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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

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Overcoming Our Challenges, Part Four: Love Your Mission
Mathew Downey, via the Johnson Center for Philanthropy

March, 2013

Over the last three weeks, I’ve discussed nonprofit leadership challenges, changes in the sector, and the importance of growing strong nonprofit organizations. In this final installment of the series, I go back to mission – the reason the sector exists.

I believe that a great nonprofit executive director understands the art of strategic problem solving and the science of humility. While the road to nonprofit success is difficult and at times may seem like the odds are stacked against us, our best days as a sector still lie ahead. But in order to thrive we need to collectively remember a few key things. Quite simply, we are better together. We must band together and help shape our own environment. This is something that the for-profit sector figured out long ago. All of the time, our funders and policy makers are making decisions that directly affect our ability to do our jobs. For too long we have sat on the sidelines and assumed that we are at the mercy of our environment.

As nonprofit leaders, our funders and policy makers must hear from us. We must inform them of our challenges and offer constructive solutions to the problems we face. This means being active in our sub-sector associations (in Michigan, the Michigan Nonprofit Association) and taking advantage of opportunities to help business and foundation leaders better understand how things work on the ground level.

We need to recognize our own limitations as leaders. It is impossible for any individual nonprofit leader to have all of the skills it takes to succeed. Delivering effective programs is complicated. Managing a board is wrought with nuance. Getting the job done through a combination of paid and volunteer labor is no easy task. Earned income strategies are no different than running a small business. Leveraging financial resources from foundations and individual donors brings with it factors that we can’t completely control. It is important to acknowledge that it is very difficult to change and correct problems from within an organization. Recognizing when things are broken and not working well is not admitting fault.  It is demonstrating leadership. There are opportunities all around us for professional development and enhancing our own skill sets. In Michigan, there are resources available through places like Great Lakes Center for Youth Development, Michigan Nonprofit Association and Johnson Center for Philanthropy, to name a few.  Michigan’s philanthropic leaders have provided an amazing infrastructure designed to help us succeed, but we need to take the initiative and access assistance when needed. Other states and regions have similar resources available.

Lastly, stay focused on your mission. Love your mission and the community that you serve. We are a privileged group of people. Every day we get to wake up in the morning and say to ourselves, today I am going to make the world a better place. When we are truly committed to and love our missions, we will be willing to do the hard work it takes to build a successful organization.

So I leave you with just that. Love your mission. Love your organization. Love your community enough to do the hard work that is necessary to improve your organization.

My best friend and I both have complicated nonprofit jobs. Bridget Clark Whitney is an executive director of one of Michigan’s most dynamic nonprofits, Kids’ Food Basket. We both have days when we think nothing is working out. We have what I consider, “talk each other off of the ledge conversations.” After we stress and fret and help each other resolve whatever issues we are dealing with, I usually end the conversation by saying, “Girl, we didn’t take the easy road.” And she will say, “And aren’t we glad we didn’t.”

None of us reading this blog took the easy road. Yet, when we get to go home at the end of each day, aren’t you glad you know you did something good? Knowing that makes it all worth it.

Love your mission. Love your organization. Love your community enough to do the hard work.

Established in 1992 with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy promotes effective philanthropy, community improvement, and excellence in nonprofit leadership through teaching, research, and service. The Johnson Center is recognized for its applied research and professional development benefiting practitioners and nonprofits through its Community Research Institute, Frey Foundation Chair for Family Foundations and Philanthropy, The Foundation Review, The Grantmaking School, Johnson Center Philanthropy Archives and Library, and Nonprofit Services

Grand Valley State University is a four-year public university. It attracts more than 24,500 students with high quality programs and state-of-the-art facilities. Grand Valley is a comprehensive university serving students from all 83 Michigan counties and dozens of other states and foreign countries. Grand Valley offers 81 undergraduate and 29 graduate degree programs from campuses in Allendale, Grand Rapids and Holland, and from regional centers in Muskegon and Traverse City. The university is dedicated to individual student achievement, going beyond the traditional classroom experience, with research opportunities and business partnerships. Grand Valley employs more than 1,900 people and is committed to providing a fair and equitable environment for the continued success of all.

The Johnson Center receives ongoing support from the Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation,Dyer-Ives Foundation, Frey Foundation, Grand Rapids Community Foundation, and W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

For more information, contact Robert Shalett, communications director for the Johnson Center, at 616-331-7585. Read more at


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