It’s not news that the job of nonprofit Executive Director is challenging and demanding. Often filling roles that would be several staff positions if the funding allowed, Executive Directors are expected to master a broad set of skills in order to effectively lead their organization and ensure its sustainability. However, we are learning that in order to meet those demands an increasing number of Executive Directors are employing strategies to share leadership within their organization in order to distribute responsibility and to develop staff bench strength.
In Daring to Lead 2011 Brief 2: Inside the Executive Director Job, CompassPoint and the Meyer Foundation highlight this growing trend toward shared leadership in the nonprofit sector. A collaborative approach to leading an organization can range from engaging staff in the responsibility of decision-making to replacing the singular executive role with several executive-level leaders. Defined broadly, the vast majority of the respondents in the Daring to Lead study described their leadership style as shared or inclusive of others within the organization. As a result, the report recommends executives, boards, and funders consider support for operationalizing shared leadership within the sector.
These findings are supported by YNPN’s 2011 National Voice Initiative, which surveyed over 1,100 emerging nonprofit leaders across the country. Conducted in Spring 2011 with a full report release expected in October 2011, YNPN’s National Voice Survey tested several interventions targeting leadership development in the nonprofit sector. The findings demonstrate that there a growing number of nonprofit organizations experiencing positive change through shared leadership. YNPN asked young leaders their perspective on moving away from traditional models of the Executive Director role by decentralizing responsibility and flattening the hierarchy. Although only a small percentage of respondents had experienced such changes in their organization, a significant majority of those respondents reported the changes were effective in building more sustainable and collaborative organizations. This positive response was significantly higher than any other intervention tested in the survey.
The results of the Daring to Lead and YNPN’s National Voice Initiative point us in the direction of an inclusive approach to organizational leadership, one that does not depend on one leader or structure but rather a team of leaders and a nimble organization ready to seize opportunities and address challenges. This approach not only relieves some of the burden placed on Executive Directors to be many things to many people, but also creates opportunities for young leaders in the organization to emerge. One of the hallmarks of the younger generation is a tendency toward collaboration, and this inclination will serve the nonprofit sector well as these young professionals take on Executive roles. Regardless of whether the structure is overtly nontraditional or simply inclusive of staff engagement, it is likely the nonprofits of the future will be employing this community-minded approach. The inclusivity that has made this sector so appealing to young people will be applied to our internal organizational models, resulting in a built-in development structure that values the talents and strengths of the team.
This post comes to us from Lydia McCoy, Danielle Holly, and Dan Dobin- YNPN National board members and members of YNPN National's National Voice Committee, the team preparing for the upcoming release of a report on leadership. Look for YNPN’s full report on emerging leadership and tested leadership strategies this November, and visit http://ynpn.org for more about engaging the next generation of nonprofit leadership.
We spent a lot of time discussing the Executive Director position this weekend and the impending need for new leadership that the sector will have to accommodate for. And while the Executive Director is often the title associated with nonprofit leadership, it is by no means the only title for leaders.
I want to stress to my fellow YNPNers and beyond that you can lead without becoming an Executive Director. Certainly, there is always a sense of pride and excitement when meeting and/or hearing about Gen X'ers (or even Millennials!) that are doing well as young Executive Directors of an organization. It is by no means a small task to run a nonprofit organization, and to do it early in life is a great achievement. I know several, and I have great respect for each of them.
However, I dedicate this post to those who do not see the ED title in their future, yet still want to lead. You can lead now, as an associate or program coordinator. You can lead in YNPN or in your community. EDs are not the only leadership positions available.
I believe that the vast majority of us share this in common: We want to have a strong professional career, make a decent living, and do good at the same time. But how that 'strong professional career' in the nonprofit sector looks like might be different from person to person, and that is ok. I spoke with a YNPNer this weekend who said that he would never want to be a ED, because he wants to remain in constant and direct contact with the people that his organization serves. I, personally, don't see myself as wanting an ED position. That is not because I don't believe myself to be qualified or able, but because I would rather devote myself entirely to a particular area that I am passionate about, as opposed to being in charge of everything. Of course, I am young and things may change. But the fact of the matter is, you can lead from wherever you are in the sector. Each nonprofit serves the community in some way, whether it is the local community or beyond. Leaders throughout organizations are needed in order for us to serve to the best of our ability.
Let us not forget that a hard working program coordinator can often find him/herself doing the workload of two or more staff persons in half the amount of time while still maintaining a smile and loving his/her work. I'm not meaning to put the "badge" on our shoulders... you know what I'm taking about... the "feel sorry for me because I do such a great thing but I am so overworked and underpaid and...." No. This is not what I mean. What I am saying is that term "leader" does not necessarily imply "Executive Director."
Whether the golden ED title is hanging high in your head or if you have other plans, you can still lead. Volunteer with YNPN. Become a resource for your colleagues and for the community. Work hard at your job and never stop looking for ways to grow and learn. Take control of your career and lead it in the direction you want it to go. You are not limited. Lead in your own way.
Here is to all of the 'young' nonprofit 'leaders' no matter the title. I look up to each of you and couldn't be more excited to share this great YNPN network with such amazing people.