6 min Read
October 4, 2011

Ten Life Imperatives for a Successful Nonprofit Leader.

Guest Blogger

This guest blog post is brought to you by Robert Acton, Executive Director of the Taproot Foundation‘s work in New York City.

I sent an email in August to Sarah Durham, principal of Big Duck.  Almost instantaneously my inbox pinged with an autoreply that caused me to do a fist pump in celebration.  Now, first, let me be clear:  I promise I’m not that boring.  I don’t sit around waiting to read autoreply messages.  Yet here it was – a bold, transparent, honest autoresponse declaring to the world in the subject line:  “Brain on Vacation.”  The text of Sarah’s message continued:

Got a stack of worthwhile periodicals taunting you in the corner? No time to think those big, productive thoughts that might really change your work or your life for the better?

Yep, I know the feeling. That’s why you’re getting my autoresponder, in fact. I’m taking a few weeks out of the office for a combination of vacation, writing, and thinking-big-thoughts time.

She concluded: “Until I’m back, please consider me off the grid.” 

Getting “off the grid” is a daunting challenge for every effective nonprofit leader I know.  We are primary decision-makers, chief fundraisers, key liaisons, buck-stops-here types who rarely prioritize taking care of self.

Like so many nonprofit professionals, I’m driven, passionate & ambitious.  I see great challenges in our world and will often stop at nothing to fix them.  Yet early on in my tenure as an Executive Director as the demands and pressures of social sector leadership began to take a personal toll, I resolved to figure out how a focused, motivated leader can nonetheless attain a sense of wholeness and balance in the midst of an overwhelmingly busy life.  I asked every nonprofit leader I respected how they achieved it and I spent time reading, thinking and teaching on the topic.  I’ve synthesized these learnings into the “Ten Life Imperatives for a Successful Nonprofit Leader.”   

  1. Develop a personal life mission statement:  Your organization’s mission is a constant and primary force in your world; balance that with a life mission statement that keeps your personal imperatives for wholeness front and center, as well.
  2. Appoint a personal board of directors:  While they don’t govern your life, these individuals do provide meaningful insight and strategic guidance on the big questions.  The qualifications are simple:  appoint people you respect who know you and your values well, who will reflexively have your best interests in mind & who will carve out time.  These are “big picture” types who view the world and see opportunities for you in it.  Consider these questions:  Who has led a life well-lived and now may be willing to help you do the same?  Who willingly gives you their undivided attention?  Who is on a similar life journey, but is further down the road?
  3. Find a mentor or coach:  There is one qualifying characteristic:  What wise person do you know who has a job like yours, but on a much larger scale?  That person will be too busy to say yes, but don’t take no for an answer.  You need the experience and wisdom they have to offer.
  4. Manage your calendar ruthlessly:  Think twice before delegating control of your calendar to a colleague.  What you accomplish on any given day will be framed by the way you’ve structured your time.
  5. Have a private space for thought work:  When I teach on this topic, I ask leaders to tell me where they are when they get their best ideas.  Responses cross the spectrum:  swimming, biking, taking a shower, sitting in a coffee shop, and yes – one bold gentleman proudly declared, “on the toilet.”  Not once has someone responded, “Sitting at my desk returning emails.”  You simply must find ways to spend more time in the place where you do your best thinking. 
  6. Do more of what energizes you and less of the other:  While you can’t off-load all of the mundane work, for every task ask yourself, “Can someone else do this as well or better than me?”  If so – delegate it and focus on what energizes and inspires you.
  7. Balance 1-time, 2-time, 3-time:  This isn’t my original idea, but it’s a good one.  1-time is time spent alone.  2-time is when you are with a significant other.  3-time is social activity in groups.  Ensuring that you maintain balance in each of these three spheres is critical.  For the nonprofit leader, the biggest risk is that you overdose on 3-time with your staff, board, donors, volunteers & collaborators, shortchanging the others.
  8. Take a Sabbath Day once a week:  This is also not an original idea with a source of much greater authority than my own.  Take yourself “off the grid” one day each week and revel in the beauty of your life.
  9. When you vacation, vacation:  Honestly, if you fail to stay connected to email while you are away, your organization will not implode – but over time, you might.  Give a discerning colleague your cell number and tell the rest of your team that he or she knows how to get in touch with you.  You’ll likely find that you won’t get a call and reluctantly realize that your input wasn’t as critical as you thought.  Pat yourself on the back for developing a talented team.
  10. Always stay connected to the “Why”:  I keep a question on my desk – “Why are you here today?”  As nonprofit leaders, we are usually a number of steps removed from the “real” programmatic work of the mission.  But don’t let yourself get disconnected from what author Bill Hybels calls your “holy discontent” – that thing that you saw in the world that you knew just wasn’t right and led you to go all in on fixing it.  Stay close to that.  Experience it.  Feel it.  And keep your passions burning.

Most of us would agree that a life well-lived demands a life lived in balance, yet nonprofit leaders are infamously guilty of taking care of others and neglecting themselves.  We demand efficient organizational operation while tolerating chaotic circumstances in our non-work lives.  We mobilize a force of talented people around the mission while often remaining isolated ourselves.  We tirelessly engage in strategic planning for the agency but give just passing thought to the trajectory of our own lives. 

In my view, that’s a set-up for ineffective leadership.  Set your autoresponder soon and “get off the grid.”

Rob Acton is the Executive Director of Taproot Foundation’s work in New York City, a national nonprofit dedicated to engaging business professionals in pro bono service in order to strengthen the nonprofit sector and, in turn, our nation’s largest urban communities.  Taproot’s vision is a billion dollar pro bono marketplace that sustains and strengthens the work of nonprofit organizations nationwide.