The Nonprofit Sector is the Biggest Source of Leadership in the World

by Joan Garry

It’s the 3rd biggest economic driver in America. It’s time that nonprofits were front and center. That’s where they belong.

During my senior year of college, I was the dorm director on duty the night a student fell from the window of his thirteen story dorm room. Everything about that evening was terrifying, starting with four dorm directors who were no older than the young man who fell to his death.

I could have been paralyzed by imposter syndrome but the moment demanded something more.

I’m also terribly squeamish and pass out nearly every time my doctor points me toward Quest Diagnostics. But that night the moment demanded courage. I summoned it.

And so Joan Garry, Johnny MacNamara, Matt O’Connor and Jim Kelly (yes, Fordham University was crawling with the Irish) – the four senior leaders on duty that night became a team and turned into the leaders that the students on campus needed us to be. Johnny led the way – the incident happened in his dorm, but we led with him. Long into the night and in the days that followed.

We were not trained in crisis services; we did what we knew to be right. We comforted our fellow students, we opened our doors to the many who just needed to talk. We led, each in our own way.

I remember thinking a few days later that I never once felt squeamish. In this crisis, there was no place for that. It wasn’t what leaders do.

I learned so much about leadership this year – where to find it and what it looks like.

As we close out what may be the most devastating year we have experienced in my lifetime, I’d like to share with you what I have learned about nonprofit leadership in a time of crisis, and why I believe that the nonprofit sector is actually the biggest source of leadership in the world today.


  1. You find it in your own backyard. Why do we insist on believing that when we elect someone, they will lead? Shawna McMahon at Immanuel Community Services in Seattle has never held elected office and yet every day since March, she has been leading – with volunteers under stay-at-home rules – she has continued to ensure that the homeless folks in her care get the help they need and the dignity they deserve. Every single one of you knows someone like Shawna.
  2. You don’t need a title to lead. People want to be of help; to lead in their own small ways. They need to be. I found leadership in my ‘pandemic podmate’ Sylvia Vogelman who actively volunteered to advocate for terrifyingly vulnerable residents of NYC nursing homes. She needed to do that. Just like I need to blog and coach. It’s why I decided to re-write my book (after I finished binge watching Schitt’s Creek). I needed to inject a sense of purpose into a world that felt chaotic.
  3. Crises can turn people into neighbors. This is a superpower of leaders. It’s why I love Kermit the Frog so much. And Mr. Rogers even more (probably because he was real). They understand the power of community, how it feeds us to care about those around us. Leaders model that for us and ignite us to see people differently.
  4. Leaders do what they were sure was not possible. When Head of School at Germantown Friends School Dana Weeks shut the school doors in March, she and her team didn’t get out the “It’s Time To Teach K-12 Students Virtually” Handbook. No one had a handbook. And then leaders like Dana summoned years of experience and a big fat dose of courage and built a fabulous online program called Colloquia. Check out the website – it speaks for itself.
  5. Leaders pick up the phone. My client Kevin Frost runs amfAR – a $35 million org. The organization leads worldwide efforts to find a cure for AIDS. They moved to a virtual workplace and the next day, he set aside hours in his busy day and called every single one of his 84 employees. To see if they were OK. To find out if they needed anything. Leadership.
  6. Leaders are vulnerable. Every Friday in our Nonprofit Leadership Lab, we have a “Self Care” Zoom. Leaders show up as their authentic selves and I am blown away by their willingness to be vulnerable and open with their struggles. It helps them and others in a big way.
  7. Every leader has imposter syndrome. (Great ones hide it well). As resources dwindled, so many leaders wondered when the real executive director was arriving to be the leader that was deserved at this time. And then they caught themselves and decided to look in the mirror.
  8. Leaders invest in getting it right. This year thousands of nonprofit leaders took advantage of basic professional development and special master classes we offered in the Nonprofit Leadership Lab to help them file for PPP loans, fundraise during a crisis, navigate racial unrest in their organizations. I learned that great leaders are smart enough to know they need help and grab hold of resources tightly, even when (especially when) times are tough. I found that wildly impressive.
  9. Leaders have absolutely no idea how much we need them. What would this world have been like this year without nonprofit leaders? I can’t bear to think about it. While elected officials bickered to get stimulus money out, nonprofit leaders just did the work. They helped people because that is what people do. They see the person in need as a neighbor, they get off their asses and figure out a way to help.


This one is really important. It’s the biggest lesson I learned this year and I want to preach about it as we move into 2021.

The nonprofit sector is the single biggest source of leadership in our broken world.

This year 60 million people worked or volunteered for a nonprofit organization. It is the third biggest driver of our economy. Just behind retail and food service and before American manufacturing. 10% of US employment. 12.3 million jobs.

Read that again. 60 million people.

The leaders in our sector provided strong leadership, modeled what it means to be a fine person and worked their tuchases off to help their neighbors, to level the playing field. All year long. Under unimaginable circumstances. Doing 5 times as much with ½ the resources.

Sure, the headlines went to the presidential election where we all fretted about who would be next to lead the free world (that is not feeling all that free by the way).

Wake up my friends. Elected officials don’t lead the free world. My next door neighbor Tom Burrus on the board of the Spring Lake Five, the largest 5 mile race in the country, is trying to figure out how the nonprofit beneficiaries will get desperately needed funding with no actual race. He is leading. So too is every clergy person working so hard to creatively create community. The list goes on. And on…

I have one last thing to say and then I have a request.

First, I hope and pray that in 2021 our world puts the work of nonprofits front and center. I’m not looking to make government more unwieldy. But if we can have an Office of Small Business Administration (SBA), why can’t we have an office that provides support to the third largest driver of our economy?

I’m so sick and tired of hearing people talk about friends affiliated with nonprofits and saying “Isn’t it so nice they do that?

Of course it’s nice. But ‘nice’ is lending a cup of sugar to the person next door. We are way past the nice thing.

Nonprofit leaders save lives, change laws, and find cures for illnesses like Type 1 Diabetes. Need I go on?


Where they belong. That will be my mission in 2021 and I hope you’ll join me.

Now the request. Every single person knows someone who works or volunteers for a nonprofit. Pick up the phone and call one of those people. Here’s your script.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about 2020 and what I am grateful for. It’s not the longest list, but I wanted you to know that you are on it. Thank you for ______. We spent so much time talking about elected leadership this year but I didn’t have to look any further than to you my friend. As a way of saying thank you, I went to your website a few minutes ago and made a contribution. It may not be much but I wanted to do more than just say thank you. You taught me this year that it is important to do something. Thank you and I hope you’ll let me know if I can help you as you move into 2021. It’s going to be another bucking bronco of a year.”

To everyone in the nonprofit sector. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. It’s been a challenging year (to say the least). You are my superheroes.

And please stay safe.

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