5 Attributes of Successful Non-Profit Leaders


1. They have a clear, uncompromising, passionate vision about what their organization is about.

Successful leaders make sure that they are the voice and keeper of the vision.

As Pastor Bill Hybels once stated “Vision leaks.” People who are in the trenches working heroically, fighting injustice, serving the underprivileged and defending the marginalized can become tired and discouraged and forget the overall vision of why they are there and why the organization exists.

When we are tired or discouraged, vision will seep out of us and fear and compromise will creep into us.

THE most important job as a leader is to keep the vision clear and find ways through celebratory stories, inspiring teachings, consistent systems and personal examples to remind people why they are there.

I call this “Creative Redundancy”.

One of the most effective tools for fundraising for non-profits is a clear vision. Resources flow out of  vision.

Successful leaders do this.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” —Proverbs 29:18

2. They leave managing things to others and they focus their time investing in, recruiting and leading people.

People are the most important commodity of any organization and especially a non-profit organization.

This is a fundamental philosophy that every leader must adhere to.

The strength of your people = The effectiveness of your organization.

Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, a WWII hero, observed, “You manage things; you lead people.”

With all the demands of details, tasks and systems, leaders must make sure that the majority of their time is in growing people towards their greatest potential.

Great organizations have great people and great people will give their best and will commit to the long haul not because of pay or perfect systems, but because the vision is clear and because they feel invested in and valued.

3. They are suspicious of success and keep the organization grateful, humble and optimistically dissatisfied.

Short term success has killed more organizations than short term failure. One of the biggest responsibilities of a leader is to help his/her organization navigate success.

Success can make us sloppy with budgets, overestimate our abilities and comfortable with the status quo.

Successful leaders learn how to celebrate wins while reminding people that pending successes are not guaranteed and that humility and gratefulness lead to a sustainable, winning future.

Successful leaders learn to create a sustainable discord where victories are celebrated but the tension of uncompleted goals propel the organization forward.

4. They understand that talk is cheap and clearly defined results are the measure of success.

U.S.C. professor and leadership guru Warren Bennis says it very succinctly, “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.”

Bottom line: If vision isn’t becoming reality, successful leaders take full ownership of the problem and spend sleepless nights trying to figure out how to make effective changes.

Mediocre leaders justify, compromise, pass the blame and learn to live with a lack of urgency  that infects those they are leading.

One of the most important things successful leaders do is they clearly define what organizational success is and then they evaluate their successes accordingly. This takes deep conviction and confidence in themselves to say, “I have failed, I can do better.”

Successful leaders live deeply rooted in reality while striving for and reaching for idealism.

5. They sacrifice ego to empower those they are leading to greatness, thus making the organization stronger and more sustainable.

Successful leaders learn to navigate the difficult transition from top down leadership to servant leadership.

Servant leadership involves making sure people are working in their strengths and passions.

Servant leadership involves helping people grow holistically.

Servant leadership involves allowing others to get credit while remaining quietly in the background.

Servant leadership involves collaboration, humility, inner strength, less fame and a commitment to a greater cause.

When servant leaders retire, their organizations usually transition well because values are deep, vision is clear, and structure is sustainable because it was not built on one person or one personality.

“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” —Jack Welch

“The job of love is to help someone realize their potential.” Bono

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” Max DePree

My Life Verse – A Useful Sacrifice

There are a lot of useless sacrifices in our world.

If my wife was to go out of town for a week, I could perform a lot of meaningless sacrifices for her while she was gone.

When my wife comes home if I tell her, “Honey, I sacrificed a lot for you while you were gone. I didn’t watch sports while you were gone, I didn’t eat my favorite foods while you were gone and I didn’t listen to my favorite music while you were gone. I did all of that for you.”

Her response would be, “Who cares! Those sacrifices don’t mean anything to me. Those sacrifices were useless.”

But if while my wife was gone, I deep cleaned the house, mowed the lawn and finished some house projects that needed to be done (This is all theory by the way), then my wife’s response would be, “Wow! You are an amazing husband. Those sacrifices mean everything to me. Those sacrifices were so useful.”

