How can nonprofit executives position their organizations for success given the multiple demands of addressing complex social issues in an ever-evolving environment? One essential way is by developing the organizational vision and leadership to create and implement high-impact strategies.
The following steps emerged from the inaugural session of the Executive Leadership Development Program that RCLA and Communities In Schools (CIS), the largest evidence-based dropout prevention organization in the country, are providing for a select group of principals from across the nation.
1. Co-create a shared vision
Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, co-authors of the Harvard Business Review classic “Building your Company’s Vision” suggest that leaders need to re-engage with their core ideology and create long-term vision by setting BHAGs – Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals. These BHAGs push the envelope of what organizations want to see happen in their environment as a result of their work.
In addition to being bold and ambitious, leaders are most effective in generating commitment from key internal and external stakeholders when they engage in the process of co-creating a shared vision. The following are practices nonprofit leaders can use to build a shared vision:
2. Foster the leadership needed to advance your vision
RCLA Faculty Director Sonia Ospina describes leadership as the “soul of the work” in public service. In other words, leadership is what gives meaning and direction to organizations’ core work – from policy advocacy to service delivery – as well to the technologies of management used to perform the work – whether managing budgets or engaging Board members. Therefore, developing strong organizational leadership is essential.
Scholars increasingly understand leadership as relational, contextual and diverse, and as having both individual and collective dimensions. Harvard scholar Ron Heifetz’s research has also shown that leadership must respond to “adaptive challenges,” which cannot be solved by technical knowledge and resources, and instead require changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits and loyalties.
Scholars from Deborah Ancona to Bill Drath have found that fostering the leadership necessary to advance the organization’s vision requires:
3. Understand your operating environment, identify opportunity and set strategy
Understanding the environmental factors that may influence their work – at the organizational, field and local to international levels – is helpful for nonprofit leaders to identify immediate and longer-term opportunities and challenges and adjust organizational strategy accordingly.
Nonprofit leaders use a variety of formal and informal tools and constantly scan the environment to understand the unfolding dynamics in their fields. Mechanisms for scanning range from informal open-ended conversations with advisors, key stakeholders, the media and unlikely allies to conducting formal assessments and analysis through surveys and focus groups.
For example, RCLA’s session with CIS drew on the expertise of senior leaders in the field and the program participants to identify trends to watch in the field where CIS operates:
From grappling with the question of how to take advantage of trends and respond to them strategically, participants generated a set of suggestions focused on viewing the upcoming Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the looming threat of federal budget sequestration as opportunities for the CIS network to offer an effective model for mobilizing community resources and supporting children to succeed.
4. Commit to building capacity and talent
Nonprofit organizations are able to offer creative and inspiring solutions to complex social issues due to the passion, knowledge, skills and energy of staff committed to the mission and vision of the organization. A commitment to building the talent needed to deliver results helps organizations optimize resources and expand its capacity.
Take the example of Share Our Strength, an organization that participants in the RCLA and CIS leadership program visited that has invested heavily in talent. Through this effort, Share Our Strength has turned individuals into champions and unleashed their collective potential: ultimately, raising over $200 million to fight hunger. Forces for Good’s study on high-impact nonprofits, which highlights the work of Share Our Strength, describes this commitment to building capacity and talent as practices to “attract and retain great people” and “sharing leadership, empowering others to be forces for good.”
Nonprofits today are challenged to achieve ever greater results in an increasingly complex environment and often to do so with diminishing resources. Creating more collaborative approaches to leadership can help these organizations tap into their core values, stay connected to key dynamics in their operating environment, build a shared vision for where they want to be and ultimately galvanize the commitment required to make that vision a reality.
“As any nonprofit leader knows, crafting a shared vision and working to build the strategies and leadership to deliver on it is difficult, time-consuming and messy work. Yet knowing that this work has the potential to transform lives – in the CIS example, providing kids with the community of support they need to stay in school and succeed in life – is a profound payoff,” said RCLA Executive Director Bethany Godsoe.
 Sequestration refers to the automatic across-the-board federal budget cuts scheduled to begin in January 2013