At Work

Three Lessons I’ve Learned Leading a Nonprofit

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Editor’s note: The following post contains excerpts from a recent interview of IFWE Executive Director Hugh Whelchel by Greg Kelm, Ph.D. student in Leadership Studies at Dallas Baptist University on the topic of nonprofit leadership.

1. As a leader, you have to walk the walk. Live out the truths of your own mission statement.

[At IFWE], we’re saying that nothing is secular, that everything is spiritual—I need to be serious about that in everything I do. And it’s really been helpful for me in my own spiritual growth to take on the mantle and practice what I preach, understanding that I come to work with a critical opportunity: to tell people that the purpose of our work is to bring flourishing to the communities God has called us to.

Look at passages like Jeremiah 29:7. [The prophet] tells the exiles to work for the peace and prosperity of the community where God has called them into exile because if it flourishes, that’s the only way they will personally flourish. That’s counterintuitive. The gospel is a redemptive call to work that’s laid out in Genesis 1:28: to fill the earth with God’s image and subdue the earth. When it says “subdue the earth” in that context, it literally means to go and make the earth an incredible place for human beings to flourish.

So that’s part of what we were put on this earth to do, to bring flourishing to where we’re serving in our vocations, in the church, in our families, and in our communities. It’s through all the work we do, not just our vocational work.

And so that’s the piece we have to talk about all the time, and that’s a challenge. How do you recast this in such a way people will understand, and then how do you model it? So, I think that, to me, has been an incredible blessing and an incredible challenge.

2. Measurement is difficult, so you need people with experience getting the job done.

There’s a lot of talk about good practical leadership in the nonprofit world. You’ve got a lot of people that come from the educational world, or from ministry, but you don’t have any people coming from the business world into the nonprofit space. Well, not many, right? [You have] people who have great ideas, but they haven’t had a lot of practice putting those ideas into practical work.

So, you see a lot of lack of measurement. How do you know that you’re achieving what you’re trying to do? You see people measuring activity but not results. In the business world, it’s all about profit, and you know if you’re being successful by that gauge. I want a way to be able to measure if we’re moving the needle.

I’ve had people who are very entrepreneurial in the private space because the traditional way of getting things done doesn’t work. Probably the most important thing is to have people with strong leadership skills in the sense that they are able to cast a vision and lead a team to get to their goals. The nonprofit world is filled with a lot of good people with a lot of good intentions, but a lot of them don’t have the tools to get the organizations where they need to go.

One of the things I think we need in the nonprofit space is an availability to teach—people that are here to teach more people how to do nonprofits. You’ve got people coming into the nonprofit world, and there’s no one there to mentor them like there would be in the business world. So, you see a lot of nonprofits struggle or that don’t make it, and I think it’s the lack of leadership. They’ve got good people and leadership, but they have the wrong skill sets.

3. Hire for culture first, talent second.

My leadership style has been heavily influenced by a number of things. One is trying to take the principles of scripture and ask, how do I apply those in my leadership? How do I run a business where it’s, “come let us reason together” instead of “it’s my way or the highway?”

Probably one of the most important [things] is how important the building of the culture of your organization is. Many years ago, I began to realize it’s more important when you hire new people to hire first for culture and second for talent. And very few people do that. You want to build a culture that drives the right kind of behavior, the right kind of vision—and it’s always there when you’re not standing beside somebody.

The problem is you can bring one person in, and they can do more damage to the culture in a short period of time than you can possibly imagine. When you begin building a team and building organizations, you’ve got to be careful about bringing in the wrong people that are at cross-purposes to your culture. That’s one of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a leader— that building that culture is of the utmost importance.

Editor’s note: Learn about effective nonprofits that are serving those in need in Love Your Neighbor: Restoring Dignity, Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

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