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Why Visionary Nonprofit Leadership is Necessary but Not Sufficient

October 9, 2015 by Dr. Jon Warner in Entrepreneurship

Why Visionary Nonprofit Leadership is Necessary but Not Sufficient

Many nonprofits have a strong overall vision of what they want to achieve—this may be to end world hunger, help the poor, save the planet, end oppression, education people everywhere and so on. But without sound management to go with visionary and motivating leadership, even the most successful nonprofit in the short term will not be able to sustain its success. In other words, many nonprofits appear to be strongly led with a worthy vision, but are significantly under-managed. This seems to be the case because the environment in which most nonprofits operate tends to reinforce often idealistic and visionary leadership at the expense of management discipline. A strong vision or compelling cause may drive fundraising and attract staff and volunteers to assist but this does not mean that these resources are then well-managed, and it is this subject that we want to discuss in this article in which we will suggest that there are four key steps to building good management discipline. 

1. Evolving strong management discipline as a “way of life”

The first and most important step in evolving a strong management discipline in a nonprofit is to have complete clarity about the mission, or “what ongoing impact does this organization need to have and how will it be held accountable for this?”

Developing this clarity is a critical step in aligning the organization’s systems and structures around the core mission. Once agreed it also allows specific decision-making authority to be delegated beyond the CEO or executive director, as the core mission is well-communicated and understood and decisions can then be made by a broader group of individuals, who are completely clear about an agreed upon set of outcomes that should be achieved, week to week and month to month. 

Getting to strategic clarity is not the same as a strategic plan; too many nonprofit leaders have had the experience of developing strategic plans that took huge amounts of staff time and energy only to see them end up on a shelf because they were too general or couldn’t be readily executed with the resources available or were quickly overtaken by events. Instead, getting to fully strategic clarity across the nonprofit is not about writing down a plan or developing platitudes but being totally in agreement about what exactly you are trying to do and how exactly you are trying to do it. This can then be conveyed to funders and donors in a crisp way and helps them to see how their money is going to be put to work.  

2. Establishing Clarity in Key Metrics or Performance Indicators (KPI’s)

Once a nonprofit has achieved good clarity on its mission, concentrating on a small number of key metrics or KPI’s can be a very useful way to keep everyone in the organization focused. In effect the metrics become the shorthand to measure both the quality and effectiveness of the implementation (and the ultimate outcomes achieved). 

The key to establishing effective performance measures is to focus on ones that will be highly motivating to staff at all levels because they are so clearly aligned with the organization’s mission. Unfortunately, external pressure for transparency, accountability, and demonstrated results does not always result in the establishment of meaningful performance measures. Instead the tracking and reporting can become a “cosmetic exercise” for the board and major supporting foundations. Instead they need to be meaningful to people inside the nonprofit and show whether or not progress towards goals and the mission is on track. 

3. Building the Team and Aligning its Efforts

A good Nonprofit CEO or Executive will always be looking to surround him or herself with the best possible team and this means three ongoing actions. Helping existing staff to develop and grow, asking mediocre and poor performers to move on, and bring “new blood”, when necessary into the organization (and this should also be happening at nonprofit board level too by the way). Augmenting the capabilities and expertise of the leadership team is often the most visible sign of change in organizations that are becoming more strongly managed and disciplined.

While there are a variety of ways of going about these three steps described above, one of the most common is ensuring that at least one senior leader has deep managerial experience and a mindset oriented around systems and process effectiveness. This person then serves as a role model to others and can directly provide coaching and training over time to the whole team. 

4. Manage the Processes in the Face of Change

The changes discussed above—achieving strategic clarity, establishing several key metrics, and building and aligning the team—are critical. But at times, they can also appear to be in conflict with the vision of the nonprofit (or at least pulled people into operational and tactical work at a more detailed level at the expense of the more strategic direction setting work).  That’s why actively managing the change process—reinforcing not only why change is necessary, but also how it will strengthen the organization’s ability to sustain its impact and live into its mission over time—is an ongoing leadership challenge. A CEO or Executive Director therefore has to spend quality time in helping people see the upside of more rigorous management practices as a critical part of everyone’s role, largely because individual commitment to the organization’s mission and getting real results on a frequent basis is what tends to keep the best people on board. 

Even as new more disciplined practices are implemented by adopting all four of the steps described above, the leadership and management considerations will inevitably continue to pull against one another to some extent. It is therefore extremely important for a CEO/Executive Director to be continually on the alert for any signals that might indicate a need to adjust or renew efforts to strengthen management practices and take a more mission-centered approach. In other words, as long as people remain clear about the vision and the mission of the organization, a CEO/Executive Director is more likely to get better results by holding people accountable for specific outcomes in specific timeframes so that management discipline eventually becomes second-nature to everyone.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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