Community first: Leading a non-profit

Community first.  Institution second.  Self third.

In my role, I am frequently asked what makes a good leader of a non-profit organization.  Leading a non-profit is different than a private company.  Your top priority isn’t maximizing profit, it’s maximizing lives.  Your new products aren’t gadgets, they are programs to help people lead healthier and happier lives.

There are many similarities, of course.  United Way Worldwide supports a vast network of 1,800 local United Ways around the world.  Like a business, we offer them initiatives, advocate on their behalf and distribute best practices.  And, as I know from working with our corporate partners, people in all sectors want to strengthen the communities in which we live and work.

But as a leader of a non-profit, I believe you must make decisions based on this order: community first, institution second, self third.  Let me explain.

Communities first. Some of my favorite moments at United Way occurred when I was running the United Way in Columbus, Ohio.  I got to know the city and surrounding area.  I knew which systems, such as education and health, needed the most support.  I knew which groups to work with to make a difference.  This knowledge helped me make smart decisions to benefit our community.  And what I quickly found was that when Columbus benefitted, so did our organization.

Institution second.  Achieving results will take you a long way.  However, you also need to focus on the right priorities to grow your organization. As the President and CEO of United Way Worldwide, I’m always working to position us to be a relevant change-maker for years to come.  In this day and age, when change comes faster than ever, leaders must anticipate what ‘comes next.’  If you don’t have that vision for the future, you’ll be left behind.

Self third.  Put yourself third.  Take professional development courses.  Stretch yourself as a leader.  But remember that your greatest rewards and learning experiences come from community and institutional successes.  You thrive when your organization reaches its goals and empowers people to lead better lives.  I take great pride when I see United Way’s efforts bearing fruit, such as the recent record high school graduation rate.  That feeling and those lessons are your greatest reward.

Through it all, I advise young leaders to be mission-driven and results-oriented, and that the best people to work with are those who are collaborative, kind and adaptable. 

Most of all, I tell them to be ready to say ‘Yes.’  I began my United Way career in 1981 as a management trainee.  I was originally an alternate in the program, but when someone decided they didn’t want to move, United Way asked me if I wanted to leave Indiana for North Carolina.

I thought for a moment, but knew it was what I wanted to do.  I said yes.  Leadership is about being inspirational.  It’s about putting community first.  And sometimes, it’s about being willing to try something new, go somewhere you haven’t been, and say ‘Yes.’