Balancing the Mission Checkbook

Who said leadership was fun?

The Minnesota Council on Foundations invited Judith Alnes from MAP for Nonprofits and me to contribute an article for their current issue of Giving Forum. The title is Nonprofit Survival: Four Steps to Take Now. Add this article to the dozens that have been written in the past few months about what nonprofits should/could/might/ought to do in order to maintain their organizations and community services in the face of the harsh economic environment.

Harsh is the word for it. When I read the article in print today, this statement in the conclusion really jumped out for me:

“Those of us in leadership roles should remember that this time will be judged by the actions we take or the actions we fail to take.”

That’s a lot of weight being carried by leaders of nonprofits.

David Brooks described the pressure in his column in yesterday’s New York Times:

“It’s no fun being a leader in a financial crisis. You’ve got to be bold but reassuring, free-spending but disciplined. You must decisively crush the short-term problem without freaking everybody out and leaving a long-term mess.”

He was writing about Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, but I think many nonprofit directors share the feeling.

Nonprofit Leadership

Leadership in nonprofits has been the subject of many articles, studies, forums, and institutes. I have benefited from some of these greatly, learning about my personal style and how to nurture my strengths, include other viewpoints, and work collaboratively to create a team. Sometimes, being a leader requires you to take responsibility for tough problems and be held accountable for the results. Commenter Claudia Dengler’s response to one of my December posts really hit a nerve. She said:

“And on the personal side, if you thought you were lonely at the top before…even the most transparent leader will find they have to hold information close, thinking deeply, often privately, about the full weight of their impending decisions.”

If you’re the one who has to stare at the budget column or read the letter informing you of a funding reduction you know what this feels like. As David Brooks said, it’s no fun.

Ideas about Support and Resources

What kinds of support and resources do leaders of nonprofits need to manage the personal demands and the pressure of leading in this environment? Based on the number of people I’ve seen at the various meetings and forums about managing in difficult times, there are a lot of people looking for something – some skills, some information, even some secret solutions (there aren’t any). I also think that we’re all looking for some reassurance that we’re not alone in the struggle.

This is a time to learn a new leadership approach or adapt well developed leadership practices. I have some ideas about what needs to change and I hope that you will weigh in as well.

I offer three suggestions to start:

  • Nonprofit directors often lack support networks of true peers because they’ve learned to manage the relationship with their board and to treat other nonprofits as competitors. We need to lower our guards and be more honest and open with others in our field.
  • There are hundreds of different ways that staff leaders and board leaders work together. Many executive directors don’t really know what to expect from with their boards right now. Executive directors and board chairs need to have a conversation about how the board’s role, practices, and composition will need to change to adapt to long-term financial and community uncertainty.
  • Find a friend with whom you can confidentially share your fears and pressures, get some reassurance, sympathy, and care – and then do something fun.

What are your ideas?


Kate Barr believes that every nonprofit financial question relates to strategy, structure and mission impact. She enjoys interpreting financial information to find stories numbers can tell. She loves writing, teaching, and talking with interesting people.