August 26, 2012; Source: Crain’s Detroit Business

Characterizing the nonprofit sector as the bedrock foundation for “the structure and stability of the city,” a column by Detroit-based Deloitte LLP Managing Partner Mark Davidoff doesn’t echo the common recommendation that nonprofits should mimic the private sector in order to be most effective. Rather, he argues that a nonprofit’s effectiveness most depends on the quality of its partnerships between professional and volunteer leaders. This intentionally shared leadership model, he notes, is a uniquely nonprofit challenge that’s particularly hard to nurture during times of intense operating environment changes.

Davidoff offers several recommendations for “reinvesting” in the sector by strengthening partnerships between volunteer and professional leaders. While none of these recommendations should surprise experienced nonprofit leaders, it’s worth asking if these focus areas are actually getting sufficient attention:

  • Ensure clarity among the organization’s leaders (both volunteer and professional) with respect to where their respective responsibilities begin and end.
  • Acknowledge that balancing the challenges of “mission vs. margin” is difficult, and that professional and volunteer leaders in a given organization may bring quite different takes on what matters most. Nonprofit leaders should cultivate empathy for each other’s perspectives and a spirit of collaboration. They should also bring a “perspective of stewardship and constant critical thinking” to their decision-making.
  • The volunteer board must commit to regularly evaluating its own transparency, collaborative spirit, and effectiveness. It must also ensure that the chief executive has clear performance goals and fair compensation.
  • Together, nonprofit and professional leaders must be proactive in re-evaluating their organization’s mission as community conditions continue to be in great flux.

Critiques about the quality of leadership skills in the nonprofit sector are common from observers in the private sector who want to see more “business principles” guide our work. That’s why Davidoff’s piece is so refreshing. What do you think about how Davidoff frames the nonprofit leadership challenge? Old news or useful lens? –Kathi Jaworski