Servant Leadership: What’s Needed from Nonprofit Leaders Now

Arguably this year, organizational leaders faced challenges never before seen. Nonprofit leaders in particular juggled lost fundraising revenue, a transition to remote or semi-remote work, and stale campaign engagement. With all the adaptations nonprofit organizations had to make, this placed an undue amount of stress and anxiety upon staff. Many were left to ponder questions such as:

  • “How can we convert our annual gala responsible for generating 20% of our annual fundraising revenue into a virtual experience?”
  • “How should we adapt our five-year strategic plan based upon our current revenue projections?”

Uncertainty and confusion among staff calls for a certain kind of leader – a servant leader – to support and empower their team from a place of understanding and trust.

What is a servant leader?

Robert Greenleaf developed the term “servant leadership” in 1970 as part of his essay, The Servant as Leader. To paraphrase the founder of the modern servant leadership movement’s definition, “Servant leaders view themselves as servants first and leaders second. Their desire to serve sparks their desire to lead. As servant leaders, they place the needs of those served above their own. Ultimately, a servant leader’s success is realized when those he or she serves become servant leaders themselves.”

Wait, aren’t all nonprofit leaders servant leaders?

Most nonprofit leaders are inherently altruistic. Their position involves shepherding a team of nonprofit professionals toward a mission that lifts up the lives of their constituents. That’s serving, right? Well, it depends. This is when motivation comes into question. Does the nonprofit leader serve from a place of understanding what’s best for their constituents and staff, or are they pulled to support the needs of donors or other funders first? This creates a perplexing dilemma.

Those nonprofit leaders that find a balance between serving the needs of the donor as well as their staff and constituents create a culture of philanthropy in which all individuals they serve prioritize the needs of others.

Servant leadership: why now?

Nonprofit organizations are entering the chaotic end-of-year giving season in the midst of a pandemic, contentious election, and heightened social unrest. Leaders who set aside their personal agendas and focus on the needs of their constituents, staff, and donors provide a renewed sense of trust and hope. With a deepened connection to those served, the servant leader recommits to his or her mission and purpose, fueling the desire for impact and change.

4 actions to take to become a servant leader

1. Listen. 

Step away from your desk and visit the communities your organization serves. Ask the community leaders about their current challenges and how your organization can best support them. Remember to set aside your preconceived ideas.

Likewise, speak with your team. Encourage them to share their challenges and worries and offer support. If they are hesitant to speak freely, share some of your concerns so as to encourage a safe place. Your vulnerability demonstrates your authenticity and trustworthiness.

2. Unite around a common purpose.

The holiday and end-of-year giving season is the perfect time to rally around a particular goal. Meet with your teams and develop a realistic campaign goal (such as dollars raised, constituents served, percentage of new donors acquired). This common goal provides your staff direction and focus during a time that can feel aimless. Remember: you must receive buy-in from the entire team so that all team members feel committed.

3. Communicate often and transparently.

As staff may feel disconnected due to working apart from the rest of their team, it’s important that nonprofit leaders communicate often. Virtual townhalls or office hours provide opportunities to share updates regarding your organization’s current priorities. Share with the team an accurate picture of your progress toward fundraising and programmatic goals. With open, transparent communication, uneasy or uncomfortable feelings regarding forward progress may be assuaged.

4. Empower your teams through shared decision making. 

There is no better way to demonstrate trust within your team than to empower them to make individual and collective decisions. A key component to successful decision making is reliable nonprofit technology. With a purpose-built CRM such as StratusLIVE 365, your team has access to fundraising, marketing, and program data whenever, wherever. This access empowers your team to set realistic goals, coordinate with other departments, and track progress toward these goals with personalized dashboards. A commitment to digital transformation through CRM and donor management technology is a worthwhile investment in your team’s and mission’s success.

Leadership is critical during times of distrust and uncertainty. Those nonprofit leaders who reflect the values of servant leadership provide hope and encouragement to those they serve. This investment within the wellbeing of their teams and constituents will no doubt pay dividends within the years to come.

Posted by Kelly Perry

Kelly Perry is a Digital Marketing Manager, Nonprofit Solutions at StratusLIVE. She has over eight years marketing and communications experience within nonprofit technology and the publishing industries.