It is difficult to know where to start with this blog. What do I consider to be the most important area to focus on first when it comes to non-profit leadership? As I mentioned previously, I have spent a lot of time thinking of many ideas of topics during my extensive period of procrastination. Deciding on the what should come first presented a significant challenge. I mean – leadership skills are obviously incredibly important. If you are an effective and respected leader, then you can bring out the best in your team and propel your agency forward. Then there is productivity – many of us working in non-profits today feel totally overwhelmed by our workload and how to manage it. If non-profit leaders aren’t able to be productive, then this significantly reduces the impact the organization can have. Then there’s one of my personal favorite topics, which is setting a positive tone and work culture – in my experience so many people doing incredibly important work just don’t feel good about it – they are stressed out, burned out and feeling negative about their job, when they should be basking in glow of all the great stuff they are achieving.
There are so many different important areas, but really the starting point for any of us, in whatever work we do, has to be why are we doing it in the first place. What is the reason you are doing this job; what is the driving goal behind all the hard work? If you don’t have a purpose and reason for your work, then chances are you are also not being an effective leader, being productive or setting a positive tone.
If you are not familiar with Simon Sinek then you must google him immediately – well not immediately, maybe in about 5 minutes after you’ve finished reading this, commented on it and shared it on whatever social media platform floats your boat. His book ‘Start with Why’ and the related Ted Talk ‘How Great Leaders Inspire Action‘, are great resources, regardless of what sector you work in. He argues that what you do and how you do it, are not as important as the why; the driving purpose, values and beliefs behind an organization.
Simon Sinek gives examples of companies like Apple, who are able to be much more successful than competitors by clearly establishing their purpose at the very core of what they do. I don’t want to minimize the impact that a really good cell phone can make in your life (or the devastation that occurs when you leave said cell phone in a shopping cart at Target – the pain is real!), but we are working for non-profits; agencies whose work revolves around making a significant impact in peoples lives, not just selling products and making money. The work in non-profits can save lives or at the very least make them a whole lot better. If for-profit companies that sell computers or shoes online can get huge results and increased employee satisfaction by connecting with their mission, then imagine what non-profits could do if they leveraged their purpose in the same way.
Hopefully you work in an agency whose mission you are committed to and you just need to make this front and center of what you do. Alternatively, if you don’t fully connect with the Mission of the agency you work in, then its probably outdated, too vague or disconnected from the actual work being done. In this case, my advice is to figure out your own why – if you lead a team then this would be a great thing to do with your team, but it you don’t have a team then you can still define it for yourself.
Be bold, be brave and be lofty in what you decide your purpose is. Some of the most inspiring and motivating purposes are ones that may never be fully achievable, but they give a clear direction and goal to work towards. For example, Boston Children’s Hospital tagline is ‘until every child is well’ – an impossible dream, but heck I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to work towards this and being inspired every day to take steps in this direction.
Once you’ve got your ‘why’ figured out then make it pivotal to everything you do. Post it on your office wall, make it the screen saver on your desktop – whatever it is, put it front and center in the place where you spend the majority of your work time. Let it guide what you do in your work. I work with adults with disabilities and one of the best changes our team made was putting up pictures of the people we support on the walls of our office space. It is an incredible reminder that our goal is to do the best work possible for these people and make their lives better.
Having a clear purpose at the core of what you do results in some huge benefits. It will help guide your decision making so that you are always moving towards your goal. It will also help you decide what new projects you want to take on, what specific people you want to assist, which staff to promote and so on. Having you purpose at the forefront is also incredibly helpful in setting your priorities. I love a to do list, but mine, like most of yours probably, is out of control at this point. It is easy to look at that long list and simply pick off the quick and easy tasks, but then this often doesn’t do anything to really move you towards your goal. If you want to make effective change, then you need to prioritize those big tasks that will absolutely move things in the direction you want. Realigning your priorities with your purpose will ultimately create a much bigger impact.
Having a clear mission also helps you communicate to others about what you are doing. No one wants to hear the dry facts of a non-profits work – but they will often connect with a lofty, inspiring goal and someone who is able to speak passionately about it. Not only will you be more likely to attract donors and other people to your agency, but you’ll also really impress your old friends with boring jobs when you go to your high school reunion.
Finally, one of the biggest struggles that many non-profits are facing currently is a significant staffing shortage. If you are looking to recruit quality staff, then recruit and attract employees based on your mission. As our old friend Simon Sinek describes – if you can find people to work in your organization because they believe in the cause then they won’t just be working for a paycheck and they will typically give blood, sweat and tears to achieve the mission.
Finding your why and putting it at the forefront of what you do is such an important first step, so I challenge you to find your reason and make sure that everything you do revolves around it.
Do you have an examples of a ‘why’ that has really had an impact? Do you see finding your purpose as the first step in effective leadership?