Friday, November 27 , 2015, 12:13 am | A Few Clouds 43º

Cynder Sinclair: Building a Superior Nonprofit — Developing Leaders and Measuring Impact

By Cynder Sinclair, Noozhawk Columnist |

Katrina Rogers, Ph.D., was recently appointed president of Fielding Graduate University. She has a remarkable background in higher education as well as nonprofit management. Dr. Rogers feels strongly that nonprofits must invest in developing their leaders in order to excel in today’s competitive environment. She also expresses a clear conviction about the importance for nonprofits to measure the impact of their programs on the larger community.

In this interview, Dr. Rogers shines a spotlight on issues that every nonprofit organization should value. You will find more interviews with community thought leaders by visiting Nonprofit Kinect.

Over the years, I have had the pleasure of serving in the nonprofit sector as a staff member, executive leader, volunteer and board member. The strongest organizations, in my view, invest in leadership development, understand the importance of reflection and seek to measure collective impact.

Investing in Leadership Development

A common thread I have seen is that the strongest organizations invest in leadership development as a persistent and consistent program. Leadership development is more than training — it is helping people build their skill sets over time in a way that both fulfills the needs of the organization and facilitates the personal growth of the individual.

For example, in one organization there was a leadership development program predicated on principles of compassionate communication. Using this model, employees worked together on individual empowerment, team building and business strategy. Because they have developed a common language, they were able to resolve conflict and address vexing tasks together.

Another organization expanded the idea of leadership to include all staff members and volunteers in the organization. Recent research suggests that while senior leaders set the tone and model the way for others, staff members are also influenced strongly by each other. It may even be the case that staff behavior influences other employees more than the actions of senior leaders. There exists mutuality among co-workers in the organization that researchers don’t understand fully.

One thing we do know is that we are constantly taking social cues from each other. For example, the next time you are engaged in a group discussion with your fellow employees, pay attention to how your colleagues monitor their response based on what you or others say.

A number of leadership models also make a distinction between an individual’s zone of control and sphere of influence. One’s zone of control refers to the daily tasks for which one is responsible and accountable while a sphere of influence is the ability of an individual to impact organizational outcomes outside of their job description. When an organization is functioning well, employees have a strong sense of these dynamics and are effective in their work and in making a constructive contribution to the organization as a whole.

Katrina Rogers
Dr. Katrina Rogers

In nonprofits, mission and service delivery are strengthened when senior leaders approach the organization from a developmental perspective. This means engaging in ongoing conversations and development with staff that is consistent over time, thus creating a common understanding about what you want the organization to be. As one example, I have seen this used to great effect in strategic planning. Having a common understanding among staff and board members tends to enliven the organization by breathing life into every aspect, especially the strategic plan.

A strategic plan is simply a blueprint. The clearer and more straightforward the plan is, the more likely organizational leaders can make it actionable. It is important to use strategic planning language in every appropriate venue. Soon everyone will know the language, everyone will be working with the plan and everyone will soon feel a sense of ownership.

Ultimately, a nonprofit is about two things: people and service. Of those two, the highest value is people because they are the ones who deliver the service. Organizational leadership needs to pay attention to the balance sheet as well. For nonprofit leaders, one way to think about stewarding financial resources is to ask, “Would I be able to make a case to a donor that this is a good use of his or her money?” We must build a strong financial model to be a sustainable organization. It is easy to forget that in the midst of daily work.

Understanding Reflection

In this way, it is easy to see that nonprofit leaders are often captured by urgent matters every day. Meetings and emails are the modern vehicles for our work, so it is important to understand how these transactions are also our work. Sometimes, we see meetings and emails as getting in the way of our work, rather than advancing our goals. As part of seeing our work from a more holistic perspective, it is important to carve out space for reflection and action. One way to start is to consider a short stand-up meeting during which everyone pauses to discuss current activities. These quick pauses helps people practice reflection.

Senior leaders can also set the tone to encourage behavior that reflects the organization’s mission and values. All staff members can impact behavior by using their sphere of influence. A good technique is to pause for five or six minutes just before a meeting ends and ask each person in the room to write down why the discussion was in line with some greater goal of the organization, perhaps one expressed in the strategic plan or mission.

Sometimes we have to slow down the work to allow people to think more deeply about the work itself. Plunging headlong into nonstop business as usual courts weakness and ineffectiveness. Sometimes, nonprofit leaders are not forward thinking about leadership because they underestimate the importance of training and reflection, both of which create stronger focus by improving intentionality. We must be passionate about mission but dispassionate about business.

Measuring Collective Impact

Another way to be passionate about the mission and dispassionate about the business is to think about the mission in terms of collective action for collective impact. How can volunteers, staff and alumni groups move from action to collective impact — and how can we measure it?

Before we start any action, we should know what we want to measure and use those measures for future planning. A good evaluation practice allows us to engage in a cycle of continuous improvement. This practice also creates feedback loops to make organizations stronger financially and in terms of mission delivery. We must understand the difference between outputs, outcomes and impact. Outputs measure the organization’s activities. Outcomes reflect what resulted from the activity, whereas impact focuses on what the outcomes meant for the nonprofit’s constituency. There is an important longitudinal component in order to assess impact.

Collective impact must also include the board. Our goal should be to build our boards by aligning very experienced people with organizational strategy. We must take the time to strategically choose new board members rather than just trying to fill seats around the table. You will achieve a higher level of collective impact with board members when they are apprised of and can make a contribution to conversation about evaluation. The board is responsible for the organization and should be asking questions about how the organization is impacting the nonprofit sector, revisiting the mission for ongoing relevance and exploring opportunities in the external environment to consider best practices as well as sectorial changes.

Like all organizations, nonprofits have to run well with strong executive and board leadership. Unlike other sectors, though, nonprofit leaders often lack the necessary training for their roles as business leaders and may be unaware of best practices and systemic thinking that can help their organizations flourish. Leadership development, reflection and evaluation are three elements that can be incorporated into any organization, which helps fulfill the mission and vision and builds a great and lasting organization.

Biographical Information for Dr. Katrina Rogers

Katrina Rogers, Ph.D., is president of Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara. She has served the international non-governmental and educational sectors in many roles, including executive, board member, staff, teacher and volunteer.

She led the European campus for the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Geneva, Switzerland, for a decade, working with international organizations such as the Red Cross, the World Trade Organization, the United Nations Development Programme and the European Union. She has doctorate degrees in political science and history.

In addition to many articles and books focused on organizational leadership in sustainability, Rogers serves on the boards of the Toda Institute for Global Policy & Peace Research and the Public Dialogue Consortium. She received a presidential post-doctoral fellowship from the Humboldt Foundation and was a Fulbright scholar to Germany, where she taught environmental politics and history.

— Cynder Sinclair, Ph.D., is a local consultant to nonprofits and founder and CEO of Nonprofit Kinect. She can be contacted at 805.689.2137, or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). The opinions expressed are her own.

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