Category Archives: leadership

Eight Basics of Successful Nonprofit Leadership


Leading a nonprofit is, in many ways, like leading any kind of business. Some of these I learned growing up watching my father run his small business. For most of my adult life, I’ve simultaneously headed a small nonprofit and worked for nonprofits of varying sizes, experiencing both sides of the equation for more than two decades. I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t; I’ve seen leaders succeed brilliantly, fail spectacularly, and everything in between. One of the most neglected aspects of nonprofit leadership in the scramble to create public value and raise enough funds to pay the bills is personnel management — the leading part of leadership. Most of what makes a leader successful can be boiled down into one basic principle:

  1. You don’t buy loyalty with a paycheck. You earn it by treating people with respect.

Every other principle in this piece is about how to accomplish this. Why am I foregrounding loyalty? Loyalty means believing in the mission and in your leadership. It doesn’t mean staff will lie for you, or hide company errors– quite the opposite, It means they will protect the company by pointing out errors, by preventing future errors, and by insisting the company move forward in things like diversity and equity, worker protections, and healthy corporate culture. And it means they have trust in your leadership as someone who will take these issues seriously and with grace. People who are loyal to the mission, company, and leadership are people who will do their best work, who care about the company’s success, and who believe that what they do every day truly matters. This is only possible when staff feel respected, valued, and empowered. 

2. Think of leadership as a service position. 

A leader’s job is to remove roadblocks to success for their staff. This means providing everything you can provide that your staff needs, removing everything you can remove that impedes their productivity, and believing them when they tell you which is which. They will need things as broad as inspirational vision, effective strategic planning, and healthy, respect-driven  corporate culture, and as simple and concrete as basic resources, like proper equipment and adequate time. There are many things they do not need, but the first thing you can remove (after tossing performance reviews into a flaming dumpster) is your approval for every single decision.

3. Give your staff ownership of the company and the work.

“Flattening the hierarchy” and “power sharing” are newly popular terms in company management that ultimately refer back to this principle, yet they are often poorly understood. There’s a lot of superficial power sharing, as well as a lot of misuse of the term. I’ve been in several situations where a board member asserted power over a staff project or process and called it “power sharing.” And I suppose technically it is a kind of power sharing when someone with more power takes power away from someone with less power. It’s just not the kind of power sharing that creates a respectful and healthy workplace.

Allow your staff the freedom to make decisions. Don’t interfere with their decisions or their processes unless absolutely necessary. Does the project work schedule violate the terms of the newly negotiated union contract? Necessary. Do you think the schedule would be better if everyone was required to work onsite, like it was in 1997? Unnecessary. Is the proposed venue’s ADA compliance sketchy and difficult (ie, a ramp in a dimly lit back alley or an unreliable elevator)? Necessary. Do you think the event should be at a venue you like better? Unnecessary. 

Putting your foot down and requiring a staff member to make unnecessary changes to their products or to their processes creates disgruntled, unhappy, underappreciated staff. Unless the matter truly requires your intervention, give your opinion or guidance– you’re part of the staff, after all– and back off. Empowering staff to make their own decisions is meaningless if you’re nagging them to change their minds for weeks afterward, or reacting to setbacks with, “I told you this would have been easier if you had used my method” instead of actual help. 

Again, trust their expertise and always remember that you’re in service to them. “I disagree for the reasons I gave earlier, but I trust you, and this is your project. What do you need from me to get this done?”

4. Respect your staff’s expertise.

This doesn’t mean complimenting their work. “Great job!” or “You’re so good at this” only go so far with your staff if you treat their opinions dismissively and if you routinely override their decisions. Your staff all know more about their positions than you do. In fact, it’s their job to know more about their work than you do. Work hard to create an environment in which they feel encouraged to disagree with you. Not an environment where it’s “ok” to disagree with you, or an environment where they feel “safe” disagreeing with you. You don’t create loyalty by doing the barest minimum. An environment where disagreement is encouraged means that you are sincerely grateful for their ability to spot problems and ensure success, not begrudgingly “OK” with disagreement. Take their opinions very, very seriously, because if they’re disagreeing with you about their area of expertise, it’s almost certain that they’re right and you’re wrong. Respect their knowledge and experience, and they will reward you in 100 ways. 

