Lessons Learned from Leading a Nonprofit Organization By Dwight Robarts – March 3, 2020

Recently, I retired from serving as the executive director of a small nonprofit in Fort Worth. Christ’s Haven for Children is 65 year old organization that provides group foster care.  I have been reflecting on what I learned from leading the organization for 10 years and I want to share three important lessons.  

First, I learned that leadership is hard work, in part because relationships are hard work. 

The late Rabbi Edwin Friedman often pointed out that you can’t get away with leadership.  Regardless of how many people you involve in the decision-making process and no matter how clearly you try to communicate the rationale for a particular decision, some will be disappointed. 

I can’t think of a single significant decision I or my leadership team made during my tenure that went through without a hitch.  That is okay.  It’s the nature of leadership.  My friend, Margaret Marcuson, used to have a tagline on her website that said, “Leadership is about moving from the impossible, controlling others, to the merely difficult, managing yourself.”  My job as leader was to be as clear as I could be about my goals and vision and then let go of the outcome and manage my own anxiety in the process.

Second, I learned to embrace failure in myself and in others

We are afraid of the shame or criticism that might come with failure.  We learn more from failure than success.  I didn’t want my co-workers hiding their failures.  Rather, I wanted them to learn from their failures and I wanted to do the same.  

An example that comes to mind is when I botched the termination of a long-time employee.  A week later, employees asked for a meeting to talk about what had happened.  When everyone had their say, I simply said, “I was wrongI am sorry and it won’t happen again.”  The tension in the room subsided immediately When leaders admit their mistakes it builds trust and allows others the freedom to be human.  Obviously, some failures are difficult to recover from.  Engaging in ethical or moral misconduct may mean a parting of the ways but overallan organization grows when failure is admitted, reflected on, and learned from. 

Third, I learned it is crucial to take care of yourself.  

People who work in nonprofits walk into situations that others don’t. Daily encounters include homelessness, foster care, caring for children with terminal illnesses, dementia, incarceration, social justice, addiction treatment, poverty and much more.   Such challenges are difficult at best and often impossible to solve.  They create chaos and sap the energy of those who give their life to bring order and healing.  Working in a non-profit can be extremely stressful and challenging.

I haven’t always maintained healthy boundaries between my work life and my personal life.  When I came to Christ’s HavenI quickly learned that our team members had to take care of themselves or they would do a poor job of caring for the kids entrusted to us and I had to lead.  I had to take care of myself physically, emotionally, and socially.  I had to exercise, take time to pour positive energy into my life in the ways that worked for me, and I needed a beginning and an end to the workday.  had to take care of myself to have the energy to deal with the demands of the job.  One of the most important things I could do for my co-workers was to manage my own anxiety.  If I could remain calm amidst the stresses of carrying out our organization’s mission, then my colleagues had a better shot at doing the same.  Eventually, we required all employees to have a self-care plan which they reviewed with their supervisor at least annually.

At M. Gale Associates it is our privilege and joy to work with many wonderful nonprofit leaders.  We know that competent, compassionate, visionary leaders are key to our nonprofit clients thriving and succeeding in their mission. 
We wish the best for you in your leadership role. 

Dwight Robarts is a consulting associate with M. Gale & Associates, Dwight.Robarts@mgaleassociates.com.