January 19, 2021

Four Skills Nonprofit Leaders Need to Lead through Uncertain Times

What skills, mindsets, and competencies do leaders need in this moment to bring their organizations safely and soundly through uncertainty? Seven graduates of Bridgspan's Leading for Impact program share their thoughts.

Editor’s note: The below are excerpts of longer responses we received from our Leading For Impact participants; they have been shortened for editorial purposes.
The pressures of leading organizations today are many. To explore what it takes to lead organizations safely and soundly through uncertain times, Bridgespan asked a number of nonprofit leaders the question: what skills, mindsets, and competencies do leaders need in this moment?
Seven graduates of our Leading for Impact® program offered their replies—and while the responses varied based on each organization’s needs and goals, leaders consistently, highlighted the need for leaders to:
  • balance real-time concerns with the need to advance their long-term mission;
  • allay fear and anxiety in others, while modeling courage and steadiness at the helm;
  • adopt an equity mindset to address the impacts of crisis on the people they serve; and
  • demonstrate flexibility and strategic discipline.
Esther Franco-Payne, Executive, Cabrini Green Legal Aid
“The senior leaders at Cabrini Green Legal Aid (CGLA) (both the executive and leadership teams) have engaged in team and culture work to ensure they possess the competencies, mindsets, and skills to lead the organization through this pandemic and beyond. What has been important at the executive team level has really centered on taking a deep dive into executive intelligence and understanding adaptive leadership. In times of uncertainty, chaos, and fear, self-awareness and adaptive leadership have been key components in exercising courage and creating stability to support our frontline staff and effectively accomplish our mission.”
MarySue Barrett, President, Metropolitan Planning Council
“The triple threat of a public health pandemic, economic recession, and racial reckoning have deepened the Metropolitan Planning Council’s (MPC) commitment to equity in all policies, from taxes to transportation, housing, clean air and water, and more. For MPC’s senior leaders, this moment has prompted introspection and experimentation in how we show up for each other, how we center community voice in policy making, and how we disrupt traditional power dynamics. An ‘equity mindset’ is a daily practice, a journey along a pebble-strewn path that leads us to bolder positions and better outcomes for everyone.”
Kimber Connors, Executive Director, Washington State Opportunity Scholarship
“In this moment, senior leaders should lead by balancing compassion and flexibility with strength and a willingness to make hard choices that are aligned with mission and values. It’s easy to be stuck in a reactive mode, seeking to address what’s in front of us right now. But the most successful leaders will stay focused on what comes next, playing the strategic long-game and maintaining focus that this moment is just that–a moment.”
Laura Zumdahl, President and CEO, New Moms
“A nonprofit leader's job has always been to balance the tradeoffs between financial sustainability and impact, but in the midst of so many crises competing for attention we have to navigate real-time concerns about health and safety with long-term advancement of our missions. This requires leaders to have a good understanding of resources and the tradeoffs in making strategic decisions, while also holding a future-mindset for the organization. In moments of crises and despair, fear and want can take over people's lives. A leader's job is to keep their own head up and hold out a vision for the future that provides a steady, thoughtful path forward.”
Aarti Dhupelia, Vice President, Undergraduate Education; Dean, Undergraduate College, National Louis University
“We are practicing compassion and flexibility with our team who are trying to balance work with child care, their children’s virtual learning, their own mental health, their own social isolation, potential financial challenges, potential illness, and potential family members’ illness. Everyone needs a little TLC right now, so we maintain high standards for the stuff that matters, but don’t sweat the small stuff.
Jennifer Welch, CEO and President, Planned Parenthood of Illinois
“In addition to compassion and flexibility, I overlay a commitment to anti-racism. I’m re-reading an article called “Awake to Woke to Work: Building a Race Equity Culture,” and one item especially stood out to me. Most of us who lead in the nonprofit sector want to fix some societal challenge. And many of those challenges are inherently linked with racism and need to be addressed together.”
Maricela A. Garcia, CEO, Gads Hill Center 
“Through this challenging time, the senior leadership of the organization demonstrated skills that kept us focused on responding to the needs of the organization and program participants. The most salient [skills our team demonstrated] were:
  • Commitment to the mission of Gads Hill Center. Being mission focused helped the leadership team establish priorities to allocate resources and lead staff and support families. 
  • Strong communication across the organization. To manage the high levels of stress among staff, the CEO set up a weekly all staff meeting to convey and share relevant information about the organization and coronavirus, and to check on personal matters to provide support to each other. 
  • Ability to be nimble, to adjust to the sudden changes and unknowns in the environment. So much was new and unknown that required high capacity to be flexible and able to run with the punches in order to carry our services. We had to cancel our annual gala and other fundraising events and make budget adjustments right away to keep the organization financially stable. 
  • Being humble, recognize that the complexity and novelty of the pandemic was going to make us prone to make mistakes. Evaluate every decision we implemented in a timely manner to make necessary corrections. We stayed focus on the goals and intensions rather than blame and judgement. Leadership team members acknowledge that we were trying our best, but we were learning new skills in an unknown situation.”


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