I have worked for three decades in the nonprofit sector and have been extremely fortunate to work with many great people and organizations.
When I think of all the dedicated CEOs, board members, corporate and foundation officers, and other nonprofit professionals that I have known and worked with over the years, I appreciate how blessed I have been to associate with such great people. Individually and collectively, they have had a positive impact on me.
What impresses me the most is their deep desire to make a difference in the lives of others. I am inspired by their commitment to their respective missions and their determination to achieve their vision of a better future, despite often increasing challenges and obstacles.
What concerns me, however, is the inordinate amount of time and energy I see them spending without reaping the results and successes warranted by their efforts. Regardless of how important and heartfelt their missions are, regardless of how hard the board and staff are working, many nonprofits struggle to survive, let alone succeed.
There is a smarter way to achieve success in the nonprofit sector. The first, critical step is a shift in perspective. I have observed that—overwhelmingly—the nonprofit organizations that are failing are not adequately addressing their internal issues.
I am not talking about the need for new physical space or more staff, although those needs are often apparent. I am talking about the uncomfortable currents beneath the surface: lack of trust and respect among senior management; stale programs; long-tenured board members who resist change; and a general lack of contemporary leadership skill sets.
An organization needs to be honest in addressing its challenges, both internal and external, to achieve real success.
I recommend an innovative concept called strategic alignment. This refers to the process of aligning all stakeholders, internal and external, so that all are focused and committed to achieving a shared organizational vision.
Your organization’s vision should be a brief statement that describes a realistic, credible, and attractive future for those you serve. It is your articulation of a destination toward which your organization should aim, a future that in many ways is better, more successful, or more desirable than your present. It should also be measurable and achievable and should inspire enthusiasm and encourage commitment.
All aspects of your organization need to be fully aligned to achieve your vision:
- Executive leadership
- High-performing board governance
- Effective programs and services
- A positive brand identity
- Enthusiastic investors
- Successful execution
- Thoughtful assessment at all levels
Today, more than ever, executive leaders stand at the center of the organization’s visioning, guiding the development of the vision and communicating it to all stakeholders. Being a visionary thinker is reflective of the new competencies required for today’s nonprofit leaders.
I have found that the ability to align an entire organization to achieve its vision often goes hand in hand with an entrepreneurial spirit, an affinity for building strong relationships and a penchant for collaboration. These individuals are achievement-oriented and inspire and motivate others.
Nonprofit boards that are in strategic alignment have transitioned to become partners with the CEO in providing leadership to the organization. They are ready to do much more than provide oversight and support. Though the board roles of fiduciary responsibility and providing strategic guidance and business advice remain important, board leadership “in partnership” with the CEO is the ideal and will take the organization to a new level of success.
Board governance is most successful when members ask the right questions, put forth new ideas and challenges, and continually refresh and renew the organizational goals.
Regardless of your organization’s mission -- education, health care, human services, social justice, environment, arts and culture and many important others -- programs and services are the core purpose of what you do. It is vitally important to measure and communicate the social impact of your programs. To align with a vision, you must look beyond budget size and number of people served to determine, and then communicate, the positive impact you are having in your community. This will help build your positive brand identity, as well.
In addition, people give to success, not to distress. And they are more likely to give to the needs of those you serve than to your organizational needs. Organizations that are in strategic alignment move away from the “tin cup” theory of fundraising, where board members often feel they are begging for support, to the “investment” theory of giving that is based upon the positive impact, results and achievements you are making.
Board members are more inclined to participate in fundraising initiatives when they are seeking investors for your success rather than when they feel they are begging for the organization’s financial survival.
Finally, the most creative, visionary strategic plan is useless unless it is fully executed and becomes a reality. Studies have shown that nearly 60% of organizations have difficulty executing the strategies that were identified in their plan. The key requirements for successful execution include:
- Having the right leadership in place to drive and lead the execution
- Clearly communicating goals and timetables
- Having a means of keeping track of your progress
- Assigning clear responsibility and accountability
- Rewarding and recognizing those who have executed the strategies
Today, the entire organization must be in strategic alignment to achieve your vision. Only when executive leadership, board, staff and volunteers are fully aligned toward achieving a shared vision, when you consistently communicate your positive social impact and achievements, when you are attracting investors rather than seeking funders, will you truly become successful.
Dennis C. Miller is a nationally recognized strategic leadership coach, executive search consultant, author and motivational speaker. He is the managing director of The Nonprofit Search Group with more than 35 years of experience working with nonprofit board leadership and chief executives across the country. Miller is also an expert in board governance, leadership development, philanthropy and succession planning. In addition, he is a sought-after motivational speaker, retreat facilitator and leadership performance coach. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.