Master Jugglers

I realize that every leader has to juggle multiple priorities. Nonprofit leaders, however, need a level of mastery in juggling that is unique and often goes unrecognized. As I shared last week, I recently conducted a national research study on “Aspects of Strategic Leadership Unique to Nonprofit Organizations.” Five clear areas emerged as being unique to leading a nonprofit organization and this week, I would like to explore one of them: The mission/margin tension of multiple bottom lines.

Nonprofit organizations exist to pursue a charitable mission. And yet the fact remains, no money no mission. If you can’t keep the doors open, you can’t serve anyone. The tension between money and mission, however, means that nonprofit leaders are likely juggling ten balls, rather than the three or four often found in the for-profit sector. For example, it may take a combination of grants, charitable gifts and program revenue to cover the cost of a single program or service offered by the nonprofit, and each of those sources of funding may have different expectations regarding what they will and will not fund. You would never presume to tell a shoe manufacturer what they can do with the money you spend on their product, and yet nonprofit leaders frequently have to respond to funder stipulations on how they can spend the dollars they receive. And so the nonprofit leader adds a couple more balls to the mix – along with a strong business acumen — to keep things moving forward.

Beyond the business side of the equation, nonprofit leaders also have to bring a host of people along with them — board members, donors, community members, and other stakeholders — as they work to fulfill the mission. These well-intentioned individuals have a variety of wants, desires and expectations, and the nonprofit leader is charged with aligning them around a common set of goals and expectations. What’s more, the metrics demonstrating accomplishment of the mission aren’t as “clean” or easily identifiable as business metrics. What one stakeholder identified as “success” may be quite different than another, making the mission juggling act ever more nuanced and complicated.

The “mission balls” and the “money balls” can look and feel different, and most leaders are more skilled with one than the other. Yet, the nonprofit leader who only tends the mission side, or only the money aspect of the role, risks dropping glass balls that play a critical role in the organization’s success. That tension — keeping different and sometimes seemingly opposed variables in play — never goes away for the nonprofit leader.

You may not be a nonprofit leader, but your life is undoubtedly impacted by one or more nonprofit organizations in your community. Too often, individuals view the success of such an organization through a single lens, either money or mission, and fail to see the complex set of moving parts and the skill required to keep them all in motion for the greater good.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the juggling acts nonprofit leaders carry out in pursuit of their missions.

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