SUMMARY

We develop a leadership team that will outlast the current generation, rejecting the pattern of overdependence on one charismatic leader. We cultivate talent by developing each person for and beyond their contribution to the mission, instead of treating them solely as organizational resources.

OUR REALITY

Every organization intends to attract great people, build a healthy culture, and develop inspiring leaders—yet most organizations fall well short in actual practice, usually beginning with the cultural habits surrounding the founder. 

A charismatic leader has a remarkable capacity to inhabit a nonprofit’s mission, cast vision, and set into motion a movement of energy, goodwill, and resources. But in our need to sustain that momentum and resource flow, we reinforce the myth that the visionary leader is indispensable to the mission. Each time we rely solely on the leader to deliver the vision, the message, or the funding in the near term, we defer the joyful but painstaking work of developing the next generation of leaders. 

Across the team, we treat people as “resources” to be allocated and used rather than as whole persons to be developed and blessed. To limit overhead, we pay staff less than we should and provide inadequate benefits, believing that the mission is important enough that our team should be willing to make unhealthy and unsustainable sacrifices. 

Instead of building inclusive leadership pipelines, we mold teams around our leaders’ personalities. Or to jumpstart our work, we hire people we believe are “stars,” and reward them accordingly, without paying close attention to whether they are actually well aligned with our ethos and mission.

With every passing year, the organization loses talent and resilience. We become known for our lack of excellence, our overworked and discontent staff and volunteers, or both. The remaining leaders can feel—and begin to act—like we work with the leftovers, both in people and in money. The communities and stakeholders we serve also come to tolerate and internalize a narrative of scarcity and mediocrity; and a successful transition to the next generation of leaders becomes less likely.

Instead, we long for our team and its culture to be compelling carriers of our mission.

PRACTICES

1. We build capacity and confidence across the team to counteract the tendency to elevate the importance of one charismatic leader. As part of our culture of developing people, senior leaders regularly invite rising team members to accompany them into important settings and actively “share the stage” in their public appearances.

2. We build and nurture robust diversity—of age, gender, ethnicity, skill set, and experience—at every level of the organization, knowing that these differences lead to greater organizational impact as well as personal transformation. We create inclusive leadership pipelines, making way for women, people of color, and those who have lived experience in the issues we address. 

3. We steward people for and beyond the work of the organization. We communicate clear expectations about each team member’s role, contribution, and areas for development. We creatively adjust roles and assignments to build competence, broaden capability, and distribute our authority and influence—all in view of both the organization’s and the individual’s goals. Where people are not meeting expectations, we communicate and act quickly, first adjusting for better alignment within the organization, and if necessary, guiding and supporting them in leaving the organization.

4. We honor each team member through our human resources practices, including compensation, benefits, and tools that allow us to attract and retain the right talent—and that enable people to commit wholeheartedly to their work in light of all aspects of their vocations. 

5. We practice healthy and sustainable work rhythms, including intentional patterns of daily, weekly, and seasonal rest. We encourage leave for fathers, mothers, and caregivers to devote themselves to intensive care for those dependent on them without jeopardizing their long-term prospects with the organization. 

6. We celebrate volunteers and creatively honor their contributions to the mission, by adapting each of these practices wherever possible to our interactions with them.

THE GOOD NEWS

Freed from the myth of the “heropreneur,”² we leaders can experience the great joy of creating something that will actually outlast us and flourish even more in the future than in the present. Our leadership is guided by our most important performance evaluation: the one that will come several years after we’ve left the organization.

We hope to see transformation in the culture of the nonprofit sector. It will increasingly be led by healthy, joyful, and balanced persons who ultimately trust that the mission is not theirs to own, but rather to steward for a period of time. They will be rooted enough to offer their fullest selves to the mission, without pouring their whole worth into the rise or fall of the venture. They will hold the organization and its mission with utmost care while also surrendering it to God and to others. 

Likewise, our team members will joyfully offer their creative best in service to the mission, working within sustainable margins while at peace with the sacrifice that all redemptive action requires. 

Even when we feel that resources are insufficient to meet overwhelming needs, we find joy in creatively investing what we have in ways that can produce manifold returns. We trust that God can do more than we could ask or imagine.

Indeed, we have been captivated by the countercultural vision of a banquet where the poor and excluded actually receive the very best of food and drink. We believe the communities we serve, insofar as they are excluded from the world’s tables, deserve not just competency but excellence; not just the good but the best. The nonprofit space can increasingly be the employer of choice for many of the most qualified—the place where they can pursue ambition, build careers, and spend a lifetime of fruitful work.

² Daniela Papi-Thornton, “Tackling Heropreneurship,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, February 23, 2016.