I’m sitting in a breakout session on leadership at a nonprofit conference. The speaker asks, “Can someone tell me about their experience as a leader?”
Immediately, my hands get clammy, beads of sweat bubble around my hairline, and I am genuinely considering whether anyone will notice if I crawl under the table. As I glance at the raised hand of my neighbor, I am certain she is getting ready to share her experience founding a nonprofit that single-handedly raised adult literacy rates, ended childhood obesity, fed the hungry, and sheltered the homeless all at the advanced age of nine. I have only two thoughts: I am not a leader, and I hate this question.
This describes my experience at nearly every leadership workshop until last week when the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits brought in Paul Schmitz to lead a workshop based on his book, Everyone Leads. Paul suggested a definition of leadership that I had never considered before. In fact, his definition defies the very laws of grammar. According to Paul, the word “leader” is a verb, not a noun. Leadership is an action someone takes, not a position someone holds.
When asked to consider my personal experiences as a leader in the past, my internal response has been, “I’m only 25. I’m not a CEO. I definitely don’t have a list of awards on my resume. Maybe I’ll be a leader in 15 or 20 years after I’ve accomplished more.” But if a leader is defined by his or her individual strengths, talents, and values rather than titles or lists of accomplishments, how does that change the way I view my leadership abilities?
Paul Schmitz in Oklahoma City. Photo from the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits.
First, Paul’s definition of leadership helped me identify the ways I have stepped up as a leader in my organization. My Director has a visionary leadership style. She is innovative and likes taking risks. I fall somewhere between the analyst and mobilizer leadership styles. I am excellent at developing program timelines, summarizing complex group discussions, communicating persuasively, and creating accountability for my department.
I may not be the Director, but I also recognize that “Director” and “Leader” are not synonyms. I may not be generating innovative program ideas, but I also recognize that visionary leadership is not the only kind. If it were, our programs would rarely develop beyond the initial spark and enthusiasm. Every action I take is an opportunity to step up as a leader, apply my unique skills and strengths, and contribute to the progress and success of my organization’s programs.
Second, if leadership is defined by individual strengths, talents, and values, then it is a fluid definition. I expect my strengths, talents, and values to grow as I do. If I have a hard time defining who I am as a leader at 25, that’s perfectly okay. I’m still developing that definition. Paul encouraged this when he discussed the leadership value of continuous learning.
During the workshop, he asked everyone to write down three things they suck at. Here are mine: being on time, taking big risks, and letting go of control. There is power in identifying our challenges, mistakes, and shortfalls; it keeps us from growing stagnant. Part of my position with the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits involves training nonprofit boards on good governance practices. The first time I trained, I was paralyzed with fear that someone would ask a question, and I wouldn’t have the answer. Everyone would realize I’m a fraud. Now, I see that the best answer is often, “I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.” Every time I don’t have an answer, it forces me to grow and improve.
Finally, Paul’s definition says that leaders are defined by a certain set of values. Leaders hold themselves accountable to these values and expect others to hold them accountable as well. Paul outlines five values that his organization, Public Allies, identifies as necessary for positive and lasting community change. But at the end of his workshop, he invited us to name our own values. I thought back to a prompt Paul used at the beginning of the day: think about a time when someone believed in you, opened a door, or created opportunity for you.
This past January, I was invited to help facilitate a retreat for ten Executive Directors in a rural community in Oklahoma. A few days before the retreat, the primary facilitator asked if I would lead a thirty minute educational component on a topic of my choice. I was shocked she thought I had anything of value to share with a group of far more experience leaders and that she trusted me to develop the topic on my own. She valued my voice. She forced me outside my comfort zone. She was confident in my abilities even when I still needed some convincing. This is how I want to lead others.
What kind of leader do I want to be? A leader that understands that the most effective organizations utilize the leadership of many. A leader that seeks constant growth and improvement. And a leader that recognizes and develops leadership potential in others.
Kristin Holland is the Program Manager for the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits. In her role, Holland is responsible for managing the Center’s educational programs including training, customized consulting, and the nationally-accredited Standards for Excellence series. Since joining the Center in 2012, Holland has received over 250 hours of nonprofit management training, and she received her Certificate of Nonprofit Board Education from BoardSource in February 2014. A graduate of the University of Oklahoma, Holland earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in History.
Holland volunteers for the Alzheimer’s Association Oklahoma Chapter, the United Way of Central Oklahoma, and she is a founding board member for Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of Oklahoma City. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her husband and their dog and cat. A native of Oklahoma City, she is extremely enthusiastic about her hometown. Follow her on Twitter: @krismholland
In today's post, YNPN member and Public Allies alum Renee Bracey Sherman shares how the idea that everyone leads has impacted her life and work.
