The 8 Habits of Highly Effective Nonprofit Leaders

by Joan Garry

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You are a nonprofit leader. Likely a type-A kind of person – pretty accustomed to getting 95’s on your book reports.

It’s one of the reasons you have historically found yourself in leadership positions – when there’s a need for someone to be in charge, it’s like a reflex you cannot control – up goes your hand.

You are also a learner. You always want to get better at your job.

Maybe there was a book report (or in your case a board report) you felt was like an 85. Not a grade you are accustomed to. You look for books or podcasts to hone your skills, manage your time, become an even more awesome leader than you already are.

In 1989, Stephen Covey wrote a book called The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I mustn’t be highly effective because I didn’t read it until I decided to write this post. It has been a best seller for THIRTY YEARS.

Is that crazy or what? Thirty years.

So I figure he must be on to something. Thus, with a ‘tip o the hat’ to Mr. Covey, I’d like to share with you my own version of this: The 8 Habits of Highly Effective Nonprofit Leaders.


Habit 1: Ask For Help

Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Take an issue to your staff. Tell them you are struggling and see pros and cons on a particular issue and that you need their good thinking.

I’ll admit, it can be harder to do the same with your board. But here’s the thing. If you time and again go to the board with all the answers, they might admire you. But they will be disengaged and will not be the ambassadors you need.

If you are a board chair, I know you don’t know what you don’t know. Leading a board is a tough job to fake. Resources are out there.

Lastly, ask your colleagues. They are NOT competitors. Can you please get that one out of your head? Share your challenges and offer your help with theirs.

Nonprofit leadership is “shared leadership”. If you don’t share the challenges, you have a leader and followers.

Habit 2: Talk Less, Listen More

In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway mega-hit Hamilton, Aaron Burr suggests that Hamilton, “talk less, smile more.” With apologies, I’d suggest that ‘listening more’ is a much more important habit.

In fact, I can’t think of a situation in which this is not a critical habit to cultivate.

A twenty minute gala speech? Please don’t do that to your guests.

A 1,000 word speech (that’s about 7 minutes, by the way) that packs a punch and ignites the room? That is what I am talking about.

Less is more.

How about in a meeting with staff? Someone comes in with a problem. Try this: If I were not here what choice would you make? Listen to them, be a thought partner.

Here’s another one – happens all the time. You spend so much time ‘selling’ a board member to climb aboard your organization’s “bus,” that you don’t listen to hear if they have the passion and commitment that will fuel them to be a fantastic ambassador for your organization.

And my oh my, how often nonprofit leaders think that a monologue is the key to a successful ask for money.

Cultivate the habit of really listening to what your prospect cares about, the questions she asks, what motivates her philanthropy. If you are too busy trying to make sure she knows about every single thing your organization does, you will miss all of that.

Habit 3: Exude Passion

You probably assume that since you’re a leader in your org, people know you are deeply committed. Maybe they do. But you have to SHOW IT. Regularly.

People need to be inspired by you. Full stop.

Because passion is contagious.

Think of it this way. The Quakers believe that there is a light in everyone. I suppose you could call it a soul too. I think about it like a “pilot light.” When someone decides to join your “army of the engaged,” her “pilot light” is on. You have determined that this light is deeply connected specifically to your mission and cause. Your job is not just to keep the light on but to stoke it.

I was designing a strategy offsite for a board and the chair said, “Can we have some time with the E.D. where he inspires us? We hear that he gives speeches all across the country and folks are totally engaged. We never get any of that and we really need it to be motivated to do our jobs well. But all we just get a report and then we get nagged to raise money.”

Need I say more?

The same is true of staff meetings. The work is hard and it always feels like a steep climb. Your staff looks to you to remind them why it matters. If you are haggard, you give them permission to be haggard. If you complain, you build a culture of complaining. If you encourage powerful storytelling at meetings, folks will follow your lead.

That’s why they call you the leader.

