Over the last twelve years I’ve had the honor of holding executive leadership roles in several nonprofits. Sometimes these opportunities have arisen because my skillset has met the demands of the tasks at hand, other times I just happened to not be in the room when assignments were doled out, (I’m chuckling as I write the latter, but it is only 2/3rds tongue and cheek). As I coach leaders in similar roles, it’s a great opportunity to reflect on the three key aspects of leading a nonprofit that I think will help me and others find more success.

Running an All Volunteer Organization (AVO) as a board chair is incredibly fulfilling and also incredibly daunting. Board members and volunteers often offer countless hours, skills, and mental energy to ensure that the mission of a small organization is met. While such dedication is inspiring, there remains the need for a focused leader to develop strategy, manage tasks, and hold the vision of the organization. Though much of this work might be done through consultative or consensus-based processes with the Board of Directors, the board chair must feel compelled to keep it all on track and keep the momentum going in these three critical areas of strategy, vision, and project management.

1) Holding the Vision ~ Being able to see what’s on the horizon, and what’s possible for the organization on that horizon, is fundamental for any leader, and it is particularly paramount for leaders in AVOs. As the day-to-day management tasks alone can be difficult to tackle for an all-volunteer board, being able to consistently examine the bigger picture becomes seemingly impossible. But a successful leader looks back and forth between the horizon and the tasks-at-hand, and shares that dual perspective with their team frequently.

2) Developing Strategy ~ Once the vision is both seen and shared regularly, it becomes significantly easier for the leader and the team to define a strategic plan, or identify the most essential strategic focus. Sometimes in the planning process people get excited about a plethora of ideas. And while many of those ideas might be good, or even great, most of those ideas will be a distraction. By knowing where you’re headed, it’s simpler to define what your priorities should be to get there and to avoid such distractions. A successful leader acts as a gatekeeper, keeping the team focused on only the best solutions that will move the organization ahead and utilize the limited time and capacity of board members in the best way possible.

3) Project Management ~ Too often in leadership courses a division is drawn between visionary leaders and detail-oriented managers. I’d like to step out on a limb and say that successful leaders are capable and proficient at both: to paraphrase a quote that has been attributed to a few different people, “a vision without strategy is merely a dream; strategy without vision is pure drudgery.” AVOs need leaders that can see the horizon, work with their team to develop a strategy to reach that vision, and then be able to fluidly manage the tasks and projects that will see that strategy through. And I do not say this lightly: holding the vision and managing strategy is a monstrous challenge, but the longevity and impact of an organization depends upon leaders who can meet this critical demand.