On the first day of training for Public Allies, we were told, “Everyone leads.”
This felt like a radical notion for many – we’d been socialized our entire lives to believe that there are born leaders and there are followers. Over the next two weeks we would absorb something new: we could all lead and become an agent of change in our own way, and each way is powerful and necessary. This empowering way of thinking about leadership reminds us that everyone has something to add, and that our experiences, struggles, and skills inform how we move through the world and are all valuable.
For too long, I felt that I didn’t have a fancy enough résumé, wasn’t as experienced as the person next to me, and just wasn’t smart enough. It was the mentality that we must have everything and be everything that kept me from reaching my full potential as a leader. It kept me from learning from my successes and my mistakes. It kept me from leaning in to risk – which is where the best learning happens. Public Allies taught me to let that go.
At the end of my time in Public Allies, I wanted to continue to be of service to others, meet new people, and continue to grow professionally – so I applied for the Young Nonprofit Professional Network San Francisco Bay Area (YNPNsfba) Board of Directors. I was terrified. I’d never served on a board before and all the worries of not being ‘enough’ came rushing back. But when the current board members interviewed me, they explained that YNPN was a place where we could grow and learn together. We could (and would) share our skills and talents in service of other nonprofit professionals looking to make friends and learn something new.
When I was offered the position on the board, I was thrilled. I immediately took on the leadership role of secretary and learned the ropes. And in my second year, I was elected the board chair. Again, my feelings were in that sweet spot of excited and freaked out.
We were about to embark on a new strategic plan, overhaul our volunteer system, create a new website, and revamp our budgeting plan – all things I had absolutely no experience in.
For a few weeks I thought about how I had seen other people take on these tasks. How did they do it? What of their models could I copy? But none of it felt right.
And then I remembered what Public Allies taught me: everyone leads.
Everyone leads in their own way and I needed to figure out my way. I realized that I didn’t have to do any of the projects alone. I had a wonderful team that I could lead on and partner with. I had a core of brilliant volunteers who offered up ideas on where they wanted the organization to go. We held strategy sessions where we took in all ideas and merged them together. We collaborated, shared resources, and most of all – had a ton of fun doing it. It felt right, and we were able to exceed all of the goals we set and do more!
That’s when I learned the biggest lessons of all: I am enough, and I lead best when I have brilliant minds that excite, invigorate, challenge, and of course make me laugh, in the room.
It is now how I lead my life and career – through collaboration, empowering brilliance, and a ton of joy. It is enough and it is all I need to lead. How do you lead?
Renee Bracey Sherman
Renee Bracey Sherman is a Public Allies Bay Area ’11 alum and served as the board chair of YNPNsfba. She is a reproductive justice advocate and a writer with Echoing Ida, a project of Forward Together. Her writing has appeared on EBONY.com, Salon.com, and RH Reality Check, and been heard on the BBC World Newshour.
She is currently pursuing a Master’s in Public Administration from Cornell University, where she also serves as the editor of the Cornell Policy Review and communications chair of Women in Public Policy. Follow Renee on Twitter at @RBraceySherman
In Chapter 1 of "Everyone Leads," Paul Schmitz lays out the importance of working from a community perspective:
"To create lasting solutions to our most pressing problems, leaders can't just create isolated services. They must build community capacity, think systematically, and collaborate with others."
Natasha Golinsky is one of the co-founders of the new YNPN Vancouver chapter, and in this post she shares what she learned about the importance and benefits of engaging her community early in the process of developing a solution to a problem she identified.
Last year my friend Vanessa and I decided that we wanted to co-chair a new Young Nonprofit Professionals Network chapter here in Vancouver, Canada. We saw the joy that YNPs got from being part of other chapters and deeply felt that our community needed some support in the nonprofit professional development arena and wanted to help. Each chapter runs independently and many operate as their own registered nonprofit full with board of directors, fundraising campaigns and we were interested in doing the same.
Although our first reaction was to get our paperwork all in order and incorporate ourselves, we decided to take a breath and test our idea to see if there really was a need for this service or if we were just assuming there was interest. Both of us wanted to find out what our fellow young nonprofit professionals wanted before we invested tons of time building something that nobody needed (or that had already been done before and failed).
We tackled this community outreach through a few specific steps.
Step one: Talk to the leaders of active nonprofit professional development groups. What was working for them? What had they tried already that didn't work? What did they see was a need in our community as it related to YNPNs? Would they be willing to continue to stay in touch with us as we were planning? Is there anyone else you would recommend that we talk to?
Step two: Talk to the leaders of nonprofit professional development groups that had closed down because of low-results. Why did they shut their program down? What went wrong? What could they have done differently? What need do they still see that needs to be served in our community? Is there anyone else they would recommend that we talk to?
