leading your nonprofit

In a recent article about ‘how to juggle too many nonprofits balls’ and still keep your donors close, I talked about the need to lead with intention.  

I think it’s always good to be intentional. About everything. 

It sounds easy enough. 

But, in practice, it’s not so simple. 

It takes practice.

Consider these everyday scenarios in which you take the time to lead with intention (vs. what may happen if you simply wing it):

  • You let your kid know you’ll have to leave the toy store in 10 minutes. Because you’ve prepared them enough ahead of your departure, they don’t stage a screaming fit when it’s time to leave. 
  • You tell your partner in advance that you’ll be late coming home for dinner. Because you’ve given them time to make plans of their own, they greet you with a smile and not a tirade when you enter the door.
  • You let your staff and board teams know you won’t be able to do work on site for the foreseeable future, but you do have exciting plans for virtual ways of connecting. Because you’ve been straight with them, and named the elephant in the room, they don’t become paralyzed with fear. Their anxiety alleviated, they’re able to be more productive.

When people know what’s going to happen, they know what to expect. This makes them more comfortable, more secure and, ultimately, more trusting. Certainly in the uncertain times in which we’re living, beginning by allaying fears is a good thing to do. Otherwise, people – including staff, board, donors and clients — will often assume the worst.

What Does Leading Your Nonprofit with Intention Mean?

Merriam Webster defines intention thusly:

  1. A. What one intends to do or bring about
    B. the object for which a prayer, mass, or pious act is offered
  2. A determination to act in a certain way. Resolve.
  3. Intentions plural: purpose with respect to marriage
  4. Import; Significance
  5. A process or manner of healing of incised wounds
  6. Concept. especially: a concept considered as the product of attention directed to an object of knowledge

Some of these meanings are familiar to me, but I don’t generally think about ‘intention’ in the framework of a pious act. Nor do I think about it so much in terms of the marriage contemplation question of “what are your intentions?” I’d never associated the word with the healing of wounds. Yet these variations on the theme all made me think.

Leading your nonprofit with intention means taking into consideration your end goal. 

What is it you want to bring about? If you don’t first consider where you want to go, your idea of how to get there may fall wide of the mark. 

EXAMPLE: You decide to replace your annual in-person Gala with a virtual Gala centered on an online auction and ‘fund a need’ telethon. You determine “to put on an event.” You neglect to consider the multiple purposes of this event, which traditionally have been as much about bringing in new prospective donors and cultivating major donors as they’ve been about outright fundraising. Because you neglect this intention, your resolve to host the event may be a solution pointed at the wrong problem(s). Alas, you re-envision your Gala without incorporating any opportunities for constituent interaction that builds community. Or any strategies to attract new donors. You do the work, but miss the point. Item checked off your list, but… so what? Did you attract any new supporters? Did you build constituent identification with your mission? Did you develop stronger community bonds? Will your current supporters give again? Will they give more, or less?

Leading your nonprofit with intention can also be a virtuous, moral act. 

It serves you and your nonprofit well when you consider the ramifications of your actions, including unintended consequences. Cutting expenses to the bone may serve a short-term need to balance your budget, but could create even bigger financial gaps moving forward. Potentially, it could even undermine your vision, mission and values.

EXAMPLE: You sharpen pencils and cut a beloved program, one that happens to draw many donors to your cause and inspires generous donations. When you cut such a program, you destroy your donors’ trust. Without this program, these donors cannot enact their most cherished values when supporting you. Lacking trust in you, they reduce their donation level or move to another nonprofit that didn’t cut a similar program.

Leading your nonprofit with intention can be a healing process.

The current environment brings with it the opportunity to revisit the status quo and re-envision the way you operate. If there are systemic wounds, this is your chance to address them. Perhaps it’s your board leadership model. Perhaps it’s operating by the scarcity model. Perhaps it’s your hiring and employing retention model. Think about where you’ve become stuck in a model that is no longer working well for you and others.

EXAMPLE: The theater world across the U.S. is faced with demands for racial justice and a call for bold changes in online documents: “We See You White American Theater” is national in scope; others are local in scope. They take theaters to task for how their rhetoric contrasts with their treatment of workers and artists. As a result, theater companies across the nation are now re-thinking their casting, hiring practices, salary equity, staff and board composition, choices of productions, and more.

Leading with intention can help you focus on where, and with whom, you need to pay attention.

Before conceiving or executing any new endeavor, ask yourself “What are our intentions?” Are you making strategic decisions based on good intentions and, if so, what are they? How well have you thought them through? Are you targeting the right constituents? Are you overlooking some important constituents?

EXAMPLE: You usually call lapsed donors before the end of the year, but this year you’re short on staff and decide, anyway, it’s not a good idea to ‘bother’ folks during this tough time. So you send them a letter, or an email, asking them to renew their $1,000 gift. Have you thought about how it might feel to this donor to be asked for this size of gift without any personal attention or interaction? Are your intentions towards your donors really ‘good’ ones, or have you merely rationalized your decision not to reach out and offer formerly loyal supporters the opportunity to give –and feel good! – primarily because it means more work for you? 

The Heart of Leading Your Nonprofit with Intention

At the heart of great leadership is a desire to serve others, to empower them and foster their success. It’s about engaging and empowering people to do what they are capable of doing, and building confidence and trust in your team. This extends to all your stakeholders – staff, volunteers and donors.

People give to people, not organizations.

You show what kind of a person you are by the way you treat others. This extends to everyone on your leadership team. One rude receptionist can undermine a year’s worth of work by a development director. One thoughtless comment by a board member can undermine a bucket full of intentional cultivation by an executive director.

In my next article I’ll explore some simple, intentional strategies to help you communicate more effectively as you lead folks, through tough times and otherwise. Meanwhile, take the time to consider your intentions and assess where your planned actions may lead you. Or not.

The world is in great turmoil; there’s no time for simple ‘busy work.’

If you don’t feel confident your intended actions will get you to your vision, mission and values goals, take the time to re-evaluate. 

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.