Leadership Reckoning

Leadership Reckoning

The upheavals of 2020 revealed a serious underinvestment in management training and HR competency within nonprofits.

This past year was tumultuous for leaders, managers, and supervisors. They spent their time working through challenges such as learning to lead remote teams; understanding practices that limit, discourage, or anger BIPOC staff members in white-led organizations; dealing with furloughs, layoffs, and hiring remotely; and coping with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on their workforces, families, neighborhoods, and communities.

Unfortunately, the nonprofit sector nationally saw many leaders falling short on multiple fronts, resulting in Twitter callouts, terminations that played out in public, and many announcements about leaders leaving to pursue other interests.

In speaking with clients, colleagues, and nonprofit sector consultants about the underlying causes of such turmoil and what might be done about it, one key factor is evident and can readily be addressed: The relative weakness of human resources and leadership training among nonprofits, whether it’s for boards of directors, volunteers, or staff. In smaller nonprofits particularly, human resources often remains limited to a “payroll and benefits” role that doesn’t include leadership development functions that corporations provide to their managers and leaders.

This is not to say that corporations are as capable and engaged as they should be in strengthening leadership skills, building leadership and succession pipelines, supporting new managers, and improving workplace culture. But it is to say that these topics are discussed and addressed less often in the nonprofit sector than they could be. It’s time we fix that.

New leadership and human resources training could be delivered by existing service organizations. Both Propel Nonprofits and the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits could expand their offerings, perhaps in partnership with major law firms and organizations like the Society for Human Resource Management. Here are a few competency areas where the nonprofit sector needs to develop the skills of current and future leaders.

Akaya Windwood speaks at a Minnesota Council
Equity advocate Akaya Windwood speaks at a Minnesota Council of Nonprofits event about leadership sustainability.

 Basic supervisory skills. We need an ongoing training series that keeps supervisors updated on the basics of supervision, provides information about current regulatory changes, offers resources and places to go for learning and support, and shares the most common mistakes managers can avoid—with examples and case studies.

Onboarding for new managers. For staff who are new to managing people, cohort programs and supportive training could help them navigate this new challenge and opportunity for growth. This could easily be created cross-organizationally so that new managers from different nonprofits share learning from and with each other.

Leadership of self. Following the principle that leaders lead themselves first and foremost, more could be offered around self-awareness and self-management. This training should also emphasize the personal work of leading across gender, generational, socioeconomic, political, and racial differences. 

Team building. HR departments in large organizations frequently include staff who can help leaders with team building processes and competencies that strengthen how they lead their teams and foster employee engagement. Team building training could provide a rich area of learning for a cohort of leaders from different nonprofits.

Performance management. Many small nonprofits have weak performance management systems or don’t have any at all. Boards often are unsure about locating responsibility for the executive director’s evaluation, or lack a detailed process that identifies areas where an executive’s growth is most needed. Boards for small nonprofits may not take time to solicit broad feedback for reviews.

Succession planning. Nonprofit founders eventually transition from their roles, but these departures don’t need to be seismic ruptures. Instead they can often be discussed so that cross-training, promotion opportunities, and planning for succession are a routine part of a nonprofit’s practices.

People development. Many experienced leaders discover the enormous satisfaction of providing mentoring, stretch assignments, and other growth opportunities that help individuals and teams excel. Leaders themselves can be coached to do this work better.

Minnesota’s nonprofit sector has access to networks, service organizations, law firms, corporate leaders, and colleges that could work together to strengthen our nonprofits’ skills. We can make human resources a widely discussed, elevated area of practice. What’s needed is a concerted effort to do so.

Nonprofits often rely on the talented lawyers on their boards to solve downstream problems that should be addressed upstream, with more focus on human elements in the work. It takes people to build great organizations. While leadership skills and presence can seem predominantly innate, they actually are learned and honed through skill-building, attention to the practice, feedback, and reflective experience doing the work.

Let’s get started now on building stronger human resources capability in our state’s nonprofit sector.

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