Step three: Talk to leaders of other YNPN chapters who were a few steps ahead of us and were having a lot of success. What did they do to set themselves up for a strong start? What would they do differently? Were there any resources they used to help them plan and market their organization? Would they be interested in coaching us? Was there anything we could do to help them?
Step four: Talk to the big influencers in our local nonprofit professional development space. We got a hold of the board chair of one of the most popular training organizations in our community, we talked to the Western Canada sales manager for a different nonprofit resources organization, and we talked to the fundraising department head at a local university. Both of us scoured our LinkedIn profiles for people that would have some good data for us about their needs and the current resources available to them.
Step five, the final and most important: Talk to the people we wanted to serve. We went through all of our contacts and identified those who hit our demographic profile and sent them a link to a survey we created using Google forms. We asked them to pass it around to anyone they knew who could have some valuable feedback on what they would be interested in seeing in a new local professional development group. We sent the survey to everyone we had talked to in the above steps 1-4 and asked them to circulate it too offering to share any data we found with them.
After two months of research, we had some awesome feedback and a clear direction of what the needs of our community were. Probably the most interesting take-away from this process was that we found that the needs of the young nonprofit professional community were completely different than we expected--even though we're both part of the community we're planning to serve! When I think back to our original plan of running out of the gate without having any data or community input to back our ideas, I feel anxious about how much time we might have wasted running in the wrong direction.
We also developed some amazing connections and some potential joint-venture partners. Without taking the time to consult with our community, we might not have encountered these resources and been able to work with them from the start. Not only did we get clear direction from consulting our community, we found some awesome partners along the way.
Natasha is the Founder of Next Level Nonprofits and is dedicated to helping passionate start-up nonprofit leaders develop the foundational leadership and management skills they need to enjoy a enjoy successful, sustainable and satisfying career. You can find her on Twitter as @ngolinsky.
A version of this piece originally appeared in Natasha's Next Level Nonprofits newsletter.
Today we're excited to share this interview with Linda Nguyen, who will be the keynote speaker for the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits Leadership Conference and Day 1 of the YNPN National Conference on June 26 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
As the Director of Civic Engagement for the Alliance for Children and Families, Linda built and currently manages a national initiative that has enabled thousands of community residents across the U.S. to become advocates, leaders and activists. She has worked with the Alliance network to encourage nonprofit staff and board members to embrace civic engagement strategies in their organizations and neighborhoods and to work in concert with community to address key issues in health, education and economic security. Linda is responsible for identifying and nurturing talent, coaching human service organization staff, conducting research and serving as a national advocate for constituent voice.
In addition to her outstanding work with the Alliance for Children and Families, Linda is also one of the early founders of YNPNdc and YNPN National. We spoke with Linda about her experience helping to found YNPN, how organizations can elevate diverse voices, and a few of her favorite spots in the Twin Cities.
You're one of the early founders of YNPN. What drew you to the idea for a network of young nonprofit professionals? How did you go from idea to reality?
I was looking for a job in the nonprofit sector when I first moved to DC in 2003. I knew very few people in the field. I searched for help online, and came across the YNPN (then only in San Francisco) website and saw that people just like me were looking to network with one another for job opportunities and professional development and networking. I connected with a few of those peers in DC, and after a few meetings, we launched YNPNdc. I think our first event attracted 10 people.
I think the lesson is Jump In. Don't be afraid or embarrassed. So what, 10 people came to our first "event." We cared about something and so we created an entity to address the needs we and others had. I then became involved in helping to build the national organization. The national board at that time was made up of local people starting up their own YNPN chapters and we knew we would be stronger if we built together.
What were some of the network’s values back then? Has the network changed in your view, particularly from a values perspective?
Our values "back then" (ha ha, the good 'ol days) were focused around voice (giving young nonprofit professionals a forum and support) and local autonomy (YNPN chapters were self-starting and proud of it). I imagine these values are still present today, and I would think that engaging diverse voices would be a particular focus for the network.
The YNPN National Board meeting for the first time in Denver in 2005. You can see Linda second from the left.
Why has the idea of “exploring diverse voices” surfaced as such a timely topic?
We are standing in that moment of change where there will be as many young people as old people, as many white people as people of color, as many people with a decent standard of living as those without.
What do we do? We have to make sure that we are hearing from everyone, engaging everyone, and getting as many voices to the table as we are able. When you see these vast differences, you may feel daunted and even fearful. But it is within our ability, and especially for us in the nonprofit and social sectors, it is our collective responsibility that we are listening and attending to everyone.
As Minnesotan Paul Wellstone said, we all do better when we all do better.
