Photo Credit: Leigh Anderson
by Roxann Mayros, President/CEO of VisionServe Alliance
I remember reading an article in the Harvard Business Review that said that it takes more leadership skills and business acumen to lead a nonprofit organization than a for-profit organization. I don’t remember the exact date, and even though I have Googled and searched the Internet high and low, I have never been able to find that article. Most of you do not know that I had a professional life before I got into this “blindness biz.” I designed Marketing Information Systems before there were desktop computers, databases, and the computer power that an I-phone exceeds today. My customers were the Fortune 100 in Europe and Fortune 500 in the United States, including Revlon, Herman Miller, Proctor & Gamble, to name just a few. So, when I tell you that I believe it takes more skill to lead a nonprofit than a Fortune 500 company, I know from where I speak.
The typical day of a nonprofit leader could start with calling upon a six-figure donor, end using a plunger to unplug a clog in the agency’s most frequently used bathroom, and a variety of things in the middle – always centered around sustainability and growth, mission, people (employees and people served), crisis management, and more.
VisionServe Alliance’s members are a nationwide network of nonprofit organizations serving people who are blind or visually impaired. My job as VisionServe Alliance’s leader is to focus on developing and supporting the leaders of those organizations because we believe strongly here at VisionServe Alliance, that great leaders equate to great services to people who are blind or visually impaired. In thinking about all of this, I decided to try again to find that article in Harvard Business Review. I didn’t find it, but I did find a 2007 article in The Nonprofit Quarterly written by Jean Lobell and Paul Connolly entitled, “Peak Performance: Nonprofit Leaders Rate Highest in 360-Degree Reviews” describing a 360-degree study of for-profit and nonprofit leaders conducted by Community Resource Exchange, a nonprofit social-change consulting firm, and Performance Programs, Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in leadership and organizational assessment. The study included 85 questions that measured 12 core leadership skills, allowing judgment of a leader’s impact, power, and influence.
Here is what they found: Nonprofit leaders outscored for-profit leaders in 14 out of 17 dimensions of leadership practices, including (for example) teaming/empowering, perseverance, trustworthiness, persuasiveness, openness to feedback. For-profit leaders outscored nonprofit leaders in skills related to pushing for results/applying pressure, achieving results quickly, and coping with stress.
I did not need a research report to tell me about the remarkably complex role nonprofit leaders inhabit daily, especially with substantial (and typical) resource and staffing constraints. As many VisionServe Alliance members contemplate retirement, and if indeed there is a leadership deficit in the general nonprofit arena, then it may be incumbent upon us to invest more deeply in leadership development within our own ranks, than in recruiting from the for-profit world. This is why VisionServe Alliance’s focus on leadership development, training, and networking is highly regarded and respected.