If you must override them because you have information that they lack, trust them enough to tell them exactly why they’re being overridden. Only withhold information if it’s absolutely necessary– if there could be clear negative consequences for revealing the information. You can’t reveal employee discipline data or health information, for example. But it’s far too common that the reason is simply “Because I want to; they’re wrong and I’m right,” and leadership withholds that because they don’t trust staff, fear staff blowback, or are just powertripping (one of the surest signs of a weak leader). 

There’s no faster track to employee disgruntlement than a lack of transparency. Staff will rightly read a lack of transparency as a lack of respect, and no amount of “Ayani has some really great ideas about the project!” will ever repair that.

It’s important to remember that staff know more about their work at your company than you do. But it’s critical to remember that they know this as well. Your staff knows without question that they know more about their jobs than you do, and they note every time you dismiss, minimize, brush away, or override their expertise.

5. Communicate clearly, directly, and honestly. 

Your staff are busy people. Don’t pussyfoot around or be coy with your language. Indirect language isn’t “professional.” It’s timewasting. Show your staff the respect they deserve by being clear and direct with them. 

One of the worst things you can do is lie to your staff. They either know immediately that you’re lying (remember: they know more about their jobs than you do) or they will soon find out, and you will immediately– and potentially permanently– lose their respect. 

Give your staff the information they need as quickly and as clearly as possible. Do not lie or exaggerate. Don’t make empty promises. Don’t flatter. Don’t prioritize appeasing people over respecting them. Give them the information they need to get their jobs done, clearly, directly, and as quickly as possible.

And yes, don’t call a meeting for something you could send in an email. It’s popular meme fodder for a reason. 

6. Wear your authority with ease.

Nothing says “I’m insecure in positions of authority” like powertripping– yelling, needlessly withholding information, lying, or refusing to allow staff to voice their opinions. A strong leader engages staff as equals, leads with integrity and honesty, and doesn’t get snippy or defensive when a staff member disagrees. And when something goes wrong, blaming staff, yelling at people, or otherwise losing your cool is the worst thing you can do. Approach these moments with a focus on problem solving, not on laying blame. Nowhere is leadership more about service than in moments of crisis. Reassure your staff to the best of your ability, always be as honest and transparent as you can, and redirect everyone’s attention– including your own– on problem solving. 

7. Admit when you’re wrong.

Because they all already know it. Bluffing just makes you look foolish. Take responsibility for your mistakes. Apologizing without any further action is tantamount to lying to your staff. The apology itself is the least important part of taking responsibility. The most important part is repairing any harm you may have caused, and making a sincere attempt to change your behavior so similar mistakes don’t happen in the future. We all make mistakes. React to your mistakes in a way that shows respect for your staff and their experience in the workplace you lead.

8. Don’t be afraid to make the hard decisions.

Part of the service of leadership is helping people adjust to new positions by giving them the education, guidance, and resources they will need to succeed. It’s also about working with underperforming staff to understand the root cause of the underperformance. 

When a staff member underperforms, there’s a need that isn’t being filled somewhere, and it’s not necessarily located in the underperforming staff member. Perhaps the workload is too much. The pressure to continually increase productivity over the past 40 years (especially as compensation has continually decreased in real dollars during the same period) has reached its upper limit, and we’re in the position now of experiencing the backlash. There are labor shortages in every field whose workers have been predicting this for years, like food service and education. Is your staff member actually underperforming as compared to the previous staffer who held that position? Or did the previous staffer leave because they were burned out, and the new staffer is burning out right before your eyes? Is the real problem that you’re not providing what the staffer needs to succeed?

Sometimes a staffer really is in over their heads, and needs to be given robust professional development, reassigned, or even released. But often, the problem lies elsewhere and therefore won’t be solved by just putting someone else in that position. Respect your staff and serve their needs by working to discover the real reason for underperformance problems. It may be as simple as setting more realistic performance metrics. Talk to your staff, and believe what they tell you. 

This is just a few of the basics of successful nonprofit leadership, focusing primarily on personnel management. When in doubt, always remember:

Healthy workplace culture is created through service-oriented leadership and respect. 


How Can My Organization Attract and Retain Diverse Staff?

Photo by, Creative Commons License.

This is a question I’ve been asked often both as a consultant and as a professional colleague. 

