nonprofit strategies

In my last two articles I addressed two aspects of why practicing intentional leadership is so critical to your success. Without it, you may: (1) fall prey to the tendency to juggle too many balls, with no regard to priorities or objective, and (2) succumb to the tendency to act first, consider intentions later, often sacrificing principle for expedience. 

In this third and final article of the series, I’d like to address how to infuse intentional leadership into creating content, communicating and interacting with colleagues, volunteers and donors. We’ll look at what you can do and how you can do it.

Leading and communicating with intention takes practice.

I guarantee greater success if you take these nonprofit strategies to heart and practice them until they become second nature.

1. Please, please, please.

This is so basic it may seem like it’s not worth saying. Yet because almost every mother teaches their children to say please (and thank you) from a very young age, the absence of ‘please’ feels rude and abrupt. Whatever you can do to treat others with respect will go a long way. When you’re operating in tough times, or otherwise under stress, it’s easy to overlook a courtesy as simple as saying “please,” but to the person on the other end it can make the difference between listening to you and ignoring you.

2. No, no, no. 

Practice saying no. Try beginning with “not yet,” “not this way,” “not with them,” “not there.” Begin by writing down your plan if you’ve not done so already. If you have, take a close look. Is it realistic, or do you need to take something off the plan for now? Could some of those nonprofit strategies and tactics be deferred (not yet). Could others be streamlined or simplified (not this way)? Could assignments be delegated, or could you collaborate with a different partner (not with them)? Could you narrow your target to make the task more manageable (not with them)?

3. New, new, new. 

Embrace creativity and innovation. When given lemons, figure out how to make lemonade. This is what many nonprofits have done this year by transitioning from in-person to virtual events, meetings and program offerings. Others have done this by tweaking their case for support (e.g., humane societies have reframed their messaging from animal welfare (rescue) to human welfare (adoption).) The San Francisco Ballet offered dance exercise classes for seniors, for example. Once you try new things, consider whether this is an avenue you’ll want to continue. Perhaps it’s opened up entire new markets for you!

4. Brag, brag, brag. 

This is where good storytelling comes in. Bragging about accomplishments doesn’t mean creating stereotype stories based on what you think folks want to hear. Figure out ways to collect and tell relevant, authentic stories. If you already have a storytelling culture, with stories collected in a ‘story bank,’ draw upon them robustly right now. People won’t know what you’re doing if you don’t tell them.  They won’t see what you’re seeing if you don’t show them. Out of sight is out of mind. If you don’t brag, people won’t be proud of you. When they’re proud of you, they’ll support you. They’ll share your work with others. They’ll brag about you too! Begin with your insiders, including your board and major donor ambassadors. Tell them authentic, powerful stories that inspire them. Give them videos and photos they can easily share with their networks. Create a team of brag ambassadors.

5. This, that, there. 

Create excitement about the destination. I often paraphrase Lewis Carroll from Alice in Wonderland: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll very likely get there. Or not.” In other words, who cares? What’s ‘there?’ It’s hard to care about what it takes to get someplace if you don’t know the place. Do you need to rent a car? Buy a plane ticket? Hire a burro? It doesn’t matter to folks if they don’t know the end point; they just want to get it over with. Help your donors visualize the end goal. Energize them around this goal. Help them imagine the possibility they can create with their support. In fact, help them channel their own super hero powers; then come in to save the day for those who rely on your communal work.

6. Listen, listen, listen.

No doubt you’re familiar with the adage: “You have two ears and one mouth; use them in that proportion. People want to know you are interested in them. Penelope Burk’s groundbreaking research in donor-centered fundraising found that donors want you to show them you know them. This won’t happen without active listening. Practice asking open-ended questions that can’t be answered with “yes” or “no.”  A good one is “Can you please tell me more about that?” Also seek out feedback and advice using tools like surveys.

7. Praise, praise, praise.

I love the James Taylor song lyric that says “Shower the people you love with love… show them the way that you feel.” The same song says “love is sunshine.” Take this to heart in all your interactions with stakeholders. They won’t know what you’re thinking unless you tell them. The most admired leaders tend to be generous with praise. We could all use a little more sunshine in our lives.

8. Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude. 

Keep your most loyal supporters close. They cared about you before this year. They still do. Prioritize donor retention by implementing nurture nonprofit strategies. Send ‘gifts of content.’ Build relationships. Intentionally enlist board volunteers to help with thank you calls and notes. Making thank you calls is a great introduction to making solicitation calls. Because it generally feels really good, and it’s easy. Teach your board to tell stories; their own and your organization’s. Teach them to say thank you, simply and authentically. By working together with insiders and outsiders alike, you’ll build a culture of philanthropy. This serves to draw everyone closer to your mission, especially your most committed and likely ambassadors.

9. Sorry, sorry, sorry.

Embrace your errors. Everyone makes them. If you can learn from them, it will make you stronger. Being wrong about something is not a failure. Failing to apologize for being wrong is. It’s especially important to apologize if your error hurt another person. While saying you’re sorry may feel uncomfortable and humbling, it’s actually a sign of strength rather than weakness. When you acknowledge your mistakes people are appreciative and open to trusting you again. It doesn’t hurt to channel the mantra: “The customer (aka donor) is always right.” You’re in the happiness delivery business. Saying sorry can heal a wound, and get you back on the right track.

10. Together, together, together.

Do not ascribe to the fallacy that only you can do it. The best leaders are collaborators. Building collective pride gives better results, creates stronger accountability and keeps egos in check. Organizations, and leaders, that build synergistic teams are the ones that thrive over the long term. It takes a community of dedicated, loyal people to cultivate winning results. 

11. You, you, you.

Give credit. Put your ego on the shelf. Tell others – you staff, your board, your supporters – “you did it.” Treat people like they make a difference and they will. Tell them they made a difference and they’ll want to do so again. The best way to help people reach their full potential is by offering them encouragement.

12. Help, help, help.

This is the essence of a culture of philanthropy. Ask not how others can serve you, but how you can serve them. In ‘Bright Spots the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund report on culture of philanthropy, one important finding was that nonprofits who embodied such a culture were those where every employee would regularly ask other staff “how can I help you today?” It’s a variation of passing someone in the hallway and asking “how are you doing?” with an important distinction. If you really want your leadership to stand apart, this simple phrase can be a game changer. Servant leadership may be the most powerful force you can bring to your team. 

Nonprofit Sustainability

Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad

Fundraising Coach at Bloomerang
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. Claire runs “Clairification School” online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.