Become the Nonprofit Leadership Change You Want to Be Using Neuroscience

leadership change

I often turn to principles of neuroscience and psychology to understand what makes folks tick. I’m particularly interested in how these principles impact decision making. Especially, the decision to become involved philanthropically. To volunteer. To affiliate. To advocate. To give.

In my life as a fundraising and nonprofit marketing leader I’ve always been in a position of needing to influence and persuade. Whether it was donors, volunteers, my boss, my colleagues or staff I supervised. What I’ve learned along the way about human behavior is something I wish I’d learned earlier on. Because… I think I could have been more effective.

And that’s why I’m spending my career today passing along whatever wisdom I’ve gained. Because the world has a lot of problems, and you need to be as effective as humanly possible in order to solve them and move our world towards a better place. So…

I want to share something I recently learned about how neuroscience can help leaders be more effective and strategic in today’s economy. I came by this wisdom by way of a serendipitous tuned-into podcast from Knowledge@Wharton: Being a Mindful Leader: Lessons from Neuroscience. Authors Art Kleiner and Jeffrey Schwartz talk about the research behind their book, The Wise Advocate: The Inner Voice of Strategic Leadership. I will discuss what I took away in two parts, particularly as it relates to nonprofit development management and strategy.

Here, in Part 1, we’ll look at different ways to lead. In Part 2 we’ll look more closely at ways to change the way you lead to become more strategic and effective.

Two Ways to Lead

You can be (1) transactional or (2) transformational.

Transactional leaders solve problems and get things done. They please their boss, please their customers and are efficient in their work. All good things. But they only go so far. It’s like securing your donor’s first gift, but not having a plan in place to sustain the lifetime value of your donor.

Transformational leaders understand in our current global, networked, digitally revolutionized economy, you need to go bigger than that. You can’t stand still. Status quo is generally not good enough. You can’t rest on your laurels and simply do what you did in the past. You need a strategic vision that pushes you forward to reach longer-term goals.  To be that kind of leader means thinking about the world around you, the people around you — and yourself — in new ways. How will you not just survive, but thrive?

Move from Meeting Needs to Divining Needs

We talk a lot in fundraising circles about getting to know your donors better so you can understand their needs, wants and desires. Then you can engage in so-called donor-centered fundraising. A very good thing.

But the world is moving very fast, and #donorlove has become a ‘thing.’ Everybody is ‘doing’ it. And by doing, I mean cultivation transactions. Or ‘moves’ and ‘touches.’ Tactics designed to move supporters along a path towards deeper engagement and investment. You observe how someone reacts to one move; then design another to move them further along the path. And it works.

But you’re not alone doing this stuff. If you really want to stand out, and get your share of the philanthropy pie, you’re going to need to go one better. (Okay, to be honest, not everyone is doing it very well. So you’ll still be ahead of the game if you’re simply thinking from a donor-centered perspective. So relax. A bit.)

Today’s leaders must go beyond love to something much deeper and abiding. In psychology and social neuroscience over the past decade a popular term is mentalizing. It means thinking about what people are thinking (not just observing what they’re doing) to understand their mental state. You then try to ascertain what they’re going to do/want/need/feel/believe in the future.

Become a Mentalist (aka ‘Grand Master’)

Economists forecast how markets will behave; mentalists forecast how people will behave. This is different than simply figuring out what people want today or tomorrow, and then filling that current need. It’s in addition to that transactional practice. Being a mentalist takes you beyond merely satisfying your customer (aka donor, volunteer, boss, staff member) and towards fulfilling them in a way they hadn’t yet anticipated would be welcome.

Mentalizing is playing the game of chess a dozen moves ahead. At the strategic level, it’s the equivalent of becoming a ‘Grand Master’ leader. It’s a transition from what’s expedient in the moment to what will win the game in the end. In human terms, it’s a transition from understanding what people want to why they want it.  

If you understand the why you can offer a myriad of solutions, not just one. And this puts you in a better position to offer up just the right answer – often to the question someone didn’t even know they had.

Become a Wise Advocate

Ever wonder why so many people today are hiring ‘life coaches?’ Why they’re searching for mentors, trainers, counselors, therapists and advisors of all sorts? If you’re familiar with the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs (here’s a Donor Hierarchy of Needs to check out), you know once basic needs are met people begin searching to fulfill higher level needs. People are on a constant quest for meaning and purpose.

When you become mindful of this search for meaning swirling all around you, you can begin to shape your role as a nonprofit leader in a different way. You can think about what people are thinking, what stresses they’re facing and what they’re going to do as a result. You can reshape your own thinking so you’re able to draw upon your own ‘wise advocate’ – an inner way you construct your own narrative of what’s going on around you – and respond to their emerging needs from this supportive place.

Integrate Mindfulness with Executive Functions

Mentalizing is weakened by intense emotions and old habits. To succeed, you must make it a conscious practice. This is where executive functioning comes into play. You don’t just impetuously lead from your gut or past experience. You consult your mindful ‘wise advocate’ as your inner guide.

Don’t charge ahead; plan ahead. While charging ahead works just swell for effective transactional leaders (they get things done!), in the long run it won’t stand your organization in good stead. It’s just not adaptive enough for a rapidly changing environment.

You need the ability to adjust for habits that are no longer serving you well. For example, let’s say:

  • You founded your nonprofit and staffed it with inexperienced, yet mission-centric, staff. It was useful, then, to micromanage. Today your staff are seasoned and chafe at this type of management. They’re beginning to leave.
  • You have a Gala event beloved by a handful of volunteers who won’t let go. It’s a drain on staff and results in lost opportunities, but you don’t shut it down for fear of angering these few donors.
  • You prioritize donor acquisition with a robust direct mail program that’s gone from a 2% to a 0.4% return.

Remember, your goal is to transition from what’s expedient in the moment to what will win the game in the end.

Next Up:

In Part 2 we’ll review strategies to help you embrace your inner wise advocate to become the change you want to be. Meanwhile, think about some habits that may no longer be serving you well. Might there be a way to tweak your system so these don’t continue to trip you up?

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.
Claire Axelrad
By |2019-03-18T09:05:55-04:00March 11th, 2019|Nonprofit Management, Nonprofit Sustainability|

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