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AFP eWire Skill Builder Printable Version: April 6, 2009

Leadership Skills Demanded By Today’s Economy  

By Derrick Feldmann

As today’s economy places immense pressure on all nonprofits, leaders of these organizations must make tough decisions regarding programs, staffing and budgets, all while ensuring they continue to meet the needs of their communities.

Balancing these forces requires a new kind of leader—one with the ability to anticipate, confront and overcome challenges rather than dodging them. And what does that leader look like? He or she likely will exhibit the following attributes.

Proactivity. Leaders once were praised for their ability to react to difficult situations; today’s leader must “think forward,” analyzing the future and minimizing obstacles that lie ahead. Doing this requires anticipating challenges, cultivating consensus on desired outcomes and developing and implementing processes for reaching goals. These leaders take time every week to scan the environment of the community they serve and develop solutions and/or mechanisms that ensure the organization serves the community even during challenging times. Today, these leaders aren’t waiting to see what happens; they’re out making things happen to the benefit of the organization and the people who rely on it.

Focus. Today’s leaders are besieged by activities and tasks that bear no relevance to the direction of the organization or its impact on the community. A good leader remains focused on developing strategies, executing plans with staff and ensuring that the organization is equipped to develop and vet new ideas, programs or opportunities. Leaders should delegate all other tasks and focus on a “dashboard” that tracks overarching strategies, programs and impact.

Presence. Commanding attention requires a commanding presence. Today’s leaders are dynamic in demeanor, presentation and action. They understand how to captivate an audience, drive an agenda and present in a manner that attracts a following. Furthermore, these individuals are able to understand how their team operates effectively and find avenues for success. But dynamic communication is not enough—a truly dynamic leader not only rallies support but inspires people to jump into action.

Resilience. The challenges of a tough economy, poor participation numbers or financial setbacks don’t deter a strong leader. He or she instead will attack these challenges head-on, develop solutions and drive others to act on them. They avoid placing blame on outside forces; instead, they focus on solutions. And when they suffer the inevitable setbacks, they recover quickly, get back on their feet and push on to the next challenge.

Self-awareness. Today’s leaders understand their limitations and do not take on initiatives and programs outside their own or the organization’s strengths. Instead, they pass opportunities on to other individuals or organizations better suited for them. Furthermore, they are candid with donors (individuals, foundations, corporations) about not accepting gifts for programs outside the scope of the organization. What’s most impressive is that they have those conversations while still maintaining—and often strengthening—their relationships with donors.

Ambition. In order to attract major gifts, you have to think big. Strong leaders create strategies and plans with donors to meet the needs and vision of the organization, and develop a powerful case for support that inspires donors to think beyond the status quo.

Diversity of focus. A lot of organizations have a very singular approach to pursuing support: They make their case by talking about past success. A strong leader offers a multifaceted case for support: discussing the issues, challenges and solutions confronting the organization today and casting a vision for the future. They develop meaningful relationships with individuals that go beyond solicitation meetings. They welcome conversations with foundation supporters and provide meaningful information about the health and vitality of the organization. 

Clarity of vision. When good leaders speak, others walk away with a visual roadmap for where the organization is going, the steps it will take along the way and the resources needed to get there. Leaders are clear with staff and boards about challenges and strategies, and they provide staff and colleagues with a strong sense of the organization’s direction and purpose.

If you’re thinking about hiring a leader, examining the current leadership of your organization, or leading an organization yourself, consider how your candidates, leaders or you measure up to the attributes above.

Leadership today is not about maintaining the status quo or preserving the successes of the past, but rather pushing forward through challenges, finding solutions and inspiring donors and supporters along the way.

In today’s difficult environment, your organization will succeed or fail in large part because of its leadership. Can you afford to have a leader who does not match well with the list above?

