5 Ways to Be a Nonprofit Leader

Derik Timmerman

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Leadership.

It’s a quality not many people have.

It’s a role often taken on reluctantly.

But…

That might be because it takes a lot of guts to stand up and be a leader. ⬆

Leaders boldly go where no one has gone before.

Leaders must make the hard decisions.

Leaders try. Even if it means they’ll fail.

Ultimately, leaders serve their followers in many ways – often unseen ones – and make sacrifices for the good of all.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “Well, then I’m definitely not a leader – not yet, anyway.”

But I say that’s untrue.

You ARE a leader.

Even if you don’t think of yourself that way, the people you serve do. ♥

You started (or are on the road to starting) a nonprofit for a cause that lights your fire.

You’re standing up and leading the way.

That said, nonprofit leadership, in particular, has its own set of unique challenges.

Want to learn to be a better leader for your organization? Ready to own your title once and for all?

Here are five ways to be a great leader.

New to nonprofit leadership?

Watch our FREE masterclass today for the step-by-step essentials of nonprofit leadership.

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5 WAYS TO OWN YOUR NONPROFIT LEADER ROLE

What’s that, you say?

You don’t feel like a leader yet?

I have good news for you.

John quincy adams quote

Leadership isn’t about the title of “leader” and whether you think you’re fit for it. It’s not about seeing yourself as a leader, either.

It’s about what you DO.

Your actions define you. And, as John Quincy Adams said, if those actions inspire others to dream, learn, do more, and become more…

You’re a leader, my friend.

Let’s learn more about how to embrace who you are and become the best leader possible for your nonprofit.

1. Conviction

Without conviction, a leader has no legs to stand on.

Ultimately, conviction is what sets apart a regular joe from a true leader.

martin luther king jr quote

“Conviction” means you have firmly-held beliefs or ideals you’re not willing to compromise.

That means you’ll hold firm in your opinions, no matter which way the wind is blowing.

You’ll stand up for your ideas, even if they’re unpopular.

You also have the courage to speak up and speak out at the proper times to let the world know what you think.

Because, as a leader, what you think matters.

So…

Do you have conviction? 🤔

You probably do, but it might not be as strong as you’d like at this point. (After all, you’re here because you’re questioning your leadership.)

To build it up from a platform made of straw to a solid foundation hewn from stone, consider these tips.

Here’s how to build conviction:

  • Clarify what you (and your nonprofit) stand for. A muddy purpose is hard to stand behind. So, hone your mission to a fine point. Make it clear, concise, and passionate.
  • Speak out when needed. A leader with conviction knows when to make their voice heard, or when their people need to hear an alternate viewpoint on an issue. They’re not afraid to speak out and speak up. Like this: “Okay, gang, real talk. A ton of great people disagree with me on this, but I just have to say…”
  • Make sure your words and actions line up. A great example of a leader who lived his convictions was Martin Luther King, Jr., who wasn’t just a champion of racial equality, but also nonviolent protest. People followed him for many reasons, but one of them was that his words and actions were perfectly aligned. He was terrorized, jailed, and slandered, but he always stayed true to his convictions and his cause. If he had gone against his words and engaged in violence during a protest or sit-in, he would have been looked at with disgust and suspicion rather than trust and hope.

2. Sacrifice

As a nonprofit leader, you already have a service mindset. 🤝

Extend that naturally to your organizational ranks. Sacrifice a few extra minutes out of your day to guide your people, lend a hand, or give without expecting anything in return.

Take one for the team.

Or maybe there’s something else you can sacrifice for the good of your nonprofit as a whole.

It could be as simple as buying a round of pick-me-up lattes for your team every Monday morning. $100 a month is well-spent if it equates to a morale boost and good cheer.

Or maybe you could give up a few of your Saturdays to crunch numbers and get the budget straight.

Or take 10 minutes to listen to a volunteer’s creative ideas for fundraising. Or offer constructive feedback to a staff member. Like this:

“Hey man, noticed something in your approach. I hope you don’t mind, I reworked it a bit. If it helps, great! If not, totally pitch it.”