How do you think nonprofits are doing at addressing diversity and including members of the communities they work in?
Hmmm, results are mixed. Overall, I think there is more attention being paid to diversity, looking for diverse staff and partners, and including community members. I do think, however, that we have a ways to go in creating meaningful roles for community members to play in our organizations. Are they making decisions? Are they considered equals? Or are they tokens or checkbox fulfillments?
And what is the thinking behind diversity and including community members? Are we doing it just to do it, because it looks good? Or do we see that it actually enhances our work, our programming, our decision making?
Do you have any tips or advice as to how nonprofit leaders could do this better?
Try it. Seek out other leaders who seem to do this well. Talk to them; figure out how their approaches could translate to your work/organization.
LIFT. Check them out.
And finally, what's the best experience you've ever had in the Twin Cities? Do you have any favorite spots to recommend to conference attendees?
Tough one! A lot of ties -- from a ruckus late night karaokeing at The Saloon to exploring the Cedar Riverside neighborhood (near Pillsbury United Communities' Bryan Coyle Center) for its friendly neighbors and enlightening murals painted by youth.
But I think my best experience was walking through Loring Park, above the highway on the Loring Greenway to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden to the famous Spoonbridge and Cherry. I did that walk last year with my mom and son and we had such a fun time!
To hear Linda speak on the theme of Exploring Diverse Voices and see a few of her favorite Twin Cities spots for yourself, register for the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits Leadership Conference on June 26 in Minneapolis.
This month we're trying something new for YNPN: a national book club. We have so many smart and thoughtful people across our network, and we thought a book club would be a great way to connect around issues that challenge and inspire us all.
We chose "Everyone Leads: Building Leadership from the Community Up" by Paul Schmitz because it discusses many questions near and dear to our YNPN mission: How do we bring the idea that everyone leads into our work? How can we create social change that is sustainable? And how do we take diversity from idea to practice?
Throughout the month we'll be discussing these questions and other themes related to the book on our blog and on social media. We'll also be hosting a few live, virtual events to create spaces for discussion.
Twitter Chat: On Friday, April 18 at 2 pm CT/12 pm PT we'll be hosting a Twitter chat to hear your thoughts on the book and begin collecting questions for our second virtual event (details below). During this chat and throughout the month we'll be using the hashtag #ev1leads to make it easy to follow along.
Author Event with Paul Schmitz: We're also excited to announce that on Tuesday, April 29 at 8 pm ET/5 pm PT, we'll be hosting a live event with Paul Schmitz, the the outgoing CEO of Public Allies and a longtime friend of YNPN. You'll have the opportunity to ask Paul questions and hear him speak about the book in more depth. Paul has invited our members to feel free to reach out to him on Twitter before the event: you can find him at @PaulSchmitz1. Registration info for the event will be posted soon.
Several of our local chapters are planning book club events in their communities as well. If you're interested in hosting a book club for your local chapter, reach out to your chapter leaders or our Chapter Resources Coordinator Ebony Harley for support.
We look forward to diving into "Everyone Leads" with all of you!
We've heard feedback that you'd like more opportunities connect and engage with other members across the network.
So we're giving a YNPN National Book Club a test drive to bring emerging leaders from around the country together to discuss issues that challenge and inspire us all.
During the month of April we'll be discussing "Everyone Leads: Building Leadership from the Community Up" by Paul Schmitz. Paul is the outgoing CEO of Public Allies and a longtime friend of YNPN. Drawing on more than two decades of Public Allies' work and real examples from communities across the country, "Everyone Leads" discusses how we can develop leaders and organizational models that will help us solve the problems of the 21st century in an inclusive and community-focused way.
We've partnered with Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint, to offer our members a 40% discount on "Everyone Leads." To receive the discount, purchase the book through Wiley.com and use promo code YNBC4. They have both hardcover and e-book versions available for purchase.
The Author Event
We're working with Paul Schmitz to set up a virtual author event where YNPN members can engage with Paul and ask questions about the book and its themes. The date is still TBD, but we'll be announcing it on social media soon.
Other Opportunities to Engage
Next month our blog content will be focused on the book and its themes. In addition to our author event, we'll also be hosting a few Twitter chats to give members an opportunity to connect and discuss virtually.
If you're interested in hosting an in-person book club meeting with your local chapter, reach out to your chapter leaders. We hope that in addition to the virtual meetings we'll be hosting, local YNPs will meet to in person to discuss the book and its transformational ideas on leadership.
If you have any questions, feedback, or suggestions, please don't hesitate to reach out to Jamie Smith, our Communications Fellow, at firstname.lastname@example.org. We hope you'll share this with your friends and professional networks and that you'll join us for "Everyone Leads!"