Derrick Feldmann is CEO of Achieve, an Indianapolis-based consulting firm serving the needs of small to medium-sized nonprofit organizations through personal consultation and online philanthropic resources. Their white paper on fundraising in a tough economy is available on their website,

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Nonprofit Leaders Containing Costs, Retaining Staff  

Despite the tough economic times, many nonprofit organizations are taking steps to shore up their bottom line without sacrificing their missions—and their leaders are treating layoffs as a last resort, a survey shows.

In a recent survey of nonprofit leaders by the Bridgespan Group, most chief operating officers and chief financial officers said layoffs would prevent their nonprofit from serving their constituents—who face even greater need due to the recession.

An article on managing in the tough economy explores the cost-cutting methods being used by nonprofit leaders to shore up their bottom line without sacrificing their missions. The findings are listed briefly below. (This article is available as a link from the electronic version of this story.)

  • Redeploy staff and volunteers: Instead of terminations, some organizations are redeploying employees to other key roles – especially fundraising.
  • Consolidate operations: Longer-term planning can help organizations determine where and how to invest their resources within the organization. Citizen Schools, a national network of after-school education programs for middle school students, streamlined its cost structure through a merger of the organization’s Boston and greater Massachusetts regions.
  • Increase communications and transparency: All stakeholders—employees, board members, funders, and even constituents—need to know where the organization stands and what its plans are. Employees also need to know where they stand personally.
  • Cultivate volunteers to take on tasks formerly done by staff: Some organizations use volunteers to perform tasks usually managed by staff, freeing up more resources for direct service. Others are finding great resources in individuals who are between jobs and eager for the opportunity to put their skills to work, even if for a short period of time.
  • Tap the expertise of board members: They can lend specific expertise to organizational challenges; pressure-test assumptions and plans; and help in fundraising. Organizations whose board members have expertise in law, real estate, finance, and marketing are finding opportunities to draw on this expertise in new and meaningful ways.
  • Attract and retain great people: Finding and keeping great team members is no less essential in a difficult economy; in fact, it is imperative to fulfilling the organization’s mission. While emphasizing that retention is their primary goal, some leaders report finding that the caliber of talent now available is very high and that they are cultivating potential staff.

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Free Member Download: Building an Effective Board of Directors

As a benefit and service to help fundraisers through the current challenging economic environment, AFP is pleased to offer all of its Ready Reference volumes FREE to all members. One very helpful volume is titled Building an Effective Board of Directors. Download this and other titles in the Member Gateway of the AFP website (login required). Go to and click on Member Gateway. Log in and click on Member Resources. Hard-copy versions may still be ordered by both members and non-members alike from the AFP Bookstore.

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Latest Giving USA Report to be Unveiled at AFP/Boston College Conference this June

AFP is pleased to announce that Melissa Brown, managing editor of Giving USA, will make the first public presentation on the findings of the annual Giving USA Report  at the upcoming AFP/Boston College seminar on wealth and giving happening June 9 and 10, 2009. Click here to learn more and register for this groundbreaking event!

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Don’t Let Your Networking End With the International Conference: Stay Connected with ammado

AFP’s online community for the AFP International Conference continues at Use the community to communicate with colleagues and keep in touch with new friends you’ve made in New Orleans, check messages and photos, give feedback on the program and more. Join us and continue your own conversations!

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Two AFP Webconferences You Won’t Want to Miss!

*Go online to to register. Go to Education and Career Development and click on AFP Web/Audioconferences.

Fun, Entertaining and the IRS!

Fun and IRS updates don’t usually go hand in hand but Paula Goedert does an amazing job of demystifying IRS regulations while keeping you entertained. Register now for Avoiding the Legal Pitfalls: What Fundraisers Need to Know on April 7 at 1 p.m. EDT.

Major Gift Bloopers!

Save your organization from the most common mistakes in major gifts by learning how to avoid them in a fast paced session with author and veteran fundraiser Julia Walker. Twelve “Deadly” Mistakes of Major Gift Campaigns and How to Avoid Them! April 23 at 1 p.m. EDT.

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