Lessons From The Field: What’s Working For Small Nonprofits In Leadership & Growth in 2023- Purpose & Mindset


This is the 3rd and final episode in my new year’s series on setting intentions to help you lead and grow your nonprofit in the new year. 

First, a little recap on the difference between an intention and a goal: Goals are important – we spend a lot of time talking about the outcomes we want to achieve. Your intentions are about the how — an intention is a commitment to a process. 

You operationalize an intention by asking questions like – what would it look like to work towards this goal if I centered X, Y, or Z.

The first two intentions that I talked about were adopting a relationship orientation, and asking yourself what it would look like to carry out your programs and run your operations if you applied a lens of network expansion — where can you better structure and leverage the people in your network? Where can you explore new people to bring into your network to build your organization’s capacity? 

The second we talked about was leverage — how can you carry out your work in a way that allows you to spend your time on high-leverage activities – activities that most directly drive revenue and impact. Activities like relationship building, network expansion, thought leadership, and strategic visioning and planning. 

Today I’m going to talk about two final intentions: Let form follow function and start with your mindset first.

So first, let form follow function. 

What do I mean by this? 

So often – way too often – I find myself in conversations about boards and staff, especially with leaders who are stressed because they can’t figure out how to make their board work the “right” way. Or they’ve been told to hire a director of development if they have any hope of fundraising and they can’t figure out how to afford it, or what they’ll do with the other critical work that won’t be covered because they’re hiring the development person before the ops person – for example. 

These are examples of putting form before function – of getting super caught up in the way something – like your board or your org chart – is supposed to be structured rather than asking: what do we need to accomplish? What is the function of this team or of this role? And then building the right structure to be in service of that end goal. 

As you make your way through the year, this intention is like air — let it breathe into everything you do. 

Are we starting with some preconceived idea of what a board is supposed to look like? What my leadership is supposed to look like? What my team is supposed to look like? 

Or, are we starting with this question: why do we have this board? What do we want this constellation of people and stakeholders to do in service of our mission? What is their purpose? Ok, now what does that mean in terms of what the board should look like? Do we even need committees? Not if that way of working together doesn’t serve our end goals — doesn’t follow the function of this group. 

Do we need a communications person on our team? Not if our strategic goals for the next year are about policy advocacy and community building. Maybe our next hire needs to be a community manager or advocacy coordinator. Even if you don’t know a single other organization that would structure its org chart that way, maybe that’s what’s best for your organization. 

Boards are where this most frequently comes up for folks. I have a great conversation about this in my episode about liberatory governance

I’ve also created a great free cheatsheet for you that highlights the key metrics that underscore everything for your board — what are the metrics of a good board, irrespective of the form. How do you know your board is functioning in a healthy way? 

So the last intention that I want to highlight is a quick one – that’s why I’m folding it into this episode. But it’s a biggie. 

Here you go: Master your mindset.

The mindset that we bring to our leadership will determine the effectiveness of our strategic growth. It lays the foundation for everything else – how expansive we are in our thinking, who we choose to bring into our vision, how we talk about our vision, and how we set up the infrastructure for fundraising for our vision 

We pay lip service to the mindset piece, but don’t acknowledge how crucial it is to grapple with the assumptions, beliefs, insecurities, and thought traps that can keep us from taking our organizations to the next level.  

I call these mindset gremlins. They lurk and they’re real. 

They show up as playing small… not taking risks… filling our calendars with low-leverage activities, like writing newsletters, posting on social media… procrastiplanning or procrastilearning…  not delegating to our team… not pushing through whatever our growth edge and letting go of old habits and practices so that we can grow because our current habits and ways of doing things are familiar. 

But we do not achieve the incredible impact we know our organizations are capable of if we stay here.  

So my last recommended intention: Be as intentional about your mindset work as you are about your fundraising, management, board engagement, etc.


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