The Journal Gazette
Sunday, August 29, 2021 1:00 am

Nonprofit guru advises: Lead with intention

LISA GREEN | The Journal Gazette

Nonprofit leaders tend to be fierce, passionate, creative, empathetic and fixers who love problem-solving.

They have superhero attributes, said Joan Garry, an author, strategic adviser and co-founder of The Nonprofit Leadership Lab.

But these leaders also tend to have control issues and be people pleasers. They will do “whatever it takes,” even though that approach is not sustainable, Garry said during a webinar last week.

Doing whatever it takes “is in my mind the single biggest cause of burnout,” Garry said.

Her comments came during a webinar titled “The Five Practices of Outstanding Nonprofit Leaders.”

Laura Zielke, director of member experience for the Leadership Lab, said Garry is “a woman on a mission to lift the entire nonprofit sector,” and what she teaches “really works.”

Garry, who was CEO of the gay rights organization GLAAD, said crises “bring out the adrenaline junkie.” But the past year – with the coronavirus pandemic – has taken a toll on many. Uncertainty, she said, puts people “on the express train to exhaustion.”

Leaders must lead with intention vs. doing whatever it takes, Garry said. Instead of being an exceptional juggler capable of keeping multiple balls in the air, leaders should make intentional decisions about which balls to keep in the air and which ones to drop – or train someone else to juggle.

Having focus and discipline and being nurturing, open and engaged in partnerships are five leadership qualities Garry looks for.

Here are five key practices:

• Saying no. Reframe the dialogue. Donors often feel they know exactly how nonprofits should spend funding dollars. Organization leaders should learn how to take their suggestions and see how they tactically address priorities, and suggest that an unrestricted gift may help both sides fulfill their interests. That approach helps donors see themselves as a strategic partner.

• Embrace creativity. The start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 led some organizations, particularly those serving seniors, to be more creative. Garry referred to one program where the simple answer might have been to shut down. Instead, the organization went virtual, with one instructor leading classes and another devoted to helping participants learn and adjust to online platforms. That approach led to more than 3,000 registered.

“Yes,” Garry said, “seniors on Zoom.”

Leaders can build support for creativity by discussing how risk-averse tendencies may have thwarted their organization's potential in the past.

• Brag, brag, brag. This often falls through the cracks when nonprofit leaders are busy being superheroes, Garry said. It's important to “invite people and ignite people” to learn about the organization's positive work, care and take action.

In tough times, such as the pandemic, people are hungry for good news. Leaders should reframe board service as ambassadorship and help them become first-rate storytellers.

• Keep your posse close. Stewardship has always fallen by the wayside in nonprofits, Garry said, with organizations spending “a lot of time recruiting donors but not enough time nurturing the ones they have. “

Regular check-ins without asking for money help build and strengthen connections, Garry said, and should ultimately create more ambassadors to drive the organization. Building a culture of philanthropy can help leaders avoid burnout.

• Create excitement about the destination. Garry used an analogy about a family taking children on a long ride to Disney World. They might expect some disagreements along the way, creating a distraction and frustration. But the mood can change if they redirect the energy to the fun that awaits by asking what's the first ride the children plan to get on when they arrive at the theme park. The same strategy can be used when organizations want to focus on the vision and not just feeling hampered by current challenges.

“If we can get out of this,” Garry said, “we can bridge to that.”

Applications for LFW available

Applications are available for the Leadership Fort Wayne program's Class of 2022, the organization announced last week.

Entering its 40th year, LFW is described by organizers as a premier program that builds leadership skills and increases community awareness, empowering participants to drive positive change. Applications will be accepted through Oct. 18.

“It's definitely worthwhile,” said Joseph O'Dell, a 2019 program alum. “The connections you make and the things you learn about Fort Wayne make you a better citizen and allow you to work more effectively in and around the community.”

Individuals can apply at Applications must include a letter of recommendation, preferably from an LFW alumnus. For additional information, email or call 260-420-6945.

To share a thought, a favorite quote or other wisdom about leadership, email Lisa Green at Lead On also appears online as a blog at

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