The single greatest contributor to employee disengagement in an organization is the impact of poor leadership.
According to Gallup Organization’s State of American Workforce study, as much as 32% of an organization’s regrettable turnover can be directly attributed to poor leadership. That is a pre-COVID pandemic statistic, and I’d be willing to bet the number has increased since the onset of the pandemic.
When I wrote 101 Biggest Mistakes Nonprofits Make and How You Can Avoid Them, I trekked across the country to meet with 75+ nonprofit leaders who believed they had “a fundraising problem”. What I discovered is that there was no national shortage of cash to support worthy causes. There was no shortage of critical programs that needed funding. However, I also discovered that fundraising results are often a lagging indicator of the quality of an organization’s leadership.
This realization led me to think about the biggest leadership mistakes we make in the nonprofit sector and how those can profoundly impact our people and our mission. In this article, I’ll distill the top 10 mistakes we as leaders make, and how those derail our mission's impact.
1. Allowing Toxic Behaviors
Toxic behavior in an organization is like cancer. If left untreated, it grows and permeates your entire organization and destroys the cultural fabric of your nonprofit. Unfortunately, too many leaders allow toxic behaviors because they either want to avoid confrontation or because the person displaying those behaviors is also a high performer.
When a leader doesn’t address toxic behaviors (i.e., cruel or abusive behaviors, gossip, lying and manipulation, blaming others, stubbornness, holding grudges, and attacking people instead of challenging ideas), it communicates that those behaviors are acceptable. They become normalized. This sets a new and unfortunate standard for behavior across the organization.
2. Embracing Mediocrity
What you allow is what your organization becomes. What I mean by this is, that you can’t embrace mediocrity and expect that it will somehow evolve into excellence.
No one will ever be perfect. Perfect shouldn’t be the goal. Striving toward excellence, however, is a worthy objective. But when you accept behaviors that are less than this, and when you accept minimal effort so as not to rock the boat and cause friction in your organization, you’re setting a new standard. This turns into a culture where minimum effort is the norm, and as a result, you never achieve anything of significance.
3. Accepting a Scarcity Mindset
How many times have you said or heard the phrase, “We just can’t afford that”? Maybe you’ve said it in response to a staff member asking for professional coaching or training. Maybe it’s been your reply when someone tells you just how difficult it is to use your outdated CRM system. Or maybe your people are begging for another staff member to help take some of the load off them, only to be met with a response like this.
Budget constraints are real. I get that. But a scarcity mindset doesn’t have to be. Instead of starting off every response to a request from your team with why you can’t afford it, imagine how impactful it would be if you challenged your team to help you figure out how you could afford those investments!
You’ll be shocked at how creative your team can be. And it will focus all of you on what is possible instead of what’s not possible. That positivity focus alone will yield huge positive returns for your organization!
4. Not Putting Your Oxygen Mask on Before Helping Others
As leaders, we often think that in order for our people to thrive, we have to suffer. If we go without, it will somehow make it easier for our people to succeed. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
One of the biggest areas I see this play out negatively is when leaders stop caring for themselves because they’re too focused on caring for their people. Unfortunately, when we as leaders don’t care for ourselves, it depletes us emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually. When that happens, we become nearly worthless to our people.
That’s why I like to follow the guidance we all hear when we board an airplane. Leaders should put their own oxygen masks on before helping others because the alternative won’t help anyone.
5. Promoting for the Wrong Reasons
Have you ever met someone who was promoted into leadership because they were great at their job as an individual contributor? A masterful frontline fundraiser is promoted to lead an organization’s fundraising operation. She’s promoted because she’s doing great work. And because promotion is the only way you can increase her compensation in order to retain her. The problem arises when we don’t understand whether she has the qualities and traits necessary to be successful as a leader.
Although well-intentioned, this kind of promotion strategy elevates people who aren't prepared or qualified to lead. It's further compounded because most organizations lack structured new leader training, coaching, and ongoing support mechanisms. That means you’ve taken a great individual contributor, put her in a role she’s not yet qualified/equipped for, and then set her out on an island to figure it all out by herself. You shouldn’t be surprised when she and others on the team leave.
6. Setting Unrealistic Expectations
One of the major reasons turnover is so high, particularly in smaller nonprofits, is the unreal expectations that leaders put on staff. I often hear statements from leaders like, “Sarah has been here a year, and she still hasn’t raised $1 million,” or “We expected Keith would bring key relationships from across the community with him, but they haven’t materialized.”
However, these aren’t the only types of unrealistic expectations that harm our people. If you send an email late on a Friday night and expect a response over the weekend, that’s a problem. If your organization hosts events and you expect your staff to work the event AND pay to attend, that’s a problem. If you expect your staff to execute your vision but never have a voice in how it gets carried out, that’s a problem.
These types of unreal expectations drive great people out of organizations every single day.
7. Abdicating Your Power to Influence Your People
When someone isn’t performing as we think they should be, it’s easy to write them off. "They suck." "They’re not qualified." "We shouldn’t have hired them." Those might be accurate statements, but they probably aren’t. When someone isn’t performing up to expectations, there are four likely reasons. Three of them are the responsibility of the leader, not the employee.
- They don’t know the expectation (because you haven’t told them yet).
- They don’t know how to deliver on the expectation (because you haven’t shown them yet).
- There’s something keeping them from delivering on the expectation (because there’s a roadblock – a process, a competing expectation, a rule, or even a person – keeping them from achieving your goal. You as the leader, need to remove it before they can advance).
- They don’t agree with the expectation (this one is on them, not you).
8. Not Realizing You are The Problem
Sometimes you’re the problem. You probably don’t want to hear that. I know I don’t want to hear it in my own leadership. However, sometimes it’s true. Great leaders are those who can look clearly into the mirror, assess their own flaws and weaknesses, and have the emotional strength to own their mistakes and flaws. If you can’t do this, there will soon be a day when others choose not to follow you.
9. Chasing Shiny Objects
“What’s OUR ice bucket challenge?” “How do WE go viral?” “Do we have a Snap Chat strategy?”
It’s easy to get distracted by shiny objects. Everyone is talking about what is new and different, and our brain’s pleasure center is wired to gravitate to things that are different. We get excitement – a chemical high – from experiencing new things.
As leaders, our job is to assess new ideas and opportunities. We must distinguish the ones that truly can add value to our organization from those that will waste our resources and keep us from achieving our mission's impact.
10. Avoiding Philanthropy
“I don’t ask for money. That’s why I have a development department.”
This is a statement I hear all the time. It’s unfortunately a terrible approach for unfortunately a terrible approach for leaders. Not everyone loves fundraising as some do. But leaders who disengage from the philanthropic process in their organization do actual damage to their people and their revenue.
As the leader, you don’t have to make the asks. You do, however, need to be deeply involved in setting the philanthropic vision, empowering the team, and building authentic relationships with donors. In doing this, donors are invested emotionally in your cause before your team asks them to invest financially.