Great leadership today means taking a leaf out of the book of previous generations and adopting qualities revered in the past – the most important of which is good, old-fashioned perseverance, says Professor Peter Shergold.

Great leadership today means taking a leaf out of the book of previous generations and adopting qualities revered in the past – the most important of which is good, old-fashioned perseverance, says Professor Peter Shergold.
Testing Times Mean New Management Challenges

With nonprofits large and small facing declining revenues and shrinking asset bases, those who manage social ventures and sit on their boards bear an increasing weight of responsibility.

Whether their organisational mission is framed around social support or community sport, biodiversity or ballet, medical research or marriage counselling, it is becoming harder for nonprofits to find the wherewithal to sustain their goals and nurture their values. Consequently the task of husbanding resources – both human and financial – is becoming increasingly complicated.

The demand for services is rising yet the ability to provide them is constrained. Capital for social enterprise is drying-up.

Assets of high net-worth individuals and endowed foundations have shrunk. Even corporates that modelled good citizenship are tightening their belts.

For community-based organisations deriving a greater income share from government contracts, their commercial operations – delivering public programs in a competitive market – can help to sustain their social business. Unfortunately tenders can be lost more easily than they are won. As the outcomes of the recent Job Network tender starkly revealed, nonprofit organisations with a fine record of achievement in social inclusion can be cut adrift overnight.

More than at any stage in the previous generation, ambitions (and needs) are outstripping funding. The challenges of guiding social ventures through economic recession are at least as great as in the private sector. Community workers are being laid off. The administrative costs of overseeing volunteer efforts cannot be easily met. The opportunities to build a more civil society are being undermined.

Leaders Today Need Tenacity

This is a time for leadership. But of what character? Any nonprofit CEO’s duty statement would probably embrace the capacity to raise funds and allocate capital, to manage diverse stakeholders, to oversee organisational performance, to build collaborative partnerships, to communicate mission and to grow the business. All are worthy activities. But in the midst of a crisis, greater than all of these is the ability to keep on keeping-on.

A few years ago, when I was the secretary of the department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, I was asked to define the most important quality of leadership. I quoted approvingly from a Victorian novel I had read in my youth – Anthony Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset. The two sentences I remembered were: “It’s dogged as does it. It ain’t thinking about it.”

Three Survival Skills for Leadership

When each day intensifies the battle for survival, leadership is as much a matter of perspiration as inspiration. It demands persistence of effort and resilience of spirit. There are at least three components to those qualities.

1. Keep stakeholders in the loop and focus on retaining the backing of old friends

Nonprofit leaders should continue communicating, particularly with those who share their dream. Engagement has to be ongoing with individuals and groups who, in diverse ways, have supported the enterprise in the past. Philanthropists, sponsors, donors and social investors need to be kept fully in the loop. Fundraisers often say that it is easier to increase funding from existing donors than to groom new supporters – and this is especially the case when your organisation is facing financial constraint. Don’t let your worries stop you from inspiring others and drawing them along with you for the journey. It requires persistence to sustain and nurture stakeholder relationships in a strategic manner. It takes time.

2. Pay attention to the details

Those at the helm must try to balance an understanding of the big picture (and the capacity to convey a mission of the heart with passion) with a willingness to sweat the small stuff. When every dollar counts, near enough isn’t good enough. Details matter.

3. Don’t lose sight of your overall goals – they are the key to recovery

A mirror reflection of this heightened need for care about the finer points is the fact that managing the daily concerns cannot come at the expense of long-term plans. At a juncture when funds are scarce, it’s understandable why staff training or the purchase of new IT equipment can seem unnecessary extravagances. Yet the social returns on such investments may outweigh the immediate costs. Building organisational capacity is the key to survival beyond the nadir of the economic cycle. It will be the engine for growth in the upturn.

Nonprofit enterprises need to focus on the sustainability of their beneficial social impact into the future. That calls for leaders who will persist through the travails of rising demands and diminishing funds. Doggedness, it seems to me, is a 19th-century quality admirably suited to the challenges of the 21st century. To quote again the fictional Reverend Josiah Cawley: “The ain’t nowt a man can’t bear if only he’ll be dogged.”