Originally published Wednesday, 18 November 2020.
8 Things Every Nonprofit Leader Needs to Know
By: Jennifer Maggio
BCBS Wings Webinar, 1/30/2019
In 1999, I was a young single mom of 2 small children, who resided in the middle of the projects. Although I graduated high school valedictorian and class president, balancing two jobs, parenting alone, and college classes proved to be too much, and so I dropped out of college. I worked in a small furniture store as a bookkeeper, making $9,000 a year. I had no money, very few friends, and even less hope. The next years presented unspeakable challenges of having to make choices, such as fleeing an abusive relationship, choosing to feed my children or myself (since there wasn’t enough food for both), and even contemplating suicide.
Ultimately, my story has a happy ending. I clawed – tooth and nail – up the corporate ladder, where I found great success and even landed a husband. I secured $55 million in accounts for a Fortune 500 company, but I never forgot those lonely, hard moments as a single mom. In 2007, I walked away from corporate America to launch, what is today, The Life of a Single Mom. In 2018, we served 83,000 single mothers across the U.S.
Each one of you has a story. You have something that has compelled you to be involved in the nonprofit sector, but let’s face it. The road can be long and hard, and there are often few thanks. We’re in this thing together. I’m thankful to Blue Cross for their commitment to be part of our journey over the long haul. I want to give you today, eight things that I believe will help you be more successful in your leadership efforts, regardless of whether you are leading a small or large agency and regardless of how long you have been in your role.
Have a clear vision. The team dies when there is no vision. Passion isn’t enough. Hard work isn’t enough. You must know where you are headed and what you are trying to accomplish. This central truth is important for fundraising, growth of the agency, and more. You must be able to explain what you do and where you are headed in 3 sentences, for anyone to understand. Your staff should be able to do the same thing. I have sat through far too many presentations to count or luncheons, where I have no idea what an agency does. You cannot simply say, “We help single moms.” How? In what way? How does success look? I recently had a call with a nonprofit leader in Michigan who was very passionate about single mothers. She had solicited my assistance, and I was attempting to coach her. I asked her three different times in three different ways, “What do you guys do?” To this day, I have no idea what she does. She was so busy conveying her passion, that she failed to deliver the vision. Is your vision clear? Would your staff say that it is?
Build relationships. Build them with clients, donors, and strategic partners. Clients are not merely numbers you are trying to achieve to get more dollars. Clients are lives whose well-being often depends on your involvement. They cannot be just another number. Your donors cannot be just another wallet. Build relationships with no immediate agenda. Build them in a way that simply makes your life and theirs more meaningful. If everything is always a rat race to get to the top, serve more customers, raise more money, then you have lost the point and very likely lost the focus necessary to grow. Build relationships in a way that is mutually beneficial for all parties. Always considered the “WIIFM” for someone else – what’s in it for me? You need to know why someone would want to be in relationship with you.
Know for what you need money. It can’t be “to serve more people” or “to help more cancer patients.” It has to be specific. We need $10,000 to serve 228 meals to ailing cancer patients and their families. We need $40,000 to hire a new Funds Development manager who will increase our annual revenue by 20%. You also need to have a “Financial Needs” binder, folder, or list of some sort. I have a folder in my office right now that says, “Someday.” It has all types of equipment I’d like to buy, office space I’d like to get, employees I could utilize, clubs I’d like to join for our organization. In other words, if someone approaches me tomorrow and says, I’d like to give you $1 million, what would you do with it, I would already know. So should you.
Surround yourself with people who have different skillsets – whether paid or volunteer. Expansion of staff costs money, and sometimes hiring a new staff member isn’t possible, and so committees, volunteers, board members, and even clients can be a value to you for an array of services. For example, maybe you need program development, fundraising help, event planning expertise, social media services, or a legal team, those things can be achieved with volunteers. You need to have people who know way more about Facebook than you do, who can design a way nicer flyer than you can, who have skills you don’t have. And then EMPOWER them to use them. Don’t’ have your hand in every detail.
Evaluate what isn’t working. You may have too many staff in one area. You may have a program than you have run for five years that is no longer working. You may have a board member that needs to be removed, an employee that needs to be fired, or a policy that needs to be changed. It is essential that you do not avoid tough questions with your staff, board, and clients. Survey them. Have meetings with them. Conduct weekly one-on-ones to assess successes/failures. We can’t do things the way they’ve always been done and expect to grow and expand. Discover inefficiencies in your staff that may require addressing. Evaluate the long-term success of programs to ensure success. And make changes.
Find a support system. People have no shortage of advice on what you should and could be doing. From clients to donors to volunteers, everyone has an opinion on how you should run the day-to-day of your operation, whether they tell you or not. The work of serving others can be draining emotionally and physically. You must take care of yourself. You cannot run on empty. I recommend a local church for spiritual care and then a professional group of like-minded leaders, such as the Executive Directors’ roundtable through LANO or Metromorphosis or attending regular Angel events each year. You need to be with people who understand your journey and can sympathize with it and offer advice.
Be steady and consistent. Everyone is looking for overnight success. Growth comes through the steady, faithful, placement of one foot in front of the other. Funders want to know you’ll be around in 10 years. They want to know what to expect, that you’ll steward the dollars well, that you’ll change lives, and that if they call, you are there. Clients want to know what to expect. Employees and volunteers want to know what to expect. Overnight successes have often been plowing the soil for years, planting seeds that are just taking root. Too many nonprofit leaders won’t stay the course when the road gets hard. And here’s the deal. It will get hard. The month before the Angel Awards in 2012, I didn’t have money to pay my employees. They didn’t know it yet, but it got that hard. I have had to lay off staff before. I’ve had to take no salary before. You will endure financial struggles, criticism, and exhaustion. Stay the course.
Grow yourself. You cannot expand regionally or nationally without growing as a leader. Enhance your sales skills, soft skills, public speaking, accounting, and Human Resources. Develop business acumen you don’t normally have. Learn to grow you. Go to retreats. Lay down pride and admit when you are deficient in an area. We all are. When you grow, the company grows.
Websites you need to know about:
Zohocrm.com – customer management
Ancientarbor.com – website services
Guidestar.org – investigating funders and other nonprofits
Jennifer Maggio is an award-winning author and speaker, whose personal journey through homelessness, abuse, and multiple teen pregnancies is leaving audiences around the globe riveted. At 19, Maggio was pregnant for the fourth time, living in government housing on food stamps and welfare. She shares with great openness her pain, mistakes, and journey to find hope in Christ. She ultimately became an 11-time Circle of Excellence winner in Corporate America. While a vocal advocate for abstinence, and sustaining today’s marriages, Maggio recognizes that single parenthood exists and is passionate about seeing these parents thrive. She left her corporate successes behind to launch a global initiative to see single moms living a life of total freedom from financial failures, parenting woes, and emotional issues. Her passion is contagious and her story has been used to inspire thousands around the globe. Today, Jennifer works to ensure that no single mom walks alone as the founder of the national profit, The Life of a Single Mom. For more information and resources, visit the website HERE.