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June 25, 2022
Nonprofit Leaders Need to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing
Book Joan Garry HP

It's likely fair to say that the coronavirus pandemic is testing many, if not most, nonprofit leaders like never before, making Joan Garry's Guide to Nonprofit Leadership a timely read, especially its guidance on how to manage in a crisis.

Author Joan Garry, who has consulted with hundreds of nonprofits after stepping down as executive director of GLAAD, understands 501(c)(3) organizations, entities she describes as a "unique beast" and "messy." That's because leading nonprofits—staffed by often underpaid, overworked, but passionate, people and dependent on volunteers and an unpaid board—can be messy.

It's why Garry advocates a shared leadership model between the ED and board chair. Everything that nonprofits do flows from the this key relationship. "And while it is messy," she writes, "this shared leadership model is the key to enabling nonprofits of all sizes to have greater reach and impact."

Above all, it is the job of the executive directors and board to ensure that all the organization's key ambassadors can convey its mission in a compelling, succinct way that tells people what impact it is having on the world. To help, Garry devotes substantial guidance to key attributes of successful EDs and ways that EDs, board chairs, and board members can best work together.

And that sets the stage for responding to crises.

The bottom line: Crises will come to nonprofits whether they are prepared for them or not, as the pandemic has aptly demonstrated. Doing good work will not save well-intentioned leaders from avoiding a crisis at some time in their career. In fact, as Garry argues, the nonprofit sector is disproportionately affected by crises. The reasons include the fact that many organizations advocate for controversial issues, that they need to speak to multiple constituencies which can generate anger from some, and depend all too frequently on a major source of funding that can suddenly dry up.

While the exact nature of a crisis may be hard to define in advance, taking steps to respond to a range of crises is incumbent on all nonprofit leaders, starting with the board holding the staff accountable for developing a crisis management plan. As Garry notes, such a plan "could save your organization's reputation and the sustainability of your work, and it can, literally, save lives."

To build a crisis management plan, Garry suggests:

  • Develop a list of so-called five-alarm fire situations, e.g., a teacher accused of abusing a student, misuse or outright theft of funds.
  • Imagine the worst headline you could see on the front page of The New York Times.
  • Generate a list of assumptions that people outside the organization will make about each situation you listed, along with actions that could pre-empt those assumptions.
  • Outline a process for responding to the crisis, including naming a point person for the media and assigning someone to monitor external opinions and events.

"Even with a plan, you are never really ready," writes Garry. "You are prepared but not really ready."

It's bold leadership, based on clear decision marking, that will guide the organization out of the crisis. Most importantly, according to Garry, "Leadership is not about making people happy – it's about making decisions that are in clear alignment with the mission and values of your organization. And a lack of clarity can ignite a crisis. Or make matters worse."

Whether leaders do the right things to guide their organization in calm times, which prepares them for turbulent times, Garry, quoting Stephen Covey, reiterates again and again, "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing."

Joan Garry's Guide to Nonprofit Leadership is available from Wiley.

Reviewed by Peter Lowy

August 2020

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