I’ve just returned from Philly and the ARNOVA (Association for Research on Nonprofits and Voluntary Action) conference. There were many interesting panels of research findings about nonprofit management, relationship with government, fiscal realities and working effectively with volunteers. The conference theme was "Leading in Building Civil Society." On Thursday afternoon, we convened a dynamic Colloquy, "Building Leadership with Knowledge from our Sector" that engaged diverse perspectives in exploring nonprofit leaders’ needs, our unique knowledge-base (given the tasks and contexts of nonprofit leadership), and promising practices for leadership development.
Kim Borton started us off by introducing the three panelists and laying out their shared perspective: Nonprofit leadership is not management; it is not only concentrated at the top of organizations; it is not merely a series of traits; and it almost always involves both technical and adaptive challenges. Jon Pratt, Executive Director of Minnesota Council of Nonprofits reminded us of nonprofits’ unique roles as ‘centers of creativity’ that ‘allow citizens to do together what they could not do alone.’ Yet there are organizational challenges leaders must confront: their organizations are dependent upon other institutions for revenue, they face constant pressures to conform with perceived ‘best’ practices, they must confront the many forces pulling nonprofits away from the communities they were create to serve. As a field, he said, we are just beginning to articulate the roles, skills and knowledge unique to nonprofit leadership. Ruth McCambridge, Editor in Chief of Nonprofit Quarterly also offered her perspective. Nonprofit leadership requires close listening to the constituents we serve. We must create real mechanisms in our organizations for keeping professionals focused on communities’ real issues rather than the buzz words and paradigms of funding agencies. I, then, finished up the context-setting, talking about my belief that leadership exists throughout the sector; what is needed is more time for analysis and reflection, more opportunities to build untraditional networks; more tools that help people understand systems and solve problems. Leadership knowledge exists. It is just not codified. Incredible innovations occur each day: People develop creative approaches in financing, in working with government, in defining performance and effectiveness in ways that bolster capacity rather than deplete it, in deeply engaging with their constituents to solve important problems. Yet, people rarely claim or acknowledge the leadership moments embedded in these innovations; it is more comfortable, somehow, to believe the someone else ‘out there’ has the answer. For leadership development, we need more spaces, places, and tools where nonprofit leaders can act, reflect, and refine. Where opportunities for them to demonstrate and refine their creativity and strategic acting.
With these thoughts swirling around, the colloquy then opened to engage the twenty-five people gathered. We considered two questions. What needs to be unlearned in our attempts to bolster Leadership Development in the sector? What new tools / experiences can be applied to that end? Small groups met for 35 minutes to grapple with these questions. The large group reconvened and talked more together. One critical issue is ways of helping nonprofit leaders move from a victim position – feeling constantly beholden and powerless to public and private funders – to positions of strength. Yet change is possible; people offered new trends in philanthropists examining their own effectiveness, teaching simulations and cases highlighting powerful nonprofits in relation to government. One woman offered the metaphor of a orchestral conductor for nonprofit leadership. A man challenged that nonprofit leadership now is concentrated on organizational survival. Another woman pointed to the lessons being gleaned by nonprofit leaders from the mobilization strategies of the Obama campaign. One person offered the important insight – many of us need to relearn the history of nonprofit organizations, concentrating on the time when nonprofits were actors on behalf of community concerns. If nonprofits are centers of creativity how can we create and support that core work? For those of us that are involved in teaching and supporting nonprofit leaders, this is the central question answer. Given the events facing us now – in private, public and nonprofit sectors – there is urgency in our abilities to do so.