By Jeremy Ault
As team member Jeremy Ault transitions to a new career in public education, he reflects on key lessons he learned in his year on the Spectrum team.
Being a dynamic nonprofit leader often means biting off more than you can chew. The Executive Director role can be fraught with overwhelming fundraising responsibilities, burnout, low compensation, and the weight of a powerful mission. Sometimes, it’s just too much.
With competing responsibilities and stakeholders, strategic decision making can seem anything but straightforward. Even more so when mission-based programs are so critical that a poor decision might mean dire consequences for an organization’s community or staff. How, then, do leaders continue to make ongoing strategy decisions when energy and focus are pulled in so many directions?
Over the course of my year as an Analyst at Spectrum, I’ve learned it’s not easy. From working with nonprofit leaders from all across the country in organizations of all shapes and sizes, I’ve distilled a few strategies that we use at Spectrum to support leaders in finding the mental space to make ongoing strategic decisions–decisions that we believe are crucial to building sector-wide, organizational strength.
- Embrace self-evaluation: When assessing organizational strengths and weaknesses, organizations will often list: Strengths- staff; Weaknesses- Fundraising. It’s a superficial answer to what appears to be a superficial question. But that is not an honest evaluation. This question requires more depth. Accounting for weaknesses and strengths can be an uncomfortable, but enlightening process, and an entry point for future analysis. Implementing tools such as the matrix map or program-specific mission impact assessments can elicit and pinpoint how an organization identifies key themes and barriers to success. These, and other tools, can empower leaders to leverage their data to inform direction, and strengthen their organization’s financial health and mission impact. Taking the time to reflect on both strengths and weaknesses can be painful at first, but will ultimately shed light on where the organization needs to focus moving forward.
- Focus on what drives impact: There is only so much one organization can accomplish. The more responsibilities a leader or organization undertakes, the more they are prone to “mission drift.” Programmatic diversity does not always lead to greater impact. Rather, in some situations, diversity is susceptible to the law of diminishing returns. Leaders focus on those programs that have the best results and align most closely with their organization’s stated mission. Focusing sometimes means making the difficult decision to leave out those activities, programs, or responsibilities that take time and energy away from an organization’s core work. Through greater focus, nonprofit leaders not only “cut out”, but more importantly, “invest in” and strengthen their organizations by focusing on the areas where they have the most expertise and see the strongest results.
- Seek community insight: Seeking advice and insight from a diverse array of people and stakeholders is crucial to ongoing decision making. Nonprofit leaders should incorporate their staff, board of directors, and other organizational leaders into the strategic process. By leveraging the day-to-day knowledge and experience of the staff, along with the analytical, big-picture perspective of the board, leaders gain a more nuanced and holistic understanding of the circumstances facing their organizations. It’s the same strategy we implement in our personal lives when making a life decision: we seek advice from family, friends, counselors, religious leaders, etc. We inherently know the value of diverse voices when making big decisions, so why should that be different when managing a nonprofit organization?
At Spectrum, we often partner with nonprofit leaders when their organizations are experiencing periods of uncertainty, change, and in some rare cases, crisis. They know that they must make strategic decisions to ensure the success of their organizations,but they may lack the time or the energy to engage in a drawn-out, complicated process. It is my hope that these three strategies will enable leaders to engage in strategic decision making, even when they’re being inundated with the daily tasks of management.
When nonprofit leaders make decisions that strengthen the impact and financial sustainability of their organizations, they are not only recommitting to their organization’s mission, but they are also making a stronger commitment to themselves, their community, and, most importantly, to the people they serve. And that’s worth celebrating.
Jeremy Ault, MA, is an Analyst at Spectrum Nonprofit Services. After 10 years in the nonprofit sector, he is transitioning to a career in public education. Prior to his work with Spectrum, he was the Head of the Department of International Development for Diaconia ECCB – Center of Relief and Development (CZ, WI), a Transition Specialist at the Adult Learning Center of Milwaukee, WI, and an educator and youth worker in Policka, Czech Republic. He currently serves as a board director for the international development organization Diaconia Connections and is a member of the Education Board at the Plymouth United Church of Christ in Milwaukee.