How to Take Your Leadership Game From Good to Great

This post is adapted from Joan’s new book Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership: Because Nonprofits Are Messy.

great leadership

Imagine for a moment that you chair the Executive Director search committee on your board. You’re in the final rounds with two very different candidates.

One is well known in your community and would bring gravitas to your organization. He’s known to be a great fundraiser, but finance and management skills are not his forte and his background in media – your sandbox – is slim.

The other candidate is from corporate America. She’s basically unknown in your sector but is strong in your sandbox and is known for strong management. She has zero fundraising experience.

Your organization is in financial trouble. It’s so bad you may not hit payroll next week. Plus, you owe a quarter-million dollars to vendors.

Who should you hire?Continue Reading

The New Executive Director Was a Fraud

imposter syndrome

Do you ever feel like a phony?

I don’t mean in the Holden Caulfield sense of the word.

I mean you have this nagging suspicion that even though you’ve obtained a position of real authority; even though you’ve seemingly accomplished a lot; it’s all a farce. You don’t really know what you’re doing. And everyone is eventually going to figure it out.

You’re a fake. A fraud. An imposter.

For some, this insecurity can become as debilitating as a physical illness.

But guess what? You’re not remotely alone. Practically everyone feels this way. I know I do, at least sometimes. This feeling is so common it has a name. It’s called “Imposter Syndrome.”

Imposter Syndrome became a “thing” in 1978 thanks to two psychologists who described it as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” While these people “are highly motivated to achieve,” they also “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.”

There are plenty of remarkably successful people who suffer from it. You can read this New York Times article to learn more about it.

It will sound familiar, I guarantee you.

I call it “the man behind the curtain.” The image locked in our brains of Toto pulling the curtain back to reveal the meek man from Kansas who was no wizard at all.

And yet he was.

And so are you.

And as a nonprofit leader, you cannot afford to let Imposter Syndrome detract from fulfilling your mission. Too many are counting on you.

So today I want to tell you my own story of dealing with Imposter Syndrome and offer you some thoughts about how you as a nonprofit leader – board or staff – can beat this “thing.”Continue Reading

My Book is Finally Done! Now What?

I can’t believe it! It’s finished! I just sent the final edits off to my publisher and it’s finally done!!!

I’m popping the champagne – and I want to share with you some lessons I learned that are useful for any nonprofit leader with too much to do.

(And I also want to ask your advice about putting together a special launch team to work with me on getting the word out – watch the video to learn more!)

So what do you think… do you want to be on my book launch team? If you have thoughts about it, or want to apply, please go to this page and let me know!

And also, you can download a free chapter of the book right now and also sign up for free bonuses if you pre-order. All the information is available at

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January 20: How to Lead in Uncertain Times


The word I hear lately more than any other is uncertainty.

Here in the US, every four years on January 20 there is a change of power. It comes with the awesome privilege of being part of this great democratic experiment called the United States of America.

In my lifetime as a voter, there have been plenty of times when the guy I voted for lost. In fact, that’s probably more the rule than the exception. And no, I didn’t vote for the man being inaugurated this week.

But this feels different. I am anxious in a way I never have been before. More uncertain. Less because of the “who” as much as the “how” and what all of it says about the world we live in.

In this, I know I am not alone. Not at my kitchen table. Not in my neighborhood and certainly not among nonprofit leaders I connect with every day.

And the anxiety isn’t just coming from those who didn’t vote for him. I know Republicans who feel uncertain as well. Sure, they voted for our new President. But they’re not entirely sure what to expect going forward.

There’s a lot we all just don’t know yet.

But this blog isn’t about politics. It’s about nonprofit leadership. And that’s what I want to discuss today – how nonprofits are navigating a world turned upside down.

I have questions. I know a lot of you have questions.

– Has there already been an impact on the way nonprofits are doing things?

– How are nonprofit leaders approaching the uncertainty strategically?

– What’s the best way for nonprofit leaders to lead those in their organizations that are feeling particularly anxious or vulnerable?

I asked some folks in the trenches – five wonderful and diverse nonprofit leaders across sectors – to share their thoughts about how they are approaching the uncertainty in their organization and to offer a piece of advice on how to contend with the unchartered waters ahead.

One important note. The uncertainty does not rest solely in what would be called “progressive” or “liberal” organizations. And the list below is hardly representative. I do hope that folks of all ideological stripes will weigh in with comments.Continue Reading

The Key to a Successful Performance Review Process

performance review

We all know this person. Let’s call him Jeff.

At a glance, Jeff appears to be a high performing staff member. Yes, his ego is out the wazoo (what exactly is a “wazoo?”). But he cares about his department and his own success. Jeff is super smart, maybe the smartest person in the room.

But also… Jeff is not a team player. He gets away with behavior that is intolerable by any standards because he delivers. And he does deliver. But Jeff also seems to enjoy crushing his co-workers like bugs.

