Nonprofit Leadership and the Courage of Commitment

The Common Predicament

"Meetings and speeches and decisions — oh my!"

We all have personal reasons for working or serving in the nonprofit sector, and they are not necessarily all altruistic. Perhaps we appreciate the distinctive organizational culture nonprofits tend to have (in comparison to commercial enterprises) or the community connections that we often gain by being associated with a nonprofit.

Yet nearly all of us have joined the nonprofit sector, whether as professionals or volunteers, because, whatever else we might desire from the experience, we also want to make a positive difference. We want to make some contribution to the common good, however defined.

So we get involved. We join a board or we take a new job. Then, either quickly or gradually, we become immersed in the ebb and flow of the organization’s life and we are content that we are “doing a good thing.”

Yet no matter what the organization is or what it does, that contentment is eventually disturbed. One scenario is that we come to a crisis. We need to make a decision (or support one) that will be controversial and incite criticism, even opposition. It is a situation that calls for the courage of boldness.

The other scenario is less dramatic but no less problematic. We become exhausted and start to burn out. The road to progress – to actually having an impact – begins to appear endless, and we wonder if we will ever accomplish anything even close to what we originally set out to do. It is a situation that calls for the courage of perseverance.

The Courage of Boldness

It is often said that leaders are recognized by their ability to do three things consistently well:

  1. lead a meeting
  2. deliver a speech
  3. make a decision

Taking a stand on matters of substance comes with the territory of leadership. It cannot and indeed must not be avoided.

Sometimes it is easy, of course. We take positions which are popular with our constituencies and doing so brings joy to us and to them. At other times, though, it is just the opposite. Responsible stewardship of our institution requires that we make tough decisions which will be unpopular at least and give rise to virulent objection at worst.

This latter scenario could be the fate of many of you as programs are downsized and staffing is reduced and cash reserves are depleted. We are entering a time when boldness will be called for repeatedly.

In such a time as this then, it becomes critically important to accept the sober reality of authentic leadership: In order to reach the farther goal of contributing to the common good, periods of painful steps are unavoidable.

In these periods, equal measures of self-confidence and openness to others is critical to survival. On the one hand, you must not waver once having reached the point of personal conviction. On the other hand, you must not close yourself to the possibility of receiving new information and insight which lead to new conclusions.

Lincoln (who has been much in the press again these days) held this balance of self-confidence and openness extraordinarily well. It was one of the essential factors of his political genius. Thurlow Weed, one of Lincoln’s political associates, said, “His mind is at once philosophical and practical. He sees all who go there, hears all they have to say, talks freely with everybody, reads whatever is written to him; but thinks and acts by himself and for himself.”

We could not have a better example to which to aspire amidst the present economy.

A Final, Personal Reflection

In a second installment, I will focus on the other aspect of courage of commitment, that of perseverance. For now let me close with a personal observation from my twenty-plus years in the nonprofit world.

At its best, every organization holds to a single essential noble purpose. It has been created to teach or to heal or to preserve or to provide.

In any given context, a leader, too, is given a single essential mission, the success of which is critical to the organization’s success. It may be that the leader’s mission is to rebuild. Or it may be to reorganize. In good times, it may be to expand or to professionalize. Whatever it is, the authentic leader will know it… and proceed with determined commitment. And while open to new understanding, he or she will not be swayed by passing storms of criticism. He will do the right thing, thinking and acting by himself and for himself.


In addition to being an Associate Faculty member in the M.A. in Organizational Management Program of Antioch University Los Angeles, Guest Blogger David Norgard is the founder of OD180, a consulting firm that develops strategies for nonprofit organizations. He has also held leadership roles on various nonprofit boards and committees. At present, he serves as the President of Integrity USA, the Episcopal Church’s LGBT advocacy group. A graduate of AULA’s M.A. in Organizational Management program, David currently serves as Chair of AULA’s Alumni & Community Advisory Board. He also holds a B.A. magna cum laude from Augsburg College and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School, where he received a Dean’s Citation for Community Service and an Award of Distinction among Alumni.

