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Feb 13, 2014 | Insights

The Future of Leadership in the Nonprofit Sector

Portions of this piece are taken from an upcoming book focused on leadership in the domestic violence movement.

Leadership is difficult to define. Each year hundreds of books, essays and articles attempt to do just that. Almost all of the literature is based on the private sector, less on the public sector (government), and still less on the nonprofit sector. Commentary focuses on what qualities make for great leadership and ways to lead or manage.

But you do not need a book to recognize good leadership. You know good leadership and an effective organization when you feel it. It’s in the positive buzz in the office, the creative sharing of ideas, the transparency with which the organization does business, and the passion shown toward work.

Finding the Right Balance

If you could bottle what these organizations and their leaders are doing, what would the ingredients look like? They would probably be flatter in terms of hierarchy, highly aligned towards mission fulfillment with vision widely shared, and held in the cradle of useful, elegant systems that create just enough support for current function – without stifling the capacity to adapt and innovate.

But being a vibrant and balanced organization isn’t as simple as tossing together the right ingredients. The majority of current models for nonprofit organizational leadership present too much of a burden on one person – a model that isn’t sustainable over the long run.

There has also been quite a bit of sound and fury about the upcoming leadership gaps in our sector and how current and retired corporate leaders need to shift to nonprofit management if we are to survive. Our primary concern with this thinking is that it assumes that the nonprofit sector of the future will be the same as it is today. Rather, the complex dynamism that is the nonprofit sector will more than likely shape itself into creative responses, solutions and adaptations that none of us can clearly see from today’s vantage point.

Even so, it is challenging to be creative, generative and innovative when the focus is so weighted on the constraints of day-to-day management – or even survival. There are visionary leaders who do not have enough resources to hire a thought-partner who focuses more on daily management. There are heroic leaders who take up the burden of the organization, but do not delegate well and are often left tired and exhausted, with little left over for the kind of connectivity required for more visionary, expansive and shared work.

Other organizations feel that only very strong, traditional leadership at the top will keep the organization alive. Many of these current leaders are neither turning enough to those in their organizations who hold informal authority nor facilitating broader based leadership for their organizations.

New Visions of Leadership

TSNE does not have all the answers for nonprofit leadership in current or future times. However, we do feel there are emerging leaders asserting informal authority who can help us toward new incarnations of what it means to lead, particularly in social change-oriented small and mid-sized organizations. Many of these young leaders do not want to follow in the footsteps of their overworked forebears, but do crave a future with a healthy, vibrant, balanced nonprofit working effectively on behalf of its constituents and mission.

We need to learn how to avoid overburdening our current and future leaders. We need to learn how to redistribute power, control and influence over the important issues being advocated on society’s behalf by multiple nonprofits, moving beyond an executive director and a handful of people in the board room and back to the constituents in whose name the nonprofit does business.

The nonprofit sector currently requires leaders who can both develop organizations rooted in the experience of the people for whom the organization exists and in the community and social systems that affect them. The purpose of learning is to elucidate patterns and systems so that we can constantly push at these patterns and systems, creating and managing change, toward strategies that resonate with the emerging conditions and needs of society.

Our questions focus not on who will lead in the near future, but rather about how we lead and why. What new forms of mission-focused work will emerge out of the social or nonprofit sector? What types of groups will provide leadership for what kinds of entities working to create social change? How will these groups be governed? Will current emergence around governance result in advocating for new definitions of governance for small and mid-sized social change? How do we encourage current leaders to thrive while cultivating a new generation of leaders?