January 15, 2016

Does Leadership Really Matter in Nonprofits?

Leadership is equally important in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. Here former Bridgespan Group Partner David Simms shares stories of nonprofit leaders who have achieved wonderful outcomes for their organizations in this Harvard Business Review blog.

Does leadership really matter? The executive director of a new foundation asked me that question earlier this year. At first I thought he was joking — after all, helping nonprofits attract and develop passionate and highly skilled leaders is part of what we do at Bridgespan. The back of my business card even says "leadership matters."
It seems clear to me that leadership is the most important of the three legs nonprofit organizations stand on (the other two being strategy and capital). Nonprofits can develop sound strategies and attract sufficient capital, but without strong leaders at the helm, they're unlikely to deliver outstanding results.
But maybe I shouldn't have been taken aback by the ED's question. Leadership often doesn't get its due in the nonprofit sector. A common sentiment is that good leaders and their teams are expensive to acquire and keep. Wouldn't that money be better spent on programs that aid those in need rather than on salaries? That fiscal response is often conflated with the belief by some in nonprofit circles that passion can overcome nearly any obstacle.
I replied to the question from the foundation head by telling him stories about nonprofit leaders who had achieved wonderful outcomes for their organizations, instances where pre- and post-trend lines of impact and performance clearly showed that something had changed for the better because of these executives' actions.
In some instances, such as that of Geoffrey Canada at Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ), the leader's impact has been publicly acknowledged. President Obama selected the HCZ model as a template other cities can use to tackle the tough issues of their inner cities. The President had become aware of HCZ while still a senator, and had long endorsed Canada's work. He saw in Canada what others had — a hands-on, passionate manager with a solid track record of successful fund-raising and of developing effective community-based programs aimed at helping kids from disadvantaged backgrounds grow into productive adults.
Other leaders are less well known — people such as David Nelson, a former IBM executive who became the executive director at the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NTE) and helped the organization increase the number of youth it served from 6,800 in 2001 to more than 50,000 in 2009. Nelson came to the role with a strong operations background and well-honed project management skills, both of which perfectly complemented the sitting CEO's deep fund-raising and marketing skills. Together they were able to develop and implement a business plan that increased NTE's impact sevenfold.
These and a few other stories I shared helped to convince the foundation director (and eventually his board) that he needed to expand the leadership-development efforts in his organization.
What about you? Would you have been similarly convinced?
Do you think leadership really matters? If someone asked you, how could you persuasively answer that question? If you serve on a nonprofit board, do you live out your beliefs? How do you ensure that your organization values leadership?

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