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The Biggest Mistake Nonprofit Leaders Make

Updated: May 28, 2023

The biggest mistake leaders make is focusing first on fundraising. They think they can do more for the mission and bring better people by having more funds. A bigger bank account will indeed help both of those factors, and we need funds to survive, but by focusing first on fundraising and then on our humans, nonprofit leaders put the proverbial cart before the horse.

What every nonprofit leader's priority should be

Focusing on fundraising over humans is not a sustainable solution for a thriving nonprofit. You will always be chasing funding (and people to do your fundraising). However, if you focus first on investing in your humans, you can turn the tables and have donors, volunteers, and employees seeking YOU out.

Why leaders should put people before fundraising

This idea is getting traction in fundraising as we talk about forming meaningful relationships with donors. We now recognize that all of our donors are people, so by focusing on building relationships, we can bring in deeper and wider donations. However, I want you to focus first on relationships with your employees and volunteers, which will be key to bringing donors to you. Your human capital is the real key to making your organization a success. The more you invest in your humans, the more success you will have in impacting your mission.

Leaders often think the number one reason people leave is financial and believe it will be solved by simply throwing money or tangible benefits at the problem. It may bring some short-term relief, but consider that people take low-paying nonprofit jobs, and, even if they are paid well, it is no guarantee they will stay. Yes, it would be fantastic if you could pay your people more, so if you can, please do, BUT the money will not guarantee engaged humans who stay and contribute meaningfully to your mission.

The main reason your humans leave your organization is NOT financial (no matter what they tell you); it is because they don’t feel valued by their organization or leaders or they don’t feel a sense of belonging (especially non-whites). However, you will develop engaged employees and volunteers by valuing your humans and creating an inclusive culture.

Engaged employees will also help you attract more fundraising. Donors want to give where the employees are engaged and focused on the mission. Engaged employees will form better relations with potential donors. Engaged employees will help you develop innovative solutions to fulfill your mission and raise funds.

How can nonprofit leaders put their humans first

Let’s think about how to focus more on our relations with the humans running our organizations.

Value and Trust Your Humans

Ask yourself the following to evaluate your practices in valuing your humans:

  • What are you doing to show your employees you value and trust them?

  • How much agency do they have over their work?

  • Do you let them drive projects?

  • Do you let them try new things?

  • Do you ask their opinions?

  • Do you ask for their feedback on your performance?

Action Step:

Start by asking your team for their ideas on a current challenge, and adopt one of them. Let them take ownership and accept even failed attempts. We want to honor attempts to address our issues. Recognize the humans that are coming up with ideas and trying them out.

Create a Sense of Belonging

Ask yourself the following to consider the culture of belonging in your organization:

  • What do you do to get to know your employees?

  • Do they know you?

  • Do you show your vulnerabilities?

Action Steps:

Team building exercises and DEI training help build a sense of belonging, but you want to integrate it into the very fiber of your organization. Work on asking questions to your humans to find out about their interests outside of work. Be intentional about connecting with all employees (a spreadsheet is a great way to track because spending more time with some humans over the others has the reverse effect).

Exercise to try:

At the end of your next meeting, have each person give their thoughts on an initiative/action that was discussed. No one should interrupt others, and there should be no criticism of other people's ideas. This is a chance to ensure everyone is heard and feels safe expressing themselves. Try to make this a routine before starting any new initiative. It will show you value your humans' input (if you act on it), and it creates a sense of belonging while allowing everyone to participate.

Want more?

Visit Lindow Learning to learn how to engage and retain your humans and significantly impact your mission.


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