What matters: Thoughts on nonprofit leadership

What matters: Thoughts on nonprofit leadership

May 6, 2016

Does it matter if the executive director of a ballet company has never danced? If the president of a symphony orchestra has never played an instrument? Or if the CEO of a social services agency has never practiced social work?


I have been thinking about these questions a lot lately as I observe the people being selected by boards of directors to lead a variety of nonprofit organizations. Their backgrounds are often in fundraising, financial management, marketing or other technical aspects of business operations. They’re fungible skills that can be carried from an arts organization to a legal services organization to an environmental organization.


The trend has become so prevalent that frankly, these days, when I read about an art historian or curator being selected to head a museum, I’m surprised.


But does it really matter?


Does it actually make a difference for mission-based organizations whether the leaders they select have personally been exposed to the challenges or needs the organization is engaged in addressing? Do more “technically skilled” leaders make decisions differently from those who have more experience with the organization’s programs or subject matter? Can leaders be “authentic” if they have never experienced what their staff, clients or constituencies have?


I believe these are profound questions amid the generational shift in nonprofit leadership – a shift we are thick into as baby boomers move on from leadership posts in greater and greater numbers. I believe these questions get to the heart of which characteristics make for the most effective nonprofit leaders. Is it charisma, presence and passion, regardless of subject-matter experience – or can anyone run a nonprofit as long as they can raise money, effectively “sell” the mission and prepare a break-even annual budget? Or perhaps these questions are impossible and irresponsible to answer except on a case-by-case basis.


For me, I believe it matters that, long before I was hired to run a settlement house in New York City in the 1990s, I had worked at a New York City public high school on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for kids who had been expelled from regular schools. Thanks to this job as a remedial reading teacher very early in my career, even before I went to graduate school in social work, I got to know these young people, understand their challenges and learn from their resilience. From them, I found inspiration (even though they were labeled “bad kids” – this was the ’70s after all). With their help, I ultimately found my calling.


Similarly, working at a New York City Housing Authority project in East Harlem, also in the 1970s, allowed me to appreciate firsthand the complexities of living without the support of safe neighborhoods, good schools and adequate income; I also learned how to have a lot of fun with the people of the community.


So when I arrived at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House as Executive Director in 1991 – my first nonprofit executive job – I believe my prior experience gave me a greater understanding of our participants’ lives. It made me more determined to make myself as accessible as possible to both them and our staff, notwithstanding the pressures to raise money and manage a large board of directors. Actually, being connected to the community was as important to maintaining my own sanity and sense of belonging as it was to fulfilling any hypotheses about leadership.


I felt comfortable listening and talking and joking with our participants; and I knew that building that sense of community was critical to sustaining our identity as a settlement house.


The respect I had for our participant’s strengths and their challenges was forged through my prior work experiences – and it made me a better and more authentic executive director of that settlement house. I think. On the other hand, not knowing what a P and L statement was, or what P and C insurance means, or how to read a balance sheet or a Form 990 tax return, at first made it more challenging for me to exercise the financial management and oversight that is absolutely essential for any nonprofit leader.


I want to be clear. In no way am I suggesting that our next generation of nonprofit leaders will have a passion gap or a commitment gap. Quite the contrary. Nor am I suggesting that they will lack the qualifications to run these organizations. In many cases, they probably will be even more qualified to run the business side of a complicated nonprofit (and they all are businesses!) than many of my generation were when we assumed these roles. I simply am questioning which attributes nonprofit boards of directors should consider as they choose their next leaders.


I also hope, now that I’m affiliated with an academic institution, that the many talented researchers who focus on effective leadership in the nonprofit field will continue to dive in and seek answers to these significant questions.


Nancy Wackstein is the director of community engagement and partnerships at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service and the former executive director of United Neighborhood Houses.


Nancy Wackstein
20200528