Nonprofit Board Toolkit Make an Impact
Leaders who exhibit empathy and a commitment to ethics by listening and actively seeking input from their staff and fellow board members build morale.
Strong critical-thinking practices help leaders make decisions that are consistent with values and promote the good of the organization. Effective communication can go a long way to earning the trust and respect of others.
Here are some ways to incorporate leadership skills into your work.
Listen actively. Pay close attention to what your colleagues, volunteers, and those you serve say. Think through your response after they are done talking.
Ask clarifying questions. “Oh, so what I heard you say is _______. Is that correct?”
Acknowledge feedback. If you are given advice, acknowledge that you heard and understand the insight.
Be vulnerable. Let others see when you struggle. By inviting them into your world, you help them further develop empathy.
Find your humility. Be open to teach others what you know and be willing to learn from others.
Devote time. Schedule time to connect to your organization’s mission and those it serves. Help others do this as well. Devote time to ask questions and learn from other stakeholders in your organization.
Be inclusive and participatory. Give others a chance to lead, offer suggestions, and take initiative.
For nonprofits, ethical issues typically arise in the following areas:
Compensation: Salaries can be a point of contention and a delicate balancing act for organizations striving to address societal needs and pay employees and leadership fairly.
Conflicts of interest: Navigating different concerns that arise between board members, employees, and the organization requires sensitivity. To meet the challenge, nonprofits benefit from detailed, unambiguous conflict of interest policies (see page 29) requiring transparency among employees and board members and disclosure of all financial interest in companies or individuals that may interface with the organization.
Publications and solicitation: Communicate with transparency and clarity, particularly regarding how the organization allocates its funds and resources, to bolster public trust.
Financial integrity and investment policies: When it comes to accepting and investing funds, appearances matter. At times, it makes sense to avoid affiliations where a donor is seeking to advance or represent ethically problematic conduct, or impose excessive restrictions on the use of funds. Additionally, fiduciary duties oblige nonprofits to prioritize investment decisions that support their mission over financial returns alone.
Accountability and strategic management: Efficient fund and resource management, as well as effectiveness monitoring, can be challenging when working with the often intangible outcomes of nonprofits. However, strategic oversight designed to disseminate resources across the organization’s programs and services can help ensure that fiduciary obligations are met.
Although rules and structures can’t guarantee ethical conduct, adoption of a code of ethics helps to foster a culture of ethics in your organization. Also known as a statement of values or code of conduct, this policy outlines principles that aim to establish accountability for ethical behavior among employees, volunteers, and board members. For more information, see “Code of Ethics for Nonprofits” on the website of the National Council of Nonprofits.
A leader is someone who can see how outcomes can be improved and guides people to move toward a better vision. According to Linda E. Ginzel, clinical professor of managerial psychology at Chicago Booth, leadership is a learned behavior, which means anyone can build on their leadership qualities. In her words, “there is nothing innate and fixed about the qualities that make someone good at leading. The behaviors involved can be learned, honed, and encouraged through practice.” With this in mind, approach your nonprofit board position as an opportunity to expand your leadership skills and encourage those you serve alongside to do the same.
An additional resource for exploring your own leadership skills is Ginzel’s Choosing Leadership book. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you begin to make leadership decisions:
Environment: What are the environmental or situational factors you can change within your organization to help people meet or exceed mission goals? Strong leadership behaviors focus on changing environments rather than changing people.
Self-awareness: Understanding yourself and determining where you can add the most leadership value will help you know when and where to step up or step aside.
- Try using a self-assessment tool such as StrengthsFinder to identify where your strengths and weaknesses lie.
- Get proactive feedback from a coach or peer.
- Try keeping a daily journal as a way to reflect and remain self-aware.
- Encourage others within your organization to do the same and share.
- Consider leading a workshop to encourage everyone to learn more about each other and discuss ways to work together most effectively.
Training and development: Learning and growing are important factors in strengthening your leadership capital to best support your organization. If your nonprofit offers formal orientation and training to board members, participate fully—but don’t stop there. Seek ongoing training opportunities for yourself and others in your organization. You can develop learning experiences and processes in-house if your organization has the capacity, or seek external development opportunities.
Find meaning through symbols. Use something tangible to highlight meaning and bring attention to it. This can be done by using an object, image, or success story and other types of decisions or actions that are positive for your organization.
Focus on voice. Be aware that voice drives interpersonal understanding more than any other form of communication, according to Nicholas Epley, the John Templeton Keller Professor of Behavioral Science and a Neubauer Family Faculty Fellow at Chicago Booth. Being able to hear someone speak is a direct channel to what’s on their mind.
“You need to be able to analyze and understand your core essence in order to articulate your values and goals and convey them to others.”
As a nonprofit board member, strive to achieve collaboration within your organization by bringing people with diverse backgrounds and wide-ranging views to the table. Seek to broker individual knowledge and expertise toward achieving a common goal. The act of bringing people from different backgrounds together is often the only way to assemble the expertise and capabilities required to move your organization forward, but it is not without its challenges. For suggestions on how to achieve successful collaboration, see “Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams.”
- Chicago Booth: What Empathy Means for Successful Leaders
- UChicago Magazine: Empathy Unmasked
- Stanford Social Innovation Review: Ethics and Nonprofits
- National Council of Nonprofits: Ethical Leadership for Nonprofits
- National Council of Nonprofits: Leading with Empathy
- Harvard Business Review: How Leaders Should Think Critically