Inside Philanthropy

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

March 28, 2011

Nonprofits need leaders who listen

By Todd Cohen

One of the most urgent and challenging jobs for nonprofits is to find and develop leaders who can help their organizations cope with rapid, continual change.

Thanks to the economic crisis of the past two-and-half years, the charitable marketplace is in a state of persistent turbulence that demands leaders who can see clearly, think ahead and prepare their employees, boards and volunteers to be innovative, flexible and collaborative.

Most nonprofits are small, community-based groups with limited resources and staffs that typically are overworked, underpaid and under-appreciated.

And while hundreds of professional and academic programs now offer management and leadership training for nonprofits, budgets for training have shrunk or been eliminated in these tough economic times.

As a result, many nonprofits must be doubly resourceful and creative in finding ways to build their management and leadership capacity.

That is fitting: As voluntary organizations, nonprofits must count on their own grit and smarts to serve people and places in need while surviving in a fiercely competitive marketplace.

Like public, for-profit, academic and military organizations, nonprofits traditionally have used a management model based on hierarchy and top-down control.

Slowly but surely, however, that model is evolving.

A growing number of organizations are finding that doing business effectively in the face of change and uncertainty requires a different kind of leader.

Increasingly, leadership is becoming less about giving orders and more about building a team by listening, communicating, coaching, motivating and inspiring.

To survive and thrive in a marketplace in which partnering with other organizations has become an important strategic option, a nonprofit first must be able to collaborate internally.

For a glimpse of where leadership is headed, consider Google, the giant technology company.

As The New York Times reported March 12, Google over the past two years analyzed its employees’ performance reviews, feedback surveys and nominations for top-manager awards, correlating phrases, words, praise and complaints.

Based on that effort, “people analytics” teams at the company produced a list of eight good behaviors of managers.

While based on an analysis of metrics from its own business, however, Google’s blueprint for good management is rooted in subjective qualities.

Good managers, Google says, “empower” their teams and do not “micromanage.”
They “express interest in team members’ success and personal well-being,” and they help employees with career development, although they should not be a “sissy” but should “be productive and results-oriented.”

They are good communicators and listen to their team, and they have a “clear vision and strategy” for the team.

And they are good coaches and have “key technical skills” so they can help advise the team.

Technical expertise, in fact, ranked last among the eight good behaviors of good bosses at Google, the Times reported.

“What employees valued most,” the Times said, “were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.”

It is telling that Google developed these guidelines by looking internally and using metrics based on feedback from its own employees, trusting its own experience and instincts instead of unquestioningly following the latest trendy ideas peddled by many foundations, trade groups and consultants about what makes a good leader and manager.

As nonprofits struggle to survive in these troubled times, they need to trust in leaders who trust themselves and their employees to work together to build better organizations to serve people and places in need.


  • At 4:36 PM, Anonymous Tamar Cloyd said…

    Todd, I'm so glad you posted this! I wrote a similar piece ( my blog back in December. I've known my fair share of nonprofits and it never ceases to amaze me the contradiction that lies in an organization's mission and how management treats their staff...

  • At 11:37 AM, Anonymous Marie Tahan Daniels said…

    Hello Todd,

    Thank you for writing this perspective. At our blog Giving Scene we cover events but we also have a section that is written to the NP professionals. I am a strong believer that many smaller non-profits and community groups need to focus on their mission and think like a for-profit when it comes to operations. In its simplest form, the non-profit still has the same goal as a for-profit... a bottom line in the black.

    Just because their is a meaningful undercurrent and a goal to fulfill a need in the community is no excuse for lack of strong management.

    I am happy you are continuing the conversation and hope that many more organizations heed your observations, recognizing how they can overlay these same concepts.

    Marie Tahan Daniels


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