Whatever it is, whatever you’re giving or sacrificing, make sure it has value to others – not just to you.

michael jordan quote

3. Initiative

Conviction + initiative is where truly great leaders set themselves apart.

Having strongly-held beliefs and ideals isn’t enough. You also must have the initiative to act on them.

Good news: you’ve already done just that by starting your nonprofit.

Keep going. Leadership requires initiative, otherwise real positive change, both within your nonprofit and because of your nonprofit, won’t happen.

For example…

Are you living out your convictions in the real world?

Do your followers see you stepping out to take real risks?

It may not be on the level of, say, Gandhi or MLK (both risked arrest and worse in pursuit of their convictions), but you can take small risks every day that add up.

Like this:

“Here’s the deal, friends… this new method scares the living daylights out of me. I’m going to try it anyway. Who’s with me?”

4. Access

Imagine, for a minute, a person in a leadership position who spends all their time locked away in their office.

The only way to get a word with her is to go through her assistant.

Even then, she’s usually too busy to follow up.

Her staff members are scared to knock on her door or stop her for a chat in the hallway. Everyone tip-toes around her because they just don’t know her that well. She’s aloof yet awe-inspiring, projecting a cold, powerful persona.

Back up…

Is this person really a leader?

This is exactly what I mean when I say titles and positions mean nothing – not when we’re talking about true, genuine leadership.

Great leaders aren’t locked away and unreachable.

They’re not shadowy, vaguely scary figures at the top.

Instead, they’re out there in the trenches with their people, their staff, and their volunteers.

They talk. They listen. They engage.

They’re an email or phone call away.

If you need a minute to discuss something with them – an idea, a pitch, or a concern – they’re ready to make time for you and listen.

So, ask yourself: Can people reach out to you and get a thoughtful reply?

Or are you locked away in your ivory tower?

Be reachable. Be human. Like this:

“I hear you, Jess. That’s a tough place to be. Here’s a link I saw recently that helped me, it may help you think through that, too.”

5. Results

Do you practice what you preach?

Have you gained what you claim to help other people gain?

This is the last way you can set yourself apart as a leader.

True leaders have experiences that helped them rise and become worth following.

They lead by example. 💪

Look at Alexander the Great. How do you think he got the word “Great” affixed to his name?

Sure, he created a vast empire by conquering cities across Europe – the greatest regime of the Ancient world.

But he didn’t do it by directing his armies from afar. He didn’t sit on a throne, safe in a far-off palace, while his armies did all the work.

Instead, he was with his men every step of the way. He personally led them into battle. He fought with them, side-by-side.

That’s why he was such an effective leader. Because he himself was a warrior who had won hard battles out on the field. He had experience and results behind him, and he personally knew what it was like to enter the fray.

As a result, he earned his men’s undying loyalty. They were proud to fight alongside him and for him, and they even willingly died for him.

alexander the great quote

It’s an extreme example, but a powerful one.

How has your past influenced your future? Frame it like this:

“I’ve been in your shoes. The odds were against me. But I overcame. If I can, then you can, too.”

EMBRACE THE LEADER IN YOU

Another part of being a real nonprofit leader?

Acknowledging the role and embracing it.

It’s not about “having what it takes” or assuming a title.

Instead, it’s about striving to be a better leader day by day.

It’s seeing that the people around you depend on you to lead them, and giving it your best shot.

You may not get it right 100% of the time. You may even struggle with it for a while.

That’s okay.

What matters is your desire to be better, do better, and learn as you go.

You’re already there. Keep going.

Learn to be a better nonprofit leader.

Watch our FREE masterclass today for the step-by-step essentials of nonprofit leadership.

About The Author

Derik Timmerman is the founder of Sparrow Nonprofit Solutions. When he’s not serving nonprofit leaders, he geeks out on philosophy, outdoor trail time, and video games with his three kids.