How to Be An Ingenious Leader

Your Ingenious Nonprofit
June 2014
Karen Eber Davis

 A common challenge I hear from nonprofit leaders is that they feel isolated. Despite the educational opportunities available, few organizations help them to tackle advanced education. In response, I’ve begun a series of interactive opportunities starting with my Excel @. The Institute for Leaders in Development provides another solution. Here’s their story:

In 2006, Jennifer Darling, then Director of Development and Membership, sought to hire a major gifts officer for the Denver Art Museum — an attractive, prestigious position. Yet she struggled to find qualified candidates. She wasn’t alone. Colleagues faced similar challenges in filling senior roles. At the same time, a local foundation noticed that it had to constantly begin relationships with new development staff from the nonprofits with whom it partnered. To address the challenges, Darling and other Denver nonprofit leaders invented the Institute for Leaders in Development.

The Institute advances the field of development for Colorado nonprofits. It provides a yearlong program for individuals with at least three years of successful fundraising experience. Graduates complete academic coursework, a mentorship, and a capstone research project. You must be nominated and invited to participate. During the Institute, participants bond with colleagues. Post-Institute, they receive greater recognition, a stronger peer network, and better professional opportunities.

As the Institute welcomes its seventh class of participants this Fall, what are the results?

  •  A stronger pipeline of experienced development staff.
  • Higher staff retention rates.
  • Greater professionalism in the nonprofit sector.
  • Greater job satisfaction among senior development staff.

Even if you don’t participate in Excel @, the Institute for Leadership Development, or similar advanced group opportunities, at least take charge of your learning. You can sharpen your swords, improve your outcomes, and advance your career. This column offers ideas on how to become an ingenious nonprofit leader. 

Seek Variety

“I want people with a variety of experiences,” Bob Johnson explained. Bob was a near-retirement Bureau Chief with the State of Florida whose words have stayed with me for decades. “You can be in a job and learn the same thing over and over every day, giving you ten years of experience, or you can learn something new every day. I look for people with the latter experience.”

Variety can spring from different jobs or seeking out opportunities to learn new skills. Last spring I began a ZumbaÒ class. On the surface, ZumbaÒ appears to have no professional relevance to nonprofit income development. Yet as I find my limbs not responding to the commands sent by my brain, I remember what it’s like to be a beginner. This helps me to coach others. Variety can remind you what it feels like to be a new board member, new employee, or first time major gift donor. Variety can also open the door to cross-pollination from a new field to your current work. How might one use ZumbaÒ to improve a board meeting, for example?

Be Picky

When you arrive at all-day event, you’re given the agenda. It includes several breakout sessions. Which one, as an ingenious nonprofit leader, will you attend? Here’s a suggested way to proceed:

  1. At first, resist those that appeal to you most.
  2. Identify the best presenters from their bios or your personal knowledge. We learn the most from those who teach the best.
  3. From these, select the sessions that will help you make progress on your long-term goals.
  4. Then, since nonprofit success depends on relationships, prefer interactive skills to media tactics. That is, select the session about how to ask vs. how to use Twitter.
  5. If choices still remain: select what appeals to you most.
  6. At any time, if the session disappoints, move to a new session or back to your work.

Likewise, beware of empty calories. Inspirational speakers often come with dessert, and like dessert are sugary. You leave high and energized, but by the time you re-submerge into the piles on your desk, the inspiration has melted like cotton candy on the tongue. Seek advanced education with good nutrition.

Go Deep

You can spend hours engaged in educational opportunities and learn little. We tend to nibble at learning instead of sitting down for a full meal. People love TED talks, and I’m included. The best talks are a jolt of caffeine. They inspire and inform, but at eighteen minutes, they lack depth. Contrast this with the Chautauqua Institution’s learning model: They study a topic for a full week; in some cases multiple weeks over multiple summers. The Institute for Leaders in Development also requires development directors to dig deep into development for a year.

This quarter focus on one area. You might choose an area where you’ll attend a conference soon. Prep for it. Read a book by a presenter and material on the conference’s topic. Alternatively, choose a topic for the quarter. Focus on board development or how to help others interpret financial documents. Or, for lighter fare, read books about other nonprofits to learn how they succeed. (For some classics see my recommended reading list.)

In part, we fail to go deep because we are bombarded with information. To avoid drowning, we swim fast. Unfortunately this can make the learning, like water, roll off of our backs. Ingenious Leaders skim media, but they also slow down to fully read and consider selected materials. Besides focusing on one topic at a time as you read or listen to articles, stop and ask: How can I incorporate this knowledge?

Nibbling, without analysis and use, results in snippets of data. While often useful, without a wider context we can’t tell if the data is helpful or even correct. Many boards “try” to earn a certain kind of income. When one attempt or nibble doesn’t work, they discard the idea. Annual appeal letters are a classic. “Didn’t work – it barely paid for itself,” mumbles a board member who attended a workshop. More accurately, it didn’t meet the expectations. Annual appeal letters are about identifying donors long term, only the best of them pay for themselves the first year.

Create Your Own

Finally, to solve your desire for advanced education, consider creating your own learning communities. With the right co-learners, interactive learning is almost always superior to individual learning. For eighteen months I met with a team of international consultants via Skype. We each taught a topic and then produced the series, “So You Want to Be a Board Member” (A special report available here.) How about using Skype or Google+ Hangout to create your own advanced-learning group, perhaps starting with the colleagues from across the country you met at the last conference?

Meet the Challenge

If you seek advanced learning, you can join existing opportunities, create your own, such as a local version of The Institute for Leaders in Development, and make selective choices every day for variety and depth. Start now.

Full Stop: How can you incorporate one idea from this article in your work?

Selected Learning Resources

The Institute for Leaders in Development

Movie Mondays

Excel @


 AFP Action University