by Bevan Graybill Professional Development Chair photos courtesy of YNPN National
Every year, a chapter of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network hosts the National Conference. This summer, YNPN Twin Cities hosted the 3-day event, and I represented YNPN of OKC in Minneapolis. It was an amazing opportunity to meet other YNPN chapter leaders, learn what other chapters are doing, and explore a new city.
I also got to try my hand at teaching during the 2014 National Conference. With the encouragement and support of the other board members, I submitted a proposal to lead the workshop “To Be or Not to Be…a 501(c)(3)?” A YNPN Grand Rapids board member (and fellow attorney) and I ended up collaborating.
Kristin wrote this post initially for the national YNPN blog; it first appeared here.
I’m sitting in a breakout session on leadership at a nonprofit conference. The speaker asks, “Can someone tell me about their experience as a leader?”
Immediately, my hands get clammy, beads of sweat bubble around my hairline, and I am genuinely considering whether anyone will notice if I crawl under the table. As I glance at the raised hand of my neighbor, I am certain she is getting ready to share her experience founding a nonprofit that single-handedly raised adult literacy rates, ended childhood obesity, fed the hungry, and sheltered the homeless all at the advanced age of nine. I have only two thoughts: I am not a leader, and I hate this question.
Paul Schmitz in Oklahoma City. Photo from the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits.
This describes my experience at nearly every leadership workshop until last week when the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits brought in Paul Schmitz to lead a workshop based on his book, Everyone Leads. Paul suggested a definition of leadership that I had never considered before. In fact, his definition defies the very laws of grammar. According to Paul, the word “leader” is a verb, not a noun. Leadership is an action someone takes, not a position someone holds.
When asked to consider my personal experiences as a leader in the past, my internal response has been, “I’m only 25. I’m not a CEO. I definitely don’t have a list of awards on my resume. Maybe I’ll be a leader in 15 or 20 years after I’ve accomplished more.” But if a leader is defined by his or her individual strengths, talents, and values rather than titles or lists of accomplishments, how does that change the way I view my leadership abilities?
First, Paul’s definition of leadership helped me identify the ways I have stepped up as a leader in my organization. My Director has a visionary leadership style. She is innovative and likes taking risks. I fall somewhere between the analyst and mobilizer leadership styles. I am excellent at developing program timelines, summarizing complex group discussions, communicating persuasively, and creating accountability for my department.
I may not be the Director, but I also recognize that “Director” and “Leader” are not synonyms. I may not be generating innovative program ideas, but I also recognize that visionary leadership is not the only kind. If it were, our programs would rarely develop beyond the initial spark and enthusiasm. Every action I take is an opportunity to step up as a leader, apply my unique skills and strengths, and contribute to the progress and success of my organization’s programs.
Second, if leadership is defined by individual strengths, talents, and values, then it is a fluid definition. I expect my strengths, talents, and values to grow as I do. If I have a hard time defining who I am as a leader at 25, that’s perfectly okay. I’m still developing that definition. Paul encouraged this when he discussed the leadership value of continuous learning.
During the workshop, he asked everyone to write down three things they suck at. Here are mine: being on time, taking big risks, and letting go of control. There is power in identifying our challenges, mistakes, and shortfalls; it keeps us from growing stagnant. Part of my position with the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits involves training nonprofit boards on good governance practices. The first time I trained, I was paralyzed with fear that someone would ask a question, and I wouldn’t have the answer. Everyone would realize I’m a fraud. Now, I see that the best answer is often, “I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.” Every time I don’t have an answer, it forces me to grow and improve.
Finally, Paul’s definition says that leaders are defined by a certain set of values. Leaders hold themselves accountable to these values and expect others to hold them accountable as well. Paul outlines five values that his organization, Public Allies, identifies as necessary for positive and lasting community change. But at the end of his workshop, he invited us to name our own values. I thought back to a prompt Paul used at the beginning of the day: think about a time when someone believed in you, opened a door, or created opportunity for you.
This past January, I was invited to help facilitate a retreat for ten Executive Directors in a rural community in Oklahoma. A few days before the retreat, the primary facilitator asked if I would lead a thirty minute educational component on a topic of my choice. I was shocked she thought I had anything of value to share with a group of far more experience leaders and that she trusted me to develop the topic on my own. She valued my voice. She forced me outside my comfort zone. She was confident in my abilities even when I still needed some convincing. This is how I want to lead others.
What kind of leader do I want to be? A leader that understands that the most effective organizations utilize the leadership of many. A leader that seeks constant growth and improvement. And a leader that recognizes and develops leadership potential in others.
When I started my nonprofit career almost two years ago, one of the questions I often asked my mentor was, “How do I get an entry-level job when even those positions require experience that I don’t have yet?” It seemed impossible to develop skills unique to nonprofits (ahem, fundraising) without being given the opportunity to actually work for a nonprofit.
Her answer to my dilemma? Serve on a board.
Serving on a board is a great way to gain experience. At YNPN’s “Get Hired” event, nonprofit hiring managers told participants that experience doesn’t always have to come from a paid position; it can come from volunteering or board service. Since most volunteer opportunities are with a nonprofit’s programs, sitting on a Board of Directors is an especially great option if you want a position in a more operational area like resource development or communications.
But board service isn’t something you do just to boost your resume. Board members have legal and financial responsibilities to the organization, and it’s important you have a good understanding of what this means before you accept a board position. Here are some things to keep in mind as you’re considering board service.
Be realistic with yourself. Overcommitting or stretching yourself too thin isn’t fair to you or the organizations you’re serving. Remember that quality of service is more important than quantity. Starting out, I would recommend no more than two boards and only one leadership position at a time.
Do your homework. Before you join a board, learn about the organization. Talk to another board member or some of the staff. Ask if they have a board member job description or commitment form so you understand the expectations set for you.
Find an organization whose mission you believe in. There are over 18,000 nonprofits in Oklahoma and plenty of opportunities to share your time and talent. Find one you really care about—it will be so much more rewarding.
You actually have to show up to board meetings. The Board of Directors needs you there in order to vote. If you know the board meets on Thursday evenings and you have a regular conflict, don’t join that board!
Remember that you are the “face” of the organization. Inside and outside of the board room. Be prepared to talk about the amazing work your organization is doing to friends, family, and colleagues.
Consider your ability to give financially. Board members should give of their time, talent, and treasure. It doesn’t have to be a large amount, but you should be prepared to donate to the organization. If you’re wondering why this part is so important, ask yourself this, “If an organization’s board members do not believe in the mission and programs enough to donate money, why would anyone else?” And be sure to ask if the organization has a minimum gift requirement so you don’t wind up in an awkward situation later on!
Interested in finding a board? Learn about some options here. Want more training in board service? Check out the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits Training Calendar.