OMG – She/He is Leaving! How to Handle Key Staff Departures

by David Norgard

"The board meetings just won't be the same without you..."

First, a story from a friend and colleague, David Cupps…

David Cupps currently serves on two boards of directors. One organization is a national advocacy group; the other is a local musical group. By coincidence, each board was informed of the departure of a key staff member within days of each other.

In the case of the advocacy group, it was the administrator who was leaving after more than a decade of extraordinary service. He had done so much for so long with so little that it was hard to imagine moving forward without him. Likewise with the music group: in that case, it was the artistic director, and music ensembles need their direction.

So what does a board – and executive director – do? What should they do?

Wringing hands in quiet despair and watching the descent into chaos with a piteous gaze is probably not the most helpful response. What David has been learning from these two similar situations, he recounts below:

  1. Remain calm. Your attitude will be contagious for good or ill, so act like you want your members/constituents to act.
  2. Quickly inform other leaders. They will appreciate being on the “inside track,” and you will need their help and solidarity.
  3. Make a plan and let people know. People will be glad to know you are doing something about the situation and will feel relieved. This is a good idea even if your plans change later!
  4. Communicate – even to the point of over-communicating. People begin to panic if they do not know what is happening. Do not worry about repeating yourself. Often people miss the first message, skim the second one, and misunderstand the third one.
  5. Revise your plan as necessary. Don’t let your plan become outdated. You will need a common understanding with your fellow leaders and a current road map is the easiest way to stay on task.

My friend David Cupps and I have led parallel lives lately in the respect that we both have had to deal with unexpected departures. In my case, it was a university development officer. She had done great work and then she was gone. I feared that alumni relations would grind to a halt – or worse – regress. Tempted to succumb to the hand-wringing option, I reviewed what I teach in supervisory training classes and workshops. (It is often said and often true: We learn ourselves by teaching others.)

In managing staff, it is a given that good people will both come and go. Nowadays, the long tenure of a great staff member is the increasingly rare exception.

Aware of this reality, we can take one of two approaches.

We can ignore it and – a little like Claude Rains in “Casablanca” – be shocked to find it going on in our establishment. Or, we can expect it and be prepared… But that begs the question. How does one become prepared and, for that matter, stay prepared? Is there some emergency protocol to put in a binder for when this type of “crisis” strikes? Is there some kit to buy and mount on the wall?

In a word, no. However, there is a long-term strategy – rather counter-intuitive on first reading – which sets the stage for smoother transitions. As a friend and colleague once put it, we need to think these days just as much about “getting the people done through work” as about “getting the work done through people.”

In other words, we need to value professional development and not just productivity.

People who work put forth effort that results in individual performance. This leads to results for the organization; it also needs to lead to rewards for the individual.

Part of the equation, of course, is compensation and benefits. Yet equally valued in the workforce today is the opportunity for professional development. In small and medium sized nonprofits, there are often few, if any, opportunities for professional advancement… but there are many possibilities for learning skills, acquiring knowledge, making contacts, and engaging in creative processes.

The short view of facilitating professional development is that a person will grow into greater capability, only to desire something greater and eventually leave. That will probably happen anyway. People come and go.

But when the person who has been “developed” leaves, what is left behind is a legacy of caring about staff and a commitment to excellence… and what is carried into the world is an enduring respect for and appreciation of your organization.


In addition to being an Associate Faculty member in the M.A. in Organizational Management Program of Antioch University Los Angeles, David Norgard is the founder of OD180, a consulting firm that develops strategies for nonprofit organizations. He has also held leadership roles on various nonprofit boards and committees. At present, he serves as the President of Integrity USA, the Episcopal Church’s LGBT advocacy group. A graduate of AULA’s M.A. in Organizational Management program, David currently serves as Chair of AULA’s Alumni & Community Advisory Board. He also holds a B.A. magna cum laude from Augsburg College and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School, where he received a Dean’s Citation for Community Service and an Award of Distinction among Alumni.