6 Mistakes Nonprofit Leaders Make and How to Avoid Them

Few people are born ready to perfectly lead a nonprofit. As a nonprofit leader, you do your best to avoid mistakes and learn from the ones you do make. However, not all mistakes are equally harmless, and there are some pitfalls you can anticipate and take steps to correct. 

All organizations have employees, equipment, and goals, and these components all have the potential to encounter minor problems that can lead to major consequences if not properly addressed.

Nonprofit Leadership Alliance offers nonprofit professional development opportunities and improvement to a variety of nonprofit organizations. Our team has constructed this article to offer advice on how leaders can continue to push their organizations forward by understanding and avoiding mistakes that can pull them back. We’ll discuss six common mistakes, including:

  1. Not Providing Professional Development Opportunities
  2. Purchasing Nonoptimal Software Solutions
  3. Not Staying Up-to-Date on Industry Trends
  4. Failing to Establish Timelines for Goals
  5. Not Communicating Expectations
  6. Refusing to Seek Outside Help

If you start to recognize any of these mistakes in your nonprofit, there’s no need to panic. These are common mistakes for a reason, and they can be rectified by taking the initiative to understand and solve the problem. By contrast, if your nonprofit is free from errors so far, make sure to continue staying vigilant, as many of these mistakes can occur even in established organizations.

1. Not Providing Professional Development Opportunities

Your employees are one of your greatest assets and worth your investment. Long-term employees understand your organization, build your culture, train new employees, and can offer worthwhile insights into your current practices. It’s also more cost-effective to invest in your current employees than to find new ones as it’s more expensive to replace employees with high skill levels.

What does it mean to invest in your employees? Astron Solutions’ guide to employee retention explains that effective organizations cultivate professional learning opportunities because  “Employees are not looking for more work, but are looking for opportunities to grow and develop their skills. Employees want to try new things, to feel skillful, and to experience the personal satisfaction that comes from higher levels of achievement.

How Nonprofit Leaders Can Avoid This Problem:

Carrot-and-stick motivators such as pay bonuses and reprimands have limited success at shaping employee behavior, especially at higher levels of professionalism and skill proficiency. Creative freedom, personal achievement, and the feeling that the work being completed is meaningful are much more effective at encouraging employees to invest in your organization.

Even under difficult circumstances, your leadership team can continue to motivate employees by providing professional development opportunities. You can help employees find these opportunities by either creating in-house courses or investing in third-party training courses that your entire organization can enjoy. Remember, everyone from brand new employees to your organization’s founder can benefit from additional development opportunities.

2. Purchasing Nonoptimal Software Solutions

Nonprofit software has evolved over the years, and there are now an extensive variety of software options for nearly every part of your nonprofit’s day-to-day operations. This makes finding the right software for your nonprofit both easier and more challenging—it’s likely a solution that fits your exact needs exists, but you’ll need to sort through dozens of providers to find it.

Investing in the wrong software can cost your nonprofit time and money as your team will need to transfer data from one system to another and go through new software onboarding courses every time you switch providers.

How Nonprofit Leaders Can Avoid This Problem:

To help find the most optimal software the first time, follow this checklist:

  1. Establish software goals
  2. Priortize important features
  3. Consider your nonprofit’s budget
  4. List potential providers
  5. Narrow your list
  6. Demo software
  7. Make decision
  8. Implement a solution

For example, if you were trying to find learning management software, you would first choose a goal you want your software to help you accomplish, such as the ability to develop a new course from scratch. Then, make a list of features, prioritizing the ones that are most relevant to your goal. In this example, you might choose intuitive course creation tools.

Don’t forget to consider your budget. You shouldn’t need to make major sacrifices to purchase the software you want, but remember that you are investing in something that should be a long-term solution. Create a list of top providers and then narrow that list based on how well they meet your criteria. Remember to write down why each provider does or does not meet your needs as you cross them off your list, so you won’t second guess yourself as you move forward with your decision.

Schedule a demo and don’t forget to ask any lingering questions that will help you make your final decision. From there, you can start implementing your solution using the training and onboarding resources offered by your software provider.

3. Not Staying Up-to-Date on Industry Trends

As the leader of your nonprofit, you’ll need to understand the ins and outs of your field to provide the rest of your organization with proper direction. In addition to being knowledgeable about current research and best practices, be sure to stay up-to-date on current trends in the nonprofit world.

