I’ve been thinking recently about what’s changed since March 2020 when it comes to the nonprofit sector; foundation and individual giving; and my take on leadership. In this final post of a three-part series, I reflect on what I have learned — or re-learned — about leadership.

So many nonprofits and foundations stepped up during the last two years, as I discussed in my previous posts in this series. Their work helped, in all kinds of ways, to make a very bad two years somewhat less bad than they would have otherwise been for many communities and people.

Such is “success,” sometimes, in the philanthropic and nonprofit context.

Here are a few things I noticed about the leaders who really made a difference these past two years. This isn’t a research-based list, just some thoughts from one observer. These aren’t all particularly original insights, either, or specific to this time period. But as I watched both nonprofit and foundation leaders grapple with the challenges posed by the last two years, this is what stood out.

  1. They know when urgent action is needed. Many nonprofits (and some foundations) moved with incredible speed to serve clients in need, re-imagining in-person programming and even in some cases re-inventing their entire purpose, as I discussed in my last post.
  2. At the same time, the most effective leaders I have seen during this period know it can be problematic to decide something too quickly or definitively.
  3. The best leaders don’t neglect the internal aspect of their jobs.
  4. Effective leaders build relationships and avoid becoming isolated in a bubble of their own making — this is especially crucial in a time of crisis.
  5. Especially difficult since the onset of the pandemic, effective leaders balance the urgency of the work (which is often about life and death) with compassion and understanding for the human challenges, including mental health challenges, facing their teams.
  6. The most effective leaders see racial equity as the central and cross-cutting imperative that it is. 
  7. To bring up a theme in my previous two posts, trust is everything.
  8. Finally, the most effective leaders recognize this paradox: their leadership is key but, ultimately, it’s not remotely about them.

Read the full article about effective leaders by Phil Buchanan at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.