Inside Philanthropy

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

April 21, 2008

Nonprofits must lead for change

Change is essential, and tough.

Working at the heart of constant and rapid change, nonprofits themselves are in the change business.

Their job is to address the symptoms and causes of urgent social problems.

To make change happen, nonprofits must change the way they do business, both inside their own organizations and with partners whose collaboration is needed for social progress.

Ultimately, change depends on leadership, which is rare in a marketplace in which fear, self-interest, competition and a preoccupation with management techniques drive organizations.

Effective leaders, in contrast, lead by inspiring and engaging the vision, leadership and collaboration of co-workers in their organizations and partners in their communities, says Anita Brown-Graham, director of the Institute for Emerging Issues at North Carolina State University and a trustee of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem.

Speaking at a Lunch ‘n’ Learn workshop in Charlotte sponsored by the Philanthropy Journal, Brown-Graham urged nonprofit leaders to work to shape change rather than waiting for change to shape them.

Citing Jim Collins’ “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t,” she said what distinguishes great companies from good ones is a corporate culture of vision and innovation, rather than simply a visionary CEO.

That kind of leadership is critical to address the social problems we face, and requires a new way of thinking about leading.

Rooted in their passion, Brown-Graham says, leaders create a sense of urgency among the people who need to be involved in making change happen.

Those leaders build a team with the “credibility, skills, connections and formal authority” essential for guiding change, she says, and that team must operate with “trust and emotional commitment.”

For the team to be effective, leaders must show they mean business through action not words, and must repeat the story of the vision and process as often as they need to.

Members of the team must truly be part of change initiatives, and must be able to see, through short-term “wins,” that they are having an impact and that the larger goal is within reach.

And faced with a culture of resistance and fear, Brown-Graham says, leaders must continually push for change and nurture the new culture they are trying to create, using existing tools, such as promotions and incentives, to engage employees and organizational partners.

And even when wins occur, she says, leaders must be vigilant about making sure changes “stick” and are not erased by backsliding into the old way of doing business.

Social progress depends on change, which depends on leaders with the vision and courage to create a culture in their organizations and communities that will inspire and engage true partners in shaping change.


  • At 1:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    In achieving change, Jim Collins is correct that a “culture of vision and innovation” is the difference maker. Change for the sake of change can lead to backsliding when the “flavor of the month” provides no real alternatives to the old ways of doing business.

    Developing the commitment of employees and community partners is critical to nonprofits. Great leaders know how to nurture employee commitment. One highly effective leader borrowed from Nike and directed employees to ”just do it”. He recognized that by empowering employees to try innovative approaches and also by leading by example, change and success would follow. Each successful innovation received recognition. Not all changes worked. If the attempt to innovate was unsuccessful, it was greeted as an opportunity to learn from the experience and not as an individual failure. The process was reviewed to determine why it did not work.

    The challenge then is how will nonprofits find or develop inspiring leaders who can build a culture of vision and innovation.


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