Everything Starts With Leadership

Tue, January 19, 2016 5:33 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

By Norman Olshansky: President

NFP Consulting Resources, Inc.

I’ve often been asked, “what is the most important ingredient that makes for a successful nonprofit”?   I have a simple answer,  “everything starts with leadership”.

Nonprofit organizations are typically created by an individual or group of founders who have a passion for a cause and who want to “make a difference”.   It is usually a long and bumpy road from initial concept to operational implementation and sustainability.  How well a new organization is able to navigate the normal stages of development depends on the quality of its leaders both volunteer and paid.

Organizations go through stages just as individuals go through stages of growth and maturity.  The Founder of an organization is typically a passionate and driven person.  He/she has a strong commitment to an idea or vision for what they want to accomplish and they feel a responsibility and ownership for the development of the organization.  Without these driven and passionate “founders” most nonprofits would not be in existence today and able to provide important services and benefits in our communities.

However, in order for an organization to be sustainable long term and to grow, it must adapt to the various stages of organization development and change.  What may seem like normal processes can be challenging for some organizations.  Some examples of change and challenge are:

  1. How an organization adapts from being all volunteer led to having staff.  
  2. When a new organization moves from operating out of someone’s home to a building or office space.  
  3. How existing leaders handle the loss or addition of volunteers or board members 
  4. The need to use/obtain technology and be able to communicate with large numbers of people
  5. Other factors such as fundraising needs, legal and compliance issues, competition, relocation, relationships with funders, or rapid growth/decline in the number of people seeking services, can all pose major challenges for organizations throughout their development. 

The quality of volunteer and staff leadership determines how well these and other issues are handled. 

True leaders share similar characteristics.  They are enthusiastic, positive, committed, lead by example, are driven and demonstrate a passion for the mission of their organization.  They engage and involve others. They are able to work with teams.   They are good listeners and consensus builders.  They are engaging and decisive.  A good leader is a reasoned risk taker and is constantly looking to the future.  Often neglected but very important, a good leader develops others to carry on their work and eventually transitions out of leadership in order to sustain the organization long term.

Too often passion can interfere with good leadership.  I’ve never met anyone involved with nonprofits who had bad intentions.  However, the way some “leaders” handle issues and relationships can become problematic as a result of their strong feelings of what they think is best for the organization.  No one person “owns” a nonprofit.  By their very nature and legal status, nonprofits are the responsibility of a board of directors.  When a board relegates its authority to the “founder” or largest donor, or even to a staff person, problems eventually follow.   Each entity is important and has an essential role to play as leaders within a nonprofit.  However, leadership is not absolute.

Often “Founders” have difficulty with transition.  After all…’s their baby and it’s hard to accept when a child is growing up and no longer wants or needs to be completely dependent on their parent.  However, good parents work hard to help their children become independent and at the same time maintain a strong relationship with each other.  Good leaders are able to make that transition.

So what if you are lacking good leaders in your organization?  Does the culture of your organization encourage good leadership qualities?  Have you thought about what you can do (with others) to change the culture or your organization and help existing leaders to better appreciate, understand and implement their roles and responsibilities?   Do you have a good system of recruitment of leadership, orientation, training, mentoring, recognition, term limits, etc?    Do you have an active governance committee that reviews performance of leaders and makes recommendations on ways to improve leadership?  How effective is your succession planning?  Do you have good role models and examples of best leadership practices within your organization?  Is leadership development built-in as part of your overall strategic planning?

There are ways to change organizational culture and develop quality leaders.  What are you doing to improve leadership within your organization?   In the end as in the beginning, ……it all starts with leadership.


You can see Norman Olshansky in person at the 2016 DSAIA Leadership Conference in Charlotte, NC, March 3-6. Check out the full schedule here

To read more of Norman's insights, visit his blog at:

I want to tell you what WONDERFUL time I had at the conference. I learned so much and came away with lots of ideas for our organization. -Barb Waddle, The Upside of Downs of Northeast Ohio


Down Syndrome Affiliates in Action started as a conference bringing together outstanding leadership from Down syndrome organizations around the country. Learn More

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