There are a lot of useless sacrifices in our world.

Even more so, there are a lot of useless sacrifices in the religious world.

My life verse is Isaiah 58 because it reminds me of what a useless sacrifice is and what a useful one is.

The people of Israel were busy going through the religious motions of the day. They were attending church, fasting from food, giving their alms and wearing clothes that showed everyone how spiritual they really were, yet God was not impressed, in fact He told them that all the religious hoops they were jumping through were useless sacrifices.

They were useless, not because going to church or fasting is wrong. They were useless because while they were doing those things they were oppressing workers, fighting and quarreling, forgetting the hungry and homeless and ignoring their own relatives who were in need.

So God reminded them what useful sacrifices look like:

“No, this is the kind of fasting [useful sacrifice] I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
and remove the chains that bind people.
Share your food with the hungry,
and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them,
and do not hide from relatives who need your help.”

Isaiah 58 shows us that useless sacrifices lead to our prayers falling on deaf ears, and God’s blessings seem fleeting.

Isaiah 58 also shows us that useful sacrifices lead to God not only listening to our prayers, but our useful sacrifices lead to healing, protection and answered prayer.

“Then your salvation will come like the dawn,
and your wounds will quickly heal.
Your godliness will lead you forward,
and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind.
Then when you call, the Lord will answer.
‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply.”

Ultimately, our useful sacrifices lead to our lives being a light of hope, our lives being guarded and guided, our strength being renewed and we will be known as people who care and help our communities and families become strong.

“Then your light will shine out from the darkness,
and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.
The Lord will guide you continually,
giving you water when you are dry
and restoring your strength.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like an ever-flowing spring.
Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities.
Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls
and a restorer of homes.”

Mother Teresa’s words challenge us, “Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work.”

These are the useful sacrifices that those of us who say we are followers of Christ should be involved in.

It Is Time To Decide!

One day a hopeless alcoholic named Bill W. makes a choice, “I will not take another drink. If it kills me, I will not.”

He has made a thousand promises before, but this time he decides, “Whatever it costs, I will pay. However I have to rearrange my life, I will rearrange my life. Whatever help I need to get from beyond myself, I will get. I’ve decided.”

That one choice led to the birth of Alcoholics Anonymous and has changed the lives of millions of alcoholics.

Henry Nouwen was at the top of his profession: “Everyone was saying I was doing really well, but something inside me was telling me that my success was putting my soul in danger. I found myself praying poorly, living somewhat isolated from other people, and very much preoccupied with my ego and self-image. I woke up one day with the realization that I was living in a very dark place. In the midst of this I kept praying, ‘Lord, show me where you want me to go and I will follow you, but please be clear and unambiguous about it!’ Well, God was. In the person of Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche communities for mentally handicapped people, God said, ‘Go and live among the poor in spirit, and they will heal you.’ So I moved from Harvard to L’Arche, from the best and brightest, wanting to rule the world, to men and woman who had few or no words and were considered, at best, marginal to the needs of our society. It was a very hard and painful move.”

Nouwen went on to say, “It was hard, but over time I re-discovered my faith, I regained my soul, and I discovered a joy and a peace and a contentment that was no where to be found in my previous “successful” world.”

One of Nouwen’s most motivating quotes was, “When we become aware that we do not have to escape our pains, but that we can mobilize them into a common search for life, those very pains are transformed from expressions of despair into signs of hope”

Choices. They shape us and make us.

One of my heroes in my life is a guy named Dave.

Dave had retired early from a successful career and was living the comfortable, American retirement dream.

Yet God was going to ask him to make a decision.
“Will you live the rest of your life, comfortable and safe, or will you take an adventure of a lifetime, that will be anything but comfortable and safe?”

On a short term mission’s trip to Baja Mexico, Dave encountered a church that was trying to feed children breakfast every morning before they went to school.

The Mexican government had closed down a Tijuana garbage dump, covered it with a couple of feet of dirt, and divided the land into lots, and sold them to the poorest of the poor.