How Nonprofit Leaders Can Avoid This Problem:

Nonprofit courses like these can help refresh your own training and provide lessons to the rest of your team. A few common topics relevant to almost every nonprofit are:

  • Crisis Management. Leaders need to know how to communicate, especially in times of crisis. When things start to go wrong, ensure you know how to quickly assess and mitigate disaster by properly designating responsibilities and keeping the lines of communication open.
  • Ethics. Doing the right thing is not always as obvious as we would like it to be. While every ethical dilemma has its own nuances, you can prepare to tackle these situations by familiarizing yourself with decision-making frameworks and common behavioral warning flags.
  • Program Design. Your programs are what make your nonprofit. Learn how you can refine your current programs by regularly assessing your constituents’ needs and using your available resources to best respond to each dilemma that occurs.

While similar organizations may not be openly transparent about their current practices, keep an eye on other nonprofits in your field to measure your nonprofit’s progress and understand current expectations. You can keep an eye on current trends by regularly checking their websites for information about new program initiatives and reading their blog posts.

4. Failing to Establish Timelines for Goals

Nonprofit leaders are often advised to create “SMART Goals.” SMART stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based. Approaching aspects of your nonprofit with a SMART goal in mind allows you to review your data in a future-focused manner and create actionable improvement plans.

However, the last initial of SMART, time-based, can sometimes be forgotten. Nearly every nonprofit aims to improve its current organizational practices, but some hesitate to create deadlines for themselves. This happens for a few reasons. Deadlines are seen as inherently stressful and tensions can arise if your nonprofit is far from its initial target.

How Nonprofit Leaders Can Avoid This Problem:

While holding your team accountable for reviewing their progress at set milestones is vital to goal creation, this doesn’t mean all deadlines should be set in stone. Your nonprofit should set a precedence for reviewing your data and seeing how you measure up against your goals, but your timeline should also be responsive to changes in your organization. Remember, if the goals you set seem impossible to obtain, goal creation itself can start to feel meaningless.

To combat this, create a timeline of milestones, including regular check-ins to determine how close your nonprofit is to achieving them. If you find you miscalculated when you initially set your goal, your entire team can be on the same page about how and why you have made limited progress and come together to set a new, manageable timeline.

5. Not Communicating Expectations

Communication is a broad term, and it’s also where many organizations encounter obstacles. An external communication blunder can negatively affect your nonprofit’s reputation, while an internal miscommunication can lead to an unintended division of resources and energy.

How Nonprofit Leaders Can Avoid This Problem:

Even when there is a communication breakdown, one way you can keep your nonprofit team members all working towards the same goal is by keeping your organization’s expectations clear. Establishing clear conduct, quality, and work standards helps employees self-direct to continue meeting expectations, even when a lack of oversight occurs.

Evaluate all of the groups currently working for your nonprofit and the different expectations you have for each of them. A few groups for nonprofits to consider are:

  • Staff. Create an employee handbook and ensure that everyone becomes acquainted with it during their onboarding process. If you don’t have an organized training program for new staff members, get started making one so everyone will be on the same page from the very beginning of their employment.
  • External Consultants. Your consultants are hired to help your nonprofit with specific problems. When you hire a consultant, create a written document outlining your expectations and take the time to discuss any questions or concerns they might have. This helps keep everyone in the relationship accountable for turning in high-quality work that meets your exact needs, even when you’re not working with them directly.
  • Volunteers. Volunteer management requires proper oversight to feel meaningful for both your organization and your supporters. Similar to your employees, create a volunteer handbook and ensure every volunteer goes through an orientation program so they understand what is expected of them before dedicating their time.

Clear, written expectations also help build accountability. Mistakes happen, but having an official document can help guide future actions towards avoiding repeat problems. If you ever need to change your handbook to account for new expectations, ensure the change is communicated to your entire team, otherwise its addition won’t succeed in fixing the problem. 

6. Refusing to Seek Outside Help

Most nonprofits operate with limited resources, and it will likely be impossible to sustain in-house positions for everything your nonprofit needs. Some leaders hesitate to outsource help due to the expense or time investment necessary for finding the right consultant.

However, outside consultants have the potential to not only lighten your current workload but also become long-term partners that can provide your nonprofit with new opportunities.

How Nonprofit Leaders Can Avoid This Problem:

There are many different services available to nonprofits, including:

  • Fundraising consultants.
  • Website builders.
  • Accounting services.
  • Learning and development programs.
  • Technology and software assistance.

Keep in mind that while investing in the right consultant can drastically improve your nonprofit’s current operations, it is still an investment.

Review your nonprofit’s needs and determine what your highest priorities are and begin researching consultants in that field. For example, if you’ve been having website security issues, you may decide to first seek out a web builder or technical consultant, then dedicate some time towards finding training courses that can help your team manage your website themselves.

Nonprofit leaders are only human, which means mistakes will happen. When they do, take the time to reflect on why they occurred and how you can improve your leadership skills and your nonprofit as a whole to avoid them in the future. Leadership and management are continuous processes that require constant learning, and some of your mistakes can become your most valuable learning experiences.

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