The Four Pillars of Successful Nonprofit Leadership: Relationships

The Four Pillars of Successful Nonprofit Leadership: Relationships

Superbowl LII will go down in history as the feel-good game of the season. Why? Because the Philadelphia Eagles—the Underdogs in the game—worked together to beat five-time Superbowl champions the New England Patriots. How could this team, who had never won a Superbowl before, manage to pull off beating Tom Brady? In the words of Eagles’ coach Doug Pederson, “An individual can make a difference, but a team makes a miracle.”

Relationships are an integral part of achieving success, be it on the field or in the executive coaching. In my book, A Guide to Achieving New Heights: The Four Pillars of Successful Nonprofit Leadership, I introduce relationships as not just a pillar but the first pillar. Relationships are the foundation for great organizations—and if you want to avoid any cracks in that foundation, follow these five steps:

Make Sure Your Employees Know Their Worth

You know that senior management is important, but do they? You know that the daily grunt work would not be completed without the interns, but do they? You enter into a clean office every morning, make coffee in your office kitchen filled with clean mugs and freshly-stocked K Cups, but does your custodian know how grateful you are to do so? Just because you see how everyone’s job is woven into the Big Picture does not mean your employees do—articulate your gratitude and put each employees’ role in perspective; this will empower employees to do the hard work your nonprofit needs.

Listen Up

Having a higher up listen to your concerns or ideas speaks volumes in an organization and sets the tone for the rest of the employees. Employees should feel comfortable engaging in dialogue with CEO’s and other higher ups, and listening to your employees will enable them to be comfortable enough to speak their minds. Remember—your employees are on the front lines, interacting with customers and outside vendors, giving them a valuable perspective. Conducting meetings to listen to (that means hearing and understanding) the thoughts off all levels of your employees strengthens your relationships and your nonprofit organization.

Promises, Promises

Trust and credibility are necessary for successful relationships.  One way to earn them is to keep your word: follow through on your commitments and promises. It almost seems too simple, but it’s an integral part of maintaining relationships.

But real life is not a textbook—and sometimes things come out of the blue that make us unable to hold up our end of the bargain. When this happens, honesty will help you retain your integrity. Your employees, stakeholders, and partners deserve to be informed on changes that had to be made to previous agreements. So, make sure you handle promises with care and be up front with your business practices.

Put a Face to the Name

Utilizing emails, texts, and other forms of technology to communicate is an efficient way to get work done. However, an effective leader is also a physically present leader from time to time. Go to the frontlines of your organization—the fundraising walks, the after school program, even the ER—and remind yourself why you’re there. Being physically present also allows employees to put a face to the title “CEO”, creating those necessary connections to motivate employees.

Be Fair and Flexible

Part of building strong relationships is trusting your employees, and that may involve supporting your employees as they take on new responsibilities in your organization. Employee development is great, but it is not without flaws. Mistakes will be made, and you have to be prepared to handle them with fairness and flexibility. Don’t let your initial response be one of anger, but rather think of how you can help the employee improve. Investing in your employees’ growth will benefit your organization, and handling mistakes with compassion will empower your employees to do better in the future.

You can find further details on these tips and more in my book A Guide to Achieving New Heights: The Four Pillars of Successful Nonprofit Leadership.


DCM Associates specializes in executive search projects representing a wide variety of industries for national, regional, or local nonprofit organizations, including independent and higher education, healthcare, and community building and social impact organizations. Learn more about DCM Associates today and contact us with any questions you may have when building successful relationships within your nonprofit organization.