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by Joan Garry

When I first arrived from the leadership team at MTV to begin my first nonprofit executive director gig at GLAAD, I thought, “I’ve got this.” I had been in charge, supervised folks, managed to revenue targets.

You know – all the corporate things.

A week into it, my head was spinning. I said to my wife. “I’m not in Kansas anymore.”

Of course there were similarities, but I grew to understand (and quickly) that the model is quite different. Really different. And I wish more people understood this.

I wish new executive directors understood the differences – the impact passion has on decision making, the imperative to ensure that all voices are heard, the urgency you feel to do it all and to do it all right now because it all matters. A lot.

I wish more board members and donors understood this because they would see that it makes nonprofit leadership not just different but hard.

If more people really got this, I am convinced that there would be a universal admiration for the nonprofit sector that I feel every day when I come to work. An admiration that, in my mind, is sorely lacking in our society.

The five big lessons I learned for successful nonprofit leadership served me well during an impactful and transformative decade as the leader of an organization and a leader in the LGBT movement.

I’d like to share these five lessons with you. Share them with others. Help them understand that leading a nonprofit is simply NOT the same thing as leading a corporate entity.

And most importantly, I want you to take these lessons to heart. Think about which lessons you’re doing well and which you need to work on.


Boy are they ever! I believe this so strongly, it’s the name of my podcast!

So let’s get into why. It comes down to two specific elements – passion and power.

The off-the-charts level of passion we have for our missions makes everything feel urgent ALL. THE. TIME. And when emotions run high, things can get messy.

Then, there’s the unique power dynamics. People join your cause to have a real voice. So you have to learn how to manage and motivate people not drawn to work by their year-end bonuses.

Nonprofits are messy because they’re built that way.

The goal isn’t to clean up the mess – it’s to learn how to thrive within it.


A thriving nonprofit operates like a twin-engine jet. A partnership between two entities – board and staff – each functioning and working together.

Successful nonprofit leadership requires a high-functioning board of directors. Executive Directors must build real relationships with their board chairs. Trust. Thought partnership.

Like co-pilots in the cockpit. A phrase you’ll hear a lot around these parts.


Read any book about great leaders and you’ll find the words “great communicator.”

At a thriving nonprofit, you will always find a strong culture of storytelling. A compelling story told by a credible messenger brings you new stakeholders and builds your “army of the engaged.”

Your grant applications are stronger. Your website is more compelling. Your media pitch is first rate.

A story well told serves as an invitation – and a critical one.


This one can be tough. Nonprofit leaders usually stink at prioritizing. Raise your hand if that’s you. Go on… it’s ok!

So many of us act like jugglers, thinking the object of the game is to keep juggling while folks throw balls at them. But you know what happens then?

Dropped balls. And eventually, burnout.

Intentionality is crucial everywhere. On your programs. Hiring. Bringing on new board members. Being clear about roles. Having smart and effective meeting agendas. Avoiding ‘bright shiny object’ syndrome.

Leading and managing with intention is key to high impact and cannot only keep you from running out of gas, but can in fact refuel you. Even energize you.

Because successful nonprofit leadership is a marathon and not a sprint.


This work is bigger than you. And bigger than your organization.

And this has three BIG implications.

  1. You have to consistently grow as a leader.

  2. You have to build a leadership pipeline.

  3. You have to take care of yourself.


You owe it to the cause, the people impacted by your work, and to the folks on whose shoulders you stand to grab that baton tightly.

To look for leadership attributes in your organization, to develop a succession plan with intention, to build a diverse board with members who really understand just how important their roles are and who make good faith efforts to fulfill their responsibilities.

And the weight and importance of your role demands that you take good care of yourself, find joy, become part of a community, and strive for continuous improvement.

This work is bigger than you. And bigger than your organization.


Ever since I started my consulting business – and that’s been quite a while now – I have seen that whenever any one of these lessons is not addressed with intentionality, bad things happen.

You have to understand the passion people bring to the table.

You have to build an amazing relationship between the board and staff.

You have to build a real and practical culture of storytelling.

You have to prioritize and find others who can take on some of the burden. Build a team.

And you have to grow as a leader.

Because those who do address these lessons successfully find that they – and their organizations – thrive. They have a much bigger impact. They become innovators and catalysts for positive change.

And they do all of that without burning out. Can you imagine?

Now, I’m not saying that only nonprofits need these lessons. But the way they play out is special and unique in this sector.


These lessons served me very well at GLAAD. I want every nonprofit leader to learn how to implement every one of these in a deep, intentional way. And it’s hard!

After all, nonprofits are messy.

But I just know the impact we can all have if we get these five lessons right. These five lessons for successful nonprofit leadership are the underlying foundation for how I coach my coaching clients. For what I thought about when I wrote my book.

And these five lessons underpin everything nonprofit leaders learn when they join the Nonprofit Leadership Lab. The Lab is an online learning platform and community that supports thousands of leaders of small and mid-sized organizations.

Board and staff leaders, together.

Leaders from more than 40 diverse sectors, from adult education to civil rights to faith-based organizations to LGBTQ advocacy to equine therapy and so many more.

The Lab is responsive and member-driven. We recently revamped the entire platform to make it so much easier to find exactly what you need. To get the help you need immediately when your pants are on fire.

We can even recommend specific expert trainings and resources that meet you where you are right now.

And the community… well, it’s warm and generous and supportive. Remember lesson 5 – you can’t do it alone. When you join the Lab, you’re never alone. Thousands of others, just like you, who have experienced the same kinds of challenges. Who can chime in with a cyber-hub and sound advice.

And it costs less than a cup of coffee per day.


The Lab is opening its doors to new members very soon. I’d love to send an invitation to your inbox when it does.

Can I do that? It doesn’t mean you have to join, but I do think so many of you would benefit greatly.

Click here and enter your email address and I’ll make sure you’re on the invite list.

I can’t wait for you to join us. See you soon.

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