How Innovative Leaders Manage Nonprofit Organizations

I have been writing about leadership, focusing on leadership for nonprofits. While leaders of all organizations face challenges, leaders of nonprofits face some specific ones. Like leaders in other organizations, we deal with the same economic conditions, but because we rely on outside funding, we also succumb to trends that may reduce or even eliminate our capacity to exist.

Aspects of innovative leadership for nonprofits

Innovative leadership
Indeed, these are complex and challenging times for nonprofit organizations. Can innovative leadership help?

I have spoken with a number of leaders who have experienced the painful circumstances of either having to merge with another organization or close their long-standing programs. It is heart-wrenching to provide years of work and devotion, to positively impact people in need then watch it end. For the people who gave and received those services, it feels somewhat like being lost at sea.

Indeed, these are complex and challenging times. Can innovative leadership help?

It is a common perception that innovation can only be derived from someone who is creative. Certainly the ability to be creative is helpful, but many aspects of leadership can come into play when an organization must change to survive. Unfortunately, sometimes those changes have to be made quite rapidly.

Then there are times when organizations have outlived their mission and purpose. The organization may need to be reframed (or closed), but usually there are opportunities to renew and refresh the mission and vision prior to reaching this crux.

Synergy in innovative leadership

I would suggest that innovation is derived from the facets within an organization’s synergy of community and capacity. I thought I would list a few that I have learned along the way:

Context – Leaders can zero-in on the needs and trends within their respective areas of expertise and professional community.

What we know is almost every area of human need has been changing; that is, as research points to new dynamics on diagnosis and treatment techniques, processes or statistics, funding streams follow. Further, as funding streams pass to different generations we are seeing significant shifts from traditional types of programs to those with innovative approaches undergirded by research.

Staff Input Leaders can gain valuable insight from their staff on the front lines.

Staff are in the trenches where they can usually detect changes in the population (and make potential contacts) that could shape the future of programs and services. This information becomes essential for setting direction and goals as well as helping leaders adapt programs and services within changing environments.

Clients Some nonprofits have a client-base struggling to find answers to very complex problems.

Nonprofit leaders should be establishing diverse forums of communication with their existing clients to see how needs can be met via new ideas and programs, and envision how to customize those services to specific situations.

Adaptability – As we consider contexts in which we and our clients exist, it is clear that we cannot cling to former (or obsolete) methods, traditions and styles of providing services and programs.

Instead, we must redesign, alter, grow (or even reduce) what we do in order to maintain the impact of our mission. Moreover, it is essential we build adaptability into the core beliefs of our leadership, staff and communities. Then we need to be equipped to guide our staff through the coming changes so they will not feel we have abandoned the core of our mission.

Community Partners – Collaboration has been talked about for many years; yet, nonprofits have had difficulty figuring out how to maintain the integrity of each organization while attempting to collaborate.

Indeed, collaboration presents a perplexing set of challenges, ones that deserve to be evaluated. Because, in the current world of funding, in which capacity has diminished but needs have expanded, partnerships are key to any nonprofit’s survival.

Efficiency (leanness)- Without precedent, nonprofit leaders are now asked to do more with less.

Particularly for organizations that relationally meet the needs of their community, it feels compromising to do less than we currently do. Where then do we become leaner? We need to be as efficient as possible using technology and strong financial management as well as new ideas.

Innovation in summary

There is much more to say here, but as nonprofit leaders bring together the aspects above, they will extend innovation. Innovation is a synergy of factors relevant to specific issues facing each organization.

As we evaluate our context, listen to staff and clients, incorporate adaptability, embrace new relationships with community partners and strive to become efficient, we will maximize our capacity to survive, possibly even grow new opportunities.

We desperately need the positive impact of our nonprofits. It could be that innovation will herald the most significant characteristic of leaders to come.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

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