I know that some people want to hear concrete, easy-to-implement answers, like “Use this program designed by someone who’s never set foot in your organization,” “Advertise here,” or “Do these three harm-reduction protocols that assume to know what harm you’re causing and assume anything they haven’t foreseen is irrelevant,” but, until you know why you’re having trouble attracting diverse applicants and retaining the diverse staff you hire, it’s all guesswork. 

The real answer is: ASK THEM. Believe them when they tell you what’s wrong. Then ACT on it. You must then assess your progress over time, which includes, of course, restarting the cycle with ASK THEM. This is an oversimplified overview, of course. The complexity of these issues is why there’s an entire profession around JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) work. But understanding the basic steps will help you to lead your organization to JEDI mastery. 

Let’s start by breaking down what I mean by “ASK THEM.”

“Ask them” doesn’t mean management walking up to employees in the break room and saying, “Kim, you’re Black! Why don’t more Black people want to work here?” When you’re seeking to learn more about why your organization struggles to retain BIPOC, disabled, LGBTQ+, and (in many places) female staff, your data gathering must both FEEL safe and BE safe for your employees

While we’re at a cultural moment in which equity in the workplace is being more closely examined, there is still a very real lack of safety around speaking openly about racism, sexism, and other types of bigotry and discrimination in the workplace. Although technically illegal, retaliation is common. For example, 72% of people who report sexual harassment in the workplace face retaliation

Retaliation. The fear of retaliation is intense and very justified. Most employees in your organization who are BIPOC, disabled, LGBTQ+, or female witnessed retaliation or experienced it firsthand before they came to your organization. Retaliation works as intended– it creates a cultural climate of fear around speaking honestly about workplace experiences. Retaliation is easy to excuse and difficult to prove, leaving employees very little recourse. Three of the most common types of retaliation are poor performance evaluations, hostile work environment, and blackballing. 

Performance reviews are so unproductive, ROI-negative, and easy to manipulate that many companies, such as GE, Adobe, and Deloitte, have just eliminated them completely. The ease with which they can be manipulated or even falsified make them perhaps the most common form of retaliation. It takes very little effort to make a poor performance eval appear well-earned by exaggerating flaws and minimizing achievements, giving employees very little recourse. A retaliatory performance eval has the added bonus of justifying future retaliatory actions such as demotion or even termination. 

Creating a (more) hostile work environment is depressingly common and just as difficult to prove. Each individual instance is minor, and complaining about them seems petty, but the hostility is very, very real and it adds up quickly. Gaslighting is a common tactic that hides behind “a difference of opinion.” There’s nothing quite like watching the white men in an organization close ranks and insist that women of color on staff are “exaggerating” about workplace racism and sexism, yet I saw it with my own eyes at an organization that advertises itself as focused on social justice. 

Blackballing is the ultimate threat. While technically illegal, it’s very common for former employers to tell prospective future employers that someone who spoke out about issues in the workplace is a “troublemaker,” “toxic,” “not a team player.” This often takes the form of words that appear to be race-neutral but are so commonly used to refer to Black people that they have become racially coded, such as “angry,” “didn’t fit corporate culture,” and “unprofessional.” Again, illegal but very common. 

I know what you’re thinking– “But I would never do any of those! My staff can trust me! I’m ready to do the work.” Even if that’s true, your staff will never give you the whole truth until you’ve proven to them that you’re trustworthy and ready. I’ve personally witnessed white men in upper management claim they were “ready,” then retaliate viciously against every single person who spoke out. And while you may know to the core of your being that you would never do such a thing, the fear that comes from having seen it elsewhere– over and over and over– is very real, and too great to ask your staff to overcome before the work begins and they see you being reliably awesome. 

Another way marginalized workers will be more likely to trust you is when they see you refusing to settle for compliance-based assessments of your organization’s JEDI progress. 

Compliance-Based Assessments. Don’t mistake compliance with the law and lack of EEOC complaints for success. This is a common roadblock for organizations that see JEDI as an aspect of HR. Most workplaces that experience difficulties attracting and retaining diverse staff are (at least on paper) compliant with the law. Your organization can be completely compliant with the law and still be a miserable place to work for women, BIPOC, disabled people, trans people, fat people, non-Christians, and anyone who isn’t in your corporate culture “in group.” If you want to attract and retain diverse staff, you must do more than refrain from deliberately mistreating them. 

