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Learn to Lead, Lead to Learn

by Molly O'Connell

passing the batonThe biggest resource of mission-driven organizations? People.

In recent months we’ve been excited to see several high-profile organizations and reports highlighting the importance of investing in our sector’s human resources.

We see the following three themes as a framework for fostering deeper sustainability, especially as many nonprofit leaders prepare to pass the metaphorical baton to a new generation.

Create a culture of learning

In the recent Stanford Social Innovation Review article “Four Learning Principles for the Social Sector,” the author argues that “nonprofits need to prioritize learning, despite limited resources.” A culture of learning starts with those in leadership sending a message that “learning is a mission-critical endeavor.”

This is especially important as the sector faces the coming wave of retiring executive directors and other senior staff. The Leadership New England report calls for nonprofits to “shift the framework for succession planning to deep sustainability.” A proactive succession plan should include a commitment to developing future leaders within the organization, with professional development goals at the forefront.

The good news: in our most recent member survey 80% of respondents reported their organizations offer professional development funds for staff to use on training.

Seek out communities of learning

Peer- and hands-on learning complement traditional training. Most nonprofit leaders report developing their leadership skills on the job and from mentors and peers, rather than through formal learning environments. Discussion forums and learning intensives with others in similar roles (such as MANP’s Board Boot CampsLeadership Institutes for New Executive Directors and Nonprofit Finance Conference) help current and emerging leaders build these powerful professional networks.

Advocate for investment in people

In his funny and insightful post “Capacity Building 9.0: Fund people to do stuff, get out of their way” Vu Le writes, “For a sector that relies so heavily on people, it is incredible how much reluctance, sometimes even disdain, there is in supporting nonprofit staff….So many capacity building efforts fail because we do not invest enough in people to carry out these efforts.”

In that same vein, the Leadership New England report urges that “leaders and funders alike need to face up to the realities of what it takes to lead and manage organizations–financial capital, leadership development, learning and innovation and a well-compensated staff.”

Strengthening the ability of the nonprofit sector to transform communities requires that we advocate for the the true costs of our work, including the role of compensation in attracting and retaining talented staff.

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