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January 20, 2022
Creative Leadership Is the Secret to Nonprofit Success
By Sue Dahling Sullivan

Many nonprofit leaders agree that innovative thinking and inspired problem solving are indispensable, but often wonder how to achieve that while struggling to balance double bottom lines (mission and financial), leveraging limited resources, and achieving measurable impacts.

Today, the need for creative leadership is greater than ever before. In 2014, the Nonprofit Finance Fund reported that 80% percent of respondents to its State of the Sector survey reported an increase in demand for services, the sixth straight year of increased demand, and that 56% were unable to meet demand from the year before, the highest reported in the survey's history.

While there is no standard definition for creative leadership, there are many creative qualities that nonprofit leaders share with forward-thinking entrepreneurs as well as seasoned business executives:
  • They are visionaries who see a future of possibility and opportunity, demanding innovation.

  • They can adapt often and swiftly, learning from failure and are comfortable with change.

  • They are curious, questioning, and imaginative in their approaches, while also tenacious and resilient in their passionate pursuit of success.

  • At the same time, they are able to lead and inspire others to explore their own creative potential in jointly achieving organizational goals.
Foundational Skills Needed
The Center for 21st Century Skills defines the foundational skills for 21st century success as the following: creativity and innovation; information literacy; collaboration; problem solving; communication; and responsible citizenship.

So how can creativity be cultivated from within? A recent Boston Globe article, "Promoting creativity can increase results," described a team contest across four Deloitte LLP offices in India to develop solutions to a wide range of challenging, real-life problems. The program was so successful in nurturing a creative culture that valued team work, it has now expanded to several university campuses in India.

There are many more examples of both individuals and groups learning how to develop their creativity; take a moment to explore Tom and David Kelley's best-selling book Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Confidence in Us All for even more inspiration.

The good news is that every person has untapped creative potential and that creativity exists in all nonprofits and is just waiting to be nurtured, coached, and cultivated.

Citi Performing Arts Center, for example, has hosted an annual, Oscars-inspired Employee Awards Celebration for the last nine years. Nominations are peer generated and reviewed in five areas recognizing outstanding creative leadership: team, fiscal, innovation, service, and general leadership. Last year's General Leadership winner from the finance team won these accolades from peers throughout the organization: "...She explains things...and wants you to understand what you're doing...she is a great mentor and leader...who is dedicated to her job and wants others to move ahead as well...."

The program works because it recognizes that creative leadership exists in different ways at all levels of the organization.

Sharpen Your Creative Edge
People who see themselves as creative leaders have developed a creative confidence that allows them to act as 'disruptors' while developing new business, programs, services, and solutions to local and global problems that no one has done before. Not sure you are leveraging your creative leadership potential at work? Here are a few areas that can help you imagine a more inspiring future:
  • Experimentation: Do you challenge yourself inside and outside of the office by trying new things? Do you enjoy exploring the unknown and sometimes taking the road less traveled? Do you believe that to be creative you need to act creative?

  • Learning: Do you approach problem solving by drawing upon multiple perspectives and experiences? Do you network with a diverse set of people (from different backgrounds, sectors, experiences) to broaden your thinking?

  • Questioning: How do you define a challenge, unmet need, or opportunity? Does every problem have only one solution? When opportunity knocks, is there only one way to open that door? Do you accept conventional wisdom or probe the assumptions it is based on?

  • Imagination: Can you imagine alternative futures? Is thinking-outside-the-box and brainstorming fun and invigorating? Or do you use the reality of limited resources as a convenient excuse to not imagine the possibilities?

  • Risk Taking: Is change embraced by you and your organization? Are you prepared for failure #147; and resilient enough to keep trying? Are you comfortable with ambiguity, complexity, and quickly changing situations?
Creative leaders like to experiment and learn. They actively seek unconventional approaches. They imagine new and exciting possibilities. And they know that while trying new approaches involves some risk, they also know that trying new things more likely than not leads to new possibilities and greater success.

Sue Dahling Sullivan is chief strategic officer at the Boch Center, a nonprofit that provides arts, entertainment, cultural, and educational experiences. Email her at or call 617-532-1275. This article was adapted from one originally published by The Bridgespan Group.
July 2015
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