This is where the church existed.

If a child is born there, and lives there his entire life, their life span is somewhere around 35 years.

The toxins are deadly. You cannot grow food there.

This church was trying to feed children with limited resources and a few volunteers.

They needed a leader. They needed someone whose heart was being called by God to make a radical decision.

Dave, who knew very little Spanish, who knew very few people, who knew not how hard this would be, moved to Tijuana and began to lead and build up the breakfast club.

A few years later, 300 plus breakfasts are being served daily, children are being helped to enroll and stay in school, families are connecting to resources and the church, a lunch program has started, medical attention has happened, families are getting their very fragile homes fixed and hope is beginning to flood this toxic valley.

Children now have an advocate and Dave’s plan is to get them educated and move out of these closed garbage dumps and live productive lives.

All of this, while finding out that God loves them and has a plan for their life.

Here is an excerpt from Dave’s latest blog:
Maribel’s Story:

It was a number of months before we ever met Maribel… It was her children Armando and Ariana who first captured our hearts. They would show up at the Breakfast Club and could easily eat several portions each morning.  So we would send some food home with them during the week.

As time went on, we were able to find out where they lived and went to visit. They live in one of the worst sections of the Canyon. In order to get your vehicle there, you have to drive through a cemetery covered in refuse, broken glass and smoldering fires. This is where they burn items in order to get the metal out of it to recycle it for money. This was why the kids were always covered in black soot when we saw them in the mornings.

And this is where we first met Maribel. As I shook her hand, I noticed her arms were completely blacked all the way to her elbows. Her hands felt like broken concrete. Her house had caught fire and burned while preparing a meal. They had made a make shift shelter out of old sheets of plywood with a tarp for a roof and a cloth over the door opening. It was only about 4 foot high, so you had to get on your hands and needs to get in. This was their home….

We invited her to come down to the Breakfast Club each day for her meals and some food to take home as well as some clothes we had at the Church. When she did come to visit, there happened to be a visiting Pastor there who heard the story and took them to the store to get some items and had one of his team members drive up and build them a small house with a real door and window in it.

Slowly, over many months, Maribel came to visit us more often and eventually asked if she could help clean up after the breakfast. She knew that we all went to Church service each Sunday and one week, I felt someone tugging on my shirt sleeve. And there was Maribel, with clean clothes, her hair done and both of the kids in tow.

Today, Maribel is one of our most active Church members. She is one of the cooks for the Breakfast Club, she attends every Church service, she helps with every community outreach project the Church is involved with and helps lead the NA group meetings which are held every night.

C. S. Lewis once said, “The only thing Christianity cannot be is moderately important.”

I was recently flying out of Heathrow Airport in London on a 747 and I have noticed that when a 747 starts to take off, there is a point of no return, a speed threshold at which the pilot is powering up and at that moment the plane either has to take off into the air or face a certain crash on the ground because it’s going too fast to stop.

There are tens of millions of Americans sitting in pews or padded chairs (or in Green Valley’s case, plastic orange chairs) weekend after weekend, hearing sermon after sermon, and they have been sitting on the runway for years.

Some have been revving their engines for years but have never taken flight.

Has there ever come a point in your life where you made a complete, whole hearted, unreserved, without hesitation commitment to your creator and His Son, Jesus Christ, and said, “God, I’m going to decide to live my life the way You want me to live it.”

I don’t know how long you’re going to live. You don’t either. But choose to make it count.

I love what Wes Stafford, President of Compassion International says about his travels: “I go to parts of the world that are hurting and broken and I ‘comfort the afflicted.’ And then I come home and try to ‘afflict the comfortable.’ And I have to try to love them the same way.”

Bill Hybels challenges us with these words, “Life is too short and the world too compassion starved for you and I to keep subsisting in situations that drag us down and curtail our potential to help advance the Kingdom of God. There’s too much at stake. Eternity is at stake!”

Your choices make you and shape you.

It’s Time To Decide!

Read more of Dave and the Breakfast Club at http://breakfastclub.vpweb.com/default.html