Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

September 24, 2007

Nonprofits need leaders who will lead

The charitable marketplace needs to shake itself awake.

Social problems are escalating, funders and donors are more demanding, technological change is accelerating, and the population is undergoing rapid and sweeping change.

But despite some pockets of innovation, nonprofits and foundations are content to conduct business as usual.

And business as usual is not good enough for a sector that is “radical” to its core, concerned with root causes and fundamental needs, says Karen McNeil-Miller, president and CEO of the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, one of North Carolina’s largest philanthropies.

At a Lunch ‘n’ Learn workshop sponsored by the Philanthropy Journal, McNeil-Miller told over 100 nonprofit leaders they need to be more radical, “stir the pot,” “notch it up and do something outrageous.”

Leadership, she said, is not magic but requires the ability see ahead, “make meaning where there seems to be none,” and “help make explicit what is not implicitly obvious.”

Organizations, like living organisms, tend to attack “anything that is foreign,” she said, so “changing your organizational culture is one of the toughest jobs” leaders face.

And echoing the comic-strip philosopher Pogo, who famously said, “We have met the enemy and he is us,” McNeil-Miller asked, “What’s there to stop you? There’s no external force pushing us to conform. The only obstacle is us.”

A key challenge for leaders is helping employees understand, accept and embrace change.

“People react emotionally to change,” she said, so leaders must make the case for change and address employees’ concerns.

And in the face of escalating pressure and stress in the nonprofit world, leaders cannot “wait for the storm to blow over,” she said. “Learn how to work in the rain.”

Projecting two photographs on a screen, one showing a set of gears, the other a spider’s web, McNeil-Miller said the model nonprofits need today is the organic, networked model of the spider’s web, rather than the mechanical, industrial model of the gears.

Leaders, she said, must be able to “lead from center” of their organizations, identify and interpret “patterns and themes,” and provide the “fluidity” that nonprofits need to survive and thrive.

Efficient leadership requires the ability to adapt and provide flexibility, she said.

Ultimately, leadership requires “going against the grain,” and helping an organization move ahead by moving beyond its own reluctance to change.

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