Thomas Edison once famously observed, when asked about his repeated failures to create a working light bulb, “I haven’t failed. I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” Mistakes are our best teachers, but they can certainly hurt when you’re in a position of leadership – like when you slip up and alienate a major donor, for example.
There is a lot of value in getting together with other people who’ve been in leadership as long as, or perhaps longer than you have, to share battle stories. What mistakes have you made as a leader? More importantly, what did you learn from them? What mistakes have others made, and what can you all learn?
Here are some things other boards have learned the hard way:
If you’ve been involved in the not-for-profit sector for a while, you may have developed some habits of thought regarding funding which are no longer applicable. General funding is drying up everywhere. Governments have less to give, while funding organizations like the United Way are seeing donation levels decline. There are still donors out there, but you need to work harder to find them. These days, fundraising is really finding an intersection between your mission and someone else’s passion. If someone cares about women’s shelters, for example, and you’re with an Arts organization, leave them alone. Talk to people who are passionate about the Arts.
Take a look around the boardroom table at your next meeting. How many people look like you? In 2016, 15% of board members were women, 4.5% identified as a visible minority, 1.8% had disabilities, 0.6% were Aboriginal, and 2.1% identified as LGBTQ. These numbers have held pretty steady since 2010. At the same time, evidence shows that diverse teams make better decisions, better serve their customer base, and earn over 50% more revenue than non-diverse teams.
Given that the non-profit landscape is only going to get more competitive as time goes on, diversity is no longer a nice-to-have. You need to implement diversity policies on your board. The great non-profit DiverseCity onBoard can help.
When you spend your time in a boardroom, or hob-nobbing with wealthy donors, it can be easy to forget what it’s actually all for. Say your organization helps refugees to settle in Canada. How many refugees sit on your board? In what way are refugees contributing to running your organization, instead of just being passive recipients of aid? Keep your beneficiaries front and centre, to make sure you are truly meeting their needs and treating them with the respect they deserve.
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