to address pressing challenges.
I was fortunate to hear Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, speak at Legal Aid of Manasota’s dinner recently. He urged all of us to be “in proximity” to issues and people if we truly want to make a difference instead of offering solutions from our own seats of privilege and distance. This requires listening and the courage to have sincere dialogue with those who see things differently.
2. The ability to meet the challenges of accountability without ownership.
I’ve spent a great deal of time sharing that nonprofits are not “owned” by anyone — not the founder, the executive director or the board. They enjoy a special tax status with the IRS for a reason. They are accountable to the public and the charitable mission is the driver.
The best nonprofit leaders steer with confidence backed by community vision, not the stamp of one person operating alone. Nonprofit work is hard. It requires stimulating the interests of people who will summon their own resources of time and dollars if properly engaged. This requires both humility and a commitment to results with shared credit for all contributors.
3. The conscious decision to respect different leadership styles and successes of others.
Some important leaders in our community are introverts by nature. Many colleagues I know have had to adapt their natural tendencies for the more “public” side required of them. In times of quiet reflection, they find their voices and brilliance.
Respecting that the loudest voice at the table isn’t always the most valuable one, good nonprofit leaders accept that serving our community is not a competition among organizations. They also thrive on seeing the success of others.
Observing nonprofit staff and board members in this community, I see many fine examples of these leadership ideals. We often hear that nonprofits need to be more like businesses.
It’s true that financial accountability, excellent management and a drive for achievement must be top of mind. But many nonprofit leaders have substance that I would love to see more of in all leaders — commitment to understanding different viewpoints, limiting the role of ego and having respect for colleagues.
Get to know the nonprofit leaders in our community. Many of them accept enormous undertakings with grace. The smart ones want to hear from you, too.
Susie Bowie is executive director of Manatee Community Foundation, a $36 million organization that works with donors in our community connecting them with charitable needs. To learn more, email SBowie@ManateeCF.org.