Are You Leading Your Nonprofit Backwards? How to Change

Philanthropy, Not Fundraising

Backwards Wrong Way Sign

Are you too wedded to the status quo?

More than ever before nonprofit leaders must lead from vision, not mission.  Why?  The world is moving really, really fast.  Blame it on the digital revolution if you wish.  But why waste time laying blame?  It is what it is.  Instead, get into the 21st century. Now.

The present (what you’re doing) is nothing more than a springboard to the future (the change you’re endeavoring to bring about). That’s what folks want to invest in. Positive change.

Nonprofits have tended to forget their visions in order to justify continued existence.  Sometimes founders and other leaders become too wedded to the status quo.  They can’t let their babies grow up.  This is wrong. Nonprofits are founded to meet needs and resolve problems.  Needs change.  Problems get resolved (or they should).  Nonprofits should strive to go out of business, or get into a new one (a great example is the March of Dimes).

We need to shorten the distance between the present and the future. This requires a shift in mindset and culture.  A culture of leading for transformation, not transaction. A culture of vision, not mission. A culture of philanthropy, not fundraising.

Changing the way we lead is not easy.  But it’s not impossible. It begins with casting off assumptions and understanding that just because something did/did not work in the past is no blueprint for how it may work today or tomorrow. Ban phrases like “that’s not how we’ve done it” and “we tried that before; didn’t work” from your workplace.  Similarly, ban phrases like “that’s not our culture; you don’t get us.”  Culture is a moving target.

If you don’t stay fresh you become stale. That’s why you must ban sychophancy. No more hiring people just like you and rewarding them for agreeing with you. No more focusing in on weaknesses and punishing folks for failures. Let people lead from their strengths. Reward those who take risks (strategic, calculated ones, of course). Encourage people to do more of what they excel at.

You’ve got to take chances and make mistakes. Nonprofits are notoriously bad about taking risks. It’s ingrained within us that this is inappropriate stewardship of our investor’s resources.  Yet is withering on the vine really good stewardship?  There must be a balance.  Plus, nonprofits are structured in a particularly clunky way, reporting to volunteer boards of directors for whom (as dedicated and well-intentioned as they may be) this is not their day job. As a result, decisions seem to move at a glacial pace.

Disney quote - Keep Moving ForwardYou’ve got to move faster.The times they really are a’changin’.  Brian Solis says it’s the end of business as usual. Adapt or die. Mike Myatt  says it’s about living in a time of unprecedented change when leaders must challenge past thinking.  Reimagine.  Simply refining initiatives leads to falling further and further behind the competition. Leaders must challenge so-called best practices and past assumptions.  Revisit and clarify your thinking.

It’s time for some ‘clairification’ (and you’ve come to the right place!). Here’s a quick list of 5 things you may want to rethink; then a link to a Special Clairification Guide to help you look forward, not back:

1. Clarify Your Core Values – Philanthropy is a values-based universe. What are yours? Are they the same as those of your constituents?  Do you know your value proposition (i.e., what are the benefits for your constituents of getting involved?) Have you been drifting; are your values changing over time? Challenge yourself to take an honest look at your business culture. Your values are your passion, and that’s where you need to lead from.

2. Clarify Your Destination – Understand there’s a difference between mission (what you do) and vision (where you’re headed). Then think about what happens when you achieve your desired outcome(s). What happens next? Your vision will inspire others to follow your lead.

3. Clarify Your Brand Promise – Is your brand promise on target? Is it deliverable? Is it sustainable? If you cannot keep your promise to customers, you won’t have much of a business to worry about. Few things hinder the advance of a business like a brand in need of a refresh. Nonprofits are not immune; you must listen for offers (what people want to help achieve) and seize opportunities (ways you can align and collaborate towards fulfilling that promise).

4. Clarify Your Business Structures – Not all business models are created equal. Furthermore, just because you have a business model doesn’t mean it’s the right one, or that it’s sustainable. Break the business model down from the revenue engine all the way down to the distribution model and delivery strategy. What about your org chart? What made sense yesterday may not make sense today. If your systems don’t afford you a competitive advantage moving forward, it’s time for some reimagining.

5. Clarify Your Resources Are you spending money to make money?  Do you have the right mix of skills and experience? Or are you limping along, carrying dead weight? Are you knocking the heart and soul out of the good talents you have? If you’re settling for anything less than acquiring, deploying, developing, and retaining the best talent possible, it’s time to challenge yourself to change.

The most important thing you can do today – right now – is challenge yourself.  Be honest. Take a good hard look at your organization, your department and/or your own job description and time management. It’s easy to challenge (and blame) others. Don’t hold others to standards unless you’re willing to hold yourself to the same or higher standards.  You can’t change others that much until you take a good, long look in the mirror.

7 Clairification KeysIf you’d like to jumpstart your nonprofit’s reimagination process you may be interested in this SPECIAL GUIDE:  7 CLAIRIFICATION KEYS TO UNLOCK YOUR NONPROFIT’S FUNDRAISING POTENTIAL. Through a series of clairifying worksheets and individual and group exercises, this 23-page guide will give you fresh insights into how fundraising and marketing have changed more in the past 5 years than in the previous 50 – and what that means for you and your organization.

Photos: Flickr, Great Beyond, Franvelpal

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About Claire

I’m Claire and I want to help you raise more money, reach more people and build long-lasting relationships with your supporters. Take a look in the archives.


  1. So many good, helpful thoughts in the article above…but you could have written a whole chapter on each paragraph. Instead of getting some clarification, I felt like I needed to take a deep breath or come up for air!
    How about breaking things down, simply and one step at a time?

    • Thanks Norma. And good point. I’m writing guides on each of these areas, and cover each in more detail in the 7 Clairification Keys mentioned at the end of the post. Stay tuned!

  2. Each of us has moments in our life history that imprint themselves on us, set the foundation for what we “know” life holds, and become the backdrop for our actions. For someone living through the depression, for example, what they know life holds might be scarcity and their actions are guided by frugality. The thing is, in the scheme of things these moments — even if decades long — are fleeting. It’s no different in our professional lives and we have to find the ability to see and act in accordance with the current (and future!) landscape.

    Thanks for this post. So many of your points align with those I’ve been emphasizing, particularly in my role as a board member. One of my favorite lines is “[n]onprofits should strive to go out of business, or get into a new one.” When I express this it’s usually met with discomfort.

    But does this mean… I should never hire you because you think so much like me? 😉


  1. […] it’s all about telling a compelling story. I think Claire Axelrad recently put it nicely, when she said that NGOs should talk more about their vision and less about […]

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