So riddle me this…

Is Jeff a high performer? Without a formal and effective performance review process, how would he know? I bet he thinks he is a high performer. But truly, he is probably more trouble than he’s worth.

Maybe your nonprofit already does a performance review for each and every staff member. If so, great! But maybe you think they’re not super effective and could be handled better.

Or maybe you’re just not doing them at all for whatever reason.

Either way, I have some critical tips on how to give a performance review the right way.Continue Reading

Your 10 Favorite Posts of 2016

favorite posts 2016

Ah 2016.

Well, certainly nobody can accuse you of being boring.

As I do in December each year, I sat down and reviewed my blog statistics to see which posts resonated with you the most.

I am blown away at the piece that landed in #1 spot – I found your receptivity to this post quite inspiring.

As for the other nine, you’ll see a diversity of topics represented and worth reading (or re-reading) as you take at least a short break between the end of one year and the start of another (she says hopefully.)

I’d like to make one last suggestion before I head out to enjoy the holidays with my family.

If you are a board chair, would you take a few minutes to write an email to the entire staff on behalf of the board? Wish them a happy holiday, tell them how much respect you have for them and how proud you are to lead the board of your remarkable organization. Maybe point out one accomplishment that really stood out for you. And say thank you.

If you are a staff leader, I’d love to see you take a few minutes with your senior team (if you have staff and maybe lead volunteers if you don’t) and kick around what each of you saw as the most significant accomplishments of the past twelve months. One of you should jot them all down. I guarantee each of you will have something different to say and will inspire each other.

And then take a few more minutes and write a note to your staff. Thank them for their passion, their energy and their determination. Ask them to thank their families on your behalf for putting up with moms, dads, kids, partners who live and breathe their work much of the time. And then offer them your list of accomplishments. Suggest they read them again on New Year’s Eve and that you intend to do the same.

It will remind you all of what often gets lost. That your work is a joy and a privilege.

Wishing you all a warm and wonderful holiday and a 2017 that exceeds every expectation.

And now, here are your favorite posts from 2016.

Drumroll please…

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The Problem With Executive Sessions

With no warning, the board decides to go into Executive Session. The Executive Director is asked to leave the room. An hour or more goes by, but to the ED it seems much longer. When it’s over, the ED isn’t told what was discussed.

Have you ever seen this happen? I sure have.

There’s little that does more to kill trust between the staff and board than poorly conceived executive sessions. In this video, I discuss a better approach.

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The Problem With Special Events

Nonprofits LOVE special events. And why not? They’re exciting and bring in revenue. But there’s a huge problem with them. In this video, I tell you what that is and suggest a better approach.

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So You Wanna Be a Nonprofit Executive Director?

Boards needs to know what to ask candidates. Prospective Executive Directors need to know how to prepare for their interviews. Here’s some advice for both.

executive director interview questions

In 1997, I became the Executive Director of GLAAD. When I think back to my job interview, I kind of have to laugh.

Some EDs get the job after years working as a senior fundraiser or in some other nonprofit leadership position. Not me.

I came to it from corporate America. While I was strong on strategy, communications, and dealing with people, I had no fundraising experience whatsoever. Somehow the board overlooked that. The staff wasn’t so thrilled, but that’s a different story.

Like most interviews, there were two main parts.

First, the board asked a bunch of good questions, which I answered as best I could. Then, I had an opportunity to ask them questions. I like to think I also asked some good ones.

It was a strong interview. Executive Director interviews better be. After all, you are hiring for the most important position at your nonprofit! You have to get this right.

To be clear, when I say Executive Director, I mean the staff leader. You might call that person the CEO or President or Head of Schools or whatever.

Over the past year, I’ve coached several gifted individuals who interviewed for ED positions and I can tell you that many nonprofits handle these interviews poorly. They don’t ask the right questions or they don’t really know what they’re looking for.

Frankly, it’s not surprising. Usually board members conduct ED interviews but most of them aren’t professional HR people and have never gotten training. How should they know what to ask?

And so it’s also not surprising that two questions I get asked a lot are:

  • From boards: What are good interview questions for Executive Directors?
  • From candidates: Can you help me get ready for an Executive Director interview?

Let’s tackle both.Continue Reading

What Really Matters

what matters

This is not a typical post for me. But yesterday was not a typical day. Not for America and not in my family.

I’d like to talk about the intersections of those things and maybe help you to think about your own loved ones, your life, your community, and the lives you touch in a way that puts yesterday’s election results in perspective.

My mother is a feisty, irascible 89 year old – sharp as a tack. Tough as nails. <insert hackneyed phrase here>

She went in for surgery to contend with a pacemaker that needed to be removed and placed elsewhere.

My mom survived but whatever else could go wrong did. As I write this, she is on a respirator in the ICU at a great hospital and in the best of care.

This is not what she would want. She had a DNR and every imaginable document to keep from prolonging her life but no document could keep doctors from doing what they do best – save lives. We are now going to take it day by day.

I’m not writing this for sympathy. I’m writing for perspective.Continue Reading