Serving Communities By Developing Nonprofit Leadership with Valerie Leonard, Ep #56
37 min

Nonprofit leadership is something I admittedly have less experience with than I do with leadership in other contexts. But I think we all recognize that being a leader of a nonprofit carries with it a unique set of leadership challenges. Thinking through the needs of the nonprofit sector, I can think of no area where the need for dynamic and effective leaders is more pressing. I believe there may be no greater place for leaders to have an impact than in these organizations that serve the communities where people raise families and make their homes.

My guest on this episode is Valerie F. Leonard. Valerie is the Founder of Nonprofit Utopia, a training and leadership development organization focused exclusively on equipping those tasked with leadership in the nonprofit sector. Her own experience led her to the realization that there was a great need for leadership development among those with the vision to start nonprofits. So, she decided to do something about it.

Nonprofits serve in many ways, but those that work in neighborhoods within larger urban areas have significant challenges. In these communities, skilled workers and professionals have often moved out of the area in search of work that matches their abilities. That winds up causing the community itself to become a victim of neglect and lack of resources. The need for effective leadership in nonprofits that serve these communities is clear and the opportunity to create mutually meaningful work engagements for those who serve as paid staff and volunteers is just as pressing as in the for-profit world.

Nonprofit leaders face generational challenges

Those classified as “Baby Boomers” have typically engaged with nonprofits from a distance, contributing to their favorite organizations and causes and enjoying the updates and newsletters they receive. But they tend to stay separate from the operations and organization of the nonprofit, for the most part. With the rise of the Millennial generation, all that is changing.

Millennials appear to prefer a more “hands-on” approach when it comes to engagement with nonprofits. They do seem to be willing to give money, but just as often prefer to give their time and energy, taking an active hand in carrying out the tasks the nonprofit performs. This is welcome news on some fronts, volunteers are always needed at most nonprofits. But it’s also a challenge—nonprofit leadership is now faced with managing volunteers who are also donors. You can imagine the challenges already, can’t you?

Nonprofit leaders are tasked with uncommon organizational and financial responsibilities

Imagine yourself being passionate about a cause or need in your community, so much so that you are considering starting a nonprofit to address the issues you see. It sounds great and is undoubtedly a noble and potentially impacting endeavor, but how many people in those shoes are truly equipped to fill the role? It’s harder than you think. For example...

Leaders of for-profit companies typically segment the leadership of their organization into specialized roles - Chief Executive Officer, Chief Marketing Officer, Chief Sales Officer, etc., all paid positions supported by sales of products or services. But the nonprofit sector is different in that most senior leaders wear many hats and are paid (if at all) through donations. And the hats they wear are often things they’ve never had to do before. When you consider that the primary leader of most nonprofits is the person who typically meets with potential donors, casts the vision for the organization, and keeps things running smoothly from a cash flow perspective, you can see the issue clearly.

Valerie saw these needs through her work as a consultant. She served upcoming nonprofit leaders on an individual basis and realized that the learning curve was quite steep. In fact, in many cases, it was insurmountable without help. That’s why she launched her own organization, Nonprofit Utopia. Its website describes the organization as “the ideal community for emerging nonprofit leaders who want to take their organizations to the next level. We have created a safe environment in which our members can innovate, speak candidly about the issues and concerns they face on a daily basis, and share ideas and resources.” With Valerie’s guidance, the community is delivering on that promise.

What is required of nonprofit leadership to provide mutually meaningful work engagements?

In addition to everything noted thus far, nonprofit leaders deal with a very interesting mix of team members. To start off, there is a continuum of sorts upon which those team members reside - at one end are paid staff who function according to actual job descriptions and have clear roles. At the other end of said continuum are volunteers who may or may not have the same clarity but sometimes may have even more responsibility. How do those in nonprofit leadership hold paid staff and volunteers accountable equally, when one has the leverage of a steady paycheck built-in by default and the other does not? What about inspiration and motivation? Does a leader go about it differently when dealing with volunteers than they would if everyone on the team was compensated?

Valerie says that one of the key components of effective nonprofit leadership has to do with consistently holding out the vision of the organization. Everyone who works for and with a nonprofit is behind the cause the organization is addressing already, so this "common goal" seems a natural place to start. The leader’s role is largely to help team members—paid or not—stay connected to exactly how their particular tasks fit into the fulfillment of the organization’s mission, and how they directly impact the people the organization is helping, equipping, or serving. In this way, both leadership and those they lead can receive fulfillment and meaning from the work they do while serving their constituents well. 

Listen to this episode to hear how Valerie and the team at Nonprofit Utopia are making a difference in the lives of rising nonprofit leaders, and how they help them create mutually meaningful work engagements for their teams.

Outline of This Episode
  • [5:20] The difference between Baby Boomer and Millennials’ involvement in non profits
  • [13:44] Motivations behind working with NPOs
  • [20:12] The difficulty of “selling” not for profit work compared to commercial enterprises
  • [23:45] Why Valerie started Non Profit Utopia
  • [26:56] How do we make NPO volunteers work truly meaningful
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