What leadership qualities improve a nonprofit’s impact through effective use of technology? I was co-facilitator of the Impact Leadership Track of NTEN’s Leading Change Summit in San Francisco in 2014 and I am frequently asked to speak to nonprofit leaders on this topic, so I share here four traits I have found to be vital to impact.
I have witnessed some amazing demonstrations of leadership from nonprofit colleagues when it comes to technology. For many nonprofit organizations, technology remains on the back burner, something only dealt with when it is absolutely necessary. Other organizations have taken the reigns of technology and harnessed it for the good of the organization, its mission and its impact – thanks to effective leaders.
Of the many leadership traits that support impact, four that stand out to me when thinking about technology are: Courage, Vision, Conviction and being a bit of a Rebel. Here’s how I’ve seen those work.
When technology has not traditionally been a strength of an organization (and/or its leader), it takes courage to make technology a priority and invest in technology initiatives. Tech projects sometimes have a hard-to-define Return on Investment (ROI), and there is a dearth of funding for these projects. Knowing the positive impact that well-placed, thoughtful use of technology can have, I am inspired by the courageous leaders I see that embark on technology projects despite the obstacles. Courageous leaders move ahead, knowing that no project is perfect. They also know that if you are not keeping up you are falling dangerously behind.
Having the vision of what the organization can achieve with smart applications of technology is vital to success. Along with a vision of how staff and stakeholders can step up to support even complex technical projects, this is a key leadership trait. I have seen folks for whom technology was a very foreign subject embrace it whole-heartedly because of the vision they have of a mission fulfilled. One of my heroes is a nonprofit staff member who learned HTML in her 70’s in order to manage the organization’s website. It wasn’t because she had a particular desire to learn it, but because of her vision of how the impact of their social justice work would be supported by an effective online presence.
When you are in an organization where technology has not been a priority, it takes conviction to advocate for engaging with technology. There are sometimes grueling politics to deal with, resistance to change and objections to overcome as well as plain old inertia. Changing the technology culture of a nonprofit from a reactive, non-engaged one to an engaged, proactive one is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes conviction to keep beating the “focus on technology” drum over the long term.
In order to buck systems that are not friendly to the embrace of technology, you need to be a bit of a rebel. An ability to push back against conventional wisdom, against the “we’ve always done it this way” attitude, against prejudices and fears against technology in a sustained way is required. Yes, technology projects can be expensive and confusing, but they can provide a positive ROI and improve efficiency in the organization’s work systems – which in turn free up resources for more mission-focused work. That is a big payoff which “quick-fix” approaches don’t produce. The smart rebel leaders I have seen know when to push back and be disruptive as well as when to step back and let the changes sink in. So including a dash of diplomacy with your rebelliousness is a good idea.
When it comes to Impact Leadership – demonstrating leadership in the service of generating greater impact for your organization – this combination of being a bit rebellious, having the courage of your convictions and having a thoughtful vision which you are working towards are an unbeatable combination for nonprofit leaders.
Flickr photo credits: Lion – ucumari/Valerie;
Lighthouse – kenyonsf;
Conviction – Raul Pacheco-Vega;
Rebel – 1banaan