Habit 4: Ask Really Good Questions

I was going to say that the habit is to “ask the right questions,” but if you ask really good ones, they lead you there. Here are a few good examples:

  • Finance: ”Based on these year-to-date financials, would you suggest that we make any different decisions about our goals or strategies for next year?”
  • Strategy: “What are we best in the world at? If we disappeared, would there be a gap? Who would fill it?”
  • Staff: “What do you need to be successful?” or conversely: “Do you still consider this work important, a privilege? If you hear ‘no’ (because you listen more – see habit 2), tease that out. Maybe his pilot light is out and his job performance is suffering. Figure it out together.
  • Board: “When you leave this board, what do you want to be able to say you contributed?”

Habit 5: Touch the Work

You can sit at your desk and spend your entire day answering emails and putting out “fires.” Or you can meet a client, sit at the reception desk, answer a hotline call.

If you choose the former, you risk your “pilot light” going out. Choose the latter and you remind yourself what really matters. And that is as true for board and staff (non-program) as it is for you.

Get admin staff engaged in the client work. And then, when an admin copies a check that represents a homeless person’s rent, there will be no margin for error for him. Because it’s not a check. It’s a home.

Habit 6: Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

You want to be an effective leader, so don’t dance around tough stuff.

Not inside with your staff, not with your board, not with those outside your organization, and especially not with those who stand in opposition to your work.

Grab a book called “Difficult Conversations” and learn how to do it well.

Consider some professional media training (FYI – there’s a GREAT masterclass on media training inside my monthly membership community for board and staff leaders, the Nonprofit Leadership Lab.)

After all, it can feel hard to make your point directly.

Do you run a food pantry or homeless shelter? Get ready for folks to take you on. “I saw that person in the food pantry and they had a great looking car. I don’t get it.”

You may want to punch the person in the nose. But learn how to deal with discomfort. “We are not here to judge; we are here to serve.”

Habit 7: Apologize More Often

I have coached countless leaders through their annual reviews. They send me the documentation and then attempt to litigate every point with me, defending how hard they work, calling out the board for not working hard enough, but not hearing what is being said to them.

Defensiveness will take a leader down – I have seen it happen.

Own the decisions you make that aren’t successful. “I thought it would work and it didn’t.” You didn’t return a board member’s call in a timely fashion? Enough already with the, “you just don’t know how busy I am,” and apologize.

Why do people find it so damned hard to just say, I’m really sorry? I dropped the ball.

Get in the habit. I often say that being a nonprofit leader is like being a juggler. But a juggler where someone keeps tossing more and more balls your way.

At some point, you will drop a ball. The effective nonprofit leader makes an intentional decision about which ball to drop.

Habit 8: Be Joyful

If there’s one thing that sets apart a great nonprofit leader from a good one, it’s the joy she brings to the work.

On the good days and on the bad days, there is an underlying vibe – the one that comes with knowing that you are leading an effort to change something in this world that to many seems broken beyond repair.

How can we end hunger? Hey, join me! I run a food kitchen. We make remarkable meals based only on what we pick up at supermarkets. We engage with our guests, brightening their days. We have amazing and joyful volunteers who feel a sense of pride and privilege about their efforts. We all head home tired but knowing that there is something joyful about helping others. It’s a privilege.


Sharpen the Saw

OK, so this one is the same as Covey’s 7th habit. But it’s so important and applies here too.

It comes down to this. If you constantly put the pedal to the metal… if you never take time to develop your skills and deepen your knowledge… you’re going to burn out. You certainly won’t get better at what you do.

Attend a lecture. Read a book. Listen to a podcast. Take a class, online or offline.

You can also join the Nonprofit Leadership Lab, which I believe to be the best and most effective online educational resource and community to support leaders of smaller nonprofits available today. Yes, I’m biased.

There are a ton of great resources out there. You just have to make the time. I know you’re busy. But great leaders make it a regular habit to refresh and renew.

My advice – at least once each week, carve out a minimum of one hour (preferably more) for this. Block it out in your calendar. Make it non-negotiable. I’ve never met anybody who regretted doing this.