I am frequently asked to speak to nonprofit leaders on the topic “What leadership qualities support effective use of technology?”. Here are the four traits I share that I have found to be vital to impact leadership.
Impact Leadership means demonstrating leadership in the service of generating greater impact for your organization. I have witnessed some amazing demonstrations of this type of leadership from nonprofits when it comes to technology. For many nonprofit organizations, technology is kept on the back burner, something only dealt with when it is absolutely necessary. They are reactive instead of proactive when it come to technology. Proactive organizations take the reigns of technology and harness it for the good of the organization’s mission and impact. An effective leader willing to embrace technology is what makes the difference.
Four traits that stand out to me when thinking about technology are: Courage, Vision, Conviction and being a bit of a Rebel:
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. This means not being comfortable with technology, yet empowering staff to innovate and experiment anyway. Beyond lack of comfort, technology projects sometimes have a hard-to-define Return on Investment (ROI), and there is a regrettable lack of funding for technology projects, so it can be difficult to justify the expense. It is unfortunate that so few foundation leaders have the courage and vision to fund technology projects. Well-planned technology interventions can result in greater efficiencies, allow organizations to provide services in more effective ways, and even save money
Knowing the positive impact that well-placed, thoughtful uses of technology can have, courageous nonprofit leaders embark on technology projects despite the obstacles. These leaders move ahead, knowing that while no project is perfect, there is nothing to gain from not trying. They also know that if you are not keeping up you are falling – sometimes dangerously – behind.
Having the vision of what the organization can achieve with smart applications of technology is vital to success. The ability to hold a vision of how staff and stakeholders can step up to support even complex technical projects, 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 so that she could manage the organization’s website. It wasn’t because she had a particular desire to learn how to code, but because of her vision of how 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 “keep the focus on technology” drum over the long term. Technology is a long term, ongoing reality for organizations. It is not like a chair that is built once and then used until it wears out. It is more like a garden that needs regular maintenance, seeding and weeding.
In order to buck organizational systems that are not friendly to technology, you need to be a bit of a rebel. The ability to push back against conventional wisdom, against the “we’ve always done it this way” attitude, against prejudices and fears is often required of leaders. Yes, technology projects can be expensive and confusing, but they can improve efficiency in the organization’s work systems, which in turn free up resources for more mission-focused work. Technology can allow your organization to provide services in new ways to match the changing ways people use technology,. That is a big payoff which the reactive “quick-fix” or band-aid approaches don’t produce. The smart rebel leaders I have seen know when to push back and be disruptive. They also know when to step back and let the changes sink in, so including a dash of diplomacy with your rebelliousness is a good idea.
When you think of yourself as a nonprofit leader, do you recognize yourself in some of these traits? Are there some of these traits you would like to strengthen? If you are not comfortable with technology, are you able to set aside your discomfort in service of the mission and greater impact? How else might you make a change to help technology thrive at your organization?
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