A lack of formal complaints is as far from JEDI success as passing the DMV driving test is from qualifying for the Isle of Man TT. Your organization may have many serious issues and yet have never received a formal complaint. Most instances of marginalization and bigotry in the workplace are extremely difficult to prove, and the formal complaint process is often expensive, onerous, intimidating, and timebound. Go look at the EEOC site— it’s a wonder any complaints are filed at all. Additionally, it’s well known that EEOC complaints are usually more trouble than they’re worth; 82% of workers who reported cases of discrimination in the past decade received no relief whatsoever. And of course fear of retaliation is huge here as well. JEDI success is not about avoiding lawsuits. It’s about making your organization a welcoming place for all types of workers, enabling you to attract and retain the best of the best in all your hires, not just the best out of one limited demographic. Which brings us back to:

“ASK THEM.” The first step in attracting and retaining a diverse workforce is identifying your organization’s strengths and growth areas by crafting effective, robust data gathering that captures both quantitative and qualitative data and analyzes that data effectively. You’ll also need longitudinal data gathering strategies to assess progress over time. 

To make data gathering both safe and effective, you need a multilayered approach, and I strongly recommend bringing in a JEDI specialist to guide you through the process of data gathering and data analysis. 

Quantitative data. A lot of organizations limit themselves to the most basic quantitative data gathering– how many people of certain identities are on staff. This is the first step, not an effective approach to data gathering in and of itself. 

One mistake I’ve seen people make with data analysis is to use incomplete employment data. I was recently asked for my opinion about attracting and retaining a diverse workforce for a large local business. The data I was given was just a table showing staff diversity data over time. A fictionalized example: 


  • 15% Latinx workers
  • 4% Black workers
  • 6% Asian workers
  • 11% women


  • 18% Latinx workers
  • 8% Black workers
  • 6% Asian workers
  • 12% women  

It looks like this fictional business is on the right track, right? Well, maybe not. How many of the original staff from 2012 are part of the 2017 staff? Are they hiring BIPOC and women workers only to see them leave within 2-3 years? If so, why are they leaving? The area in which the business is located is currently 25% Black, 27% Latinx, 15% Asian, and, of course, 52% female. Why are they so underrepresented at this company? Is the (slightly) increased representation due to JEDI initiatives they’ve put in place, a change in demographics in the area, or something else? Why haven’t they gathered any data on disabled workers? Trans/enby/genderqueer workers? Native workers? And those questions just scratch the surface of the data that needs to be gathered. There was simply no answer to the question they were asking without deepening the quantitative data gathering and beginning robust qualitative data gathering. 

Qualitative data. Quantitative data is the what; qualitative data is the why. Without identifying the specific issues at your organization– a process that will only be successful if your workforce is empowered to speak freely, without fear of retaliation no matter how misplaced you believe that fear is— your quantitative data will be essentially useless. Qualitative data gathering can take many different forms, and this is where a JEDI specialist will be critical. You only get answers to the questions you ask, and a JEDI specialist will be able to determine which questions your organization needs to ask. Additionally, there must be an impenetrable layer of anonymity in qualitative data gathering. Employees need to know that they will be protected from retaliation. Anonymity is just the first step; BIPOC workers often fear retaliation against all BIPOC on staff, and for very good reason. Fragility, resistance, defensiveness, gaslighting, and retaliation are all very common responses from management when issues in their workplace are identified, which is why “believe them” is the critical next step. 

The hard reality is that it’s very difficult for any of us to examine how we’ve contributed to a workplace that’s uncomfortable for diverse workers. Most people in management, especially upper-level management, have many robust areas of privilege and the power to act on that privilege in harmful ways, even unknowingly. Everyone with privilege– and we all have areas of marginalization and areas of privilege in our intersectional identities– has contributed to and benefitted from systems of marginalization and oppression. We all have work to do.

There are concrete benefits to addressing these issues. A diverse workforce that feels valued and heard is a more productive workforce, a workforce with loyalty to you and your organization, a workforce that will delight clients and be brand ambassadors for you wherever they go. But most importantly, working for greater equity in your organization is the right thing to do.

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