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Your Engine of Impact: Insight and Courage

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Nonprofit leaders who want their organization to achieve maximum impact must embrace the essentials of strategic leadership. We compare this kind of leadership to the work of building, tuning, and fueling a high-performance engine. Every nonprofit that aims to be truly effective must become an engine of impact, we argue. As we’ve discussed in previous posts, this engine must have certain essential components—including mission, strategy, and impact evaluation. To help generate power, the engine also requires the twin “turbines” of insight and courage.

Though difficult to quantify and measure, insight and courage are vital to any nonprofit. In the Stanford Survey on Leadership and Management in the Nonprofit Sector, we asked respondents how important it was for top leaders to display insight and courage. Among nonprofit executives or staff whose organization was led by an active founder, 74 percent indicated that the presence of those qualities in the founder was “essential to the organization’s impact.” Among nonprofit executives or staff at organizations without an active founder, 86 percent indicated that it was “essential to the organization’s impact” for their nonfounder executive director or CEO to demonstrate those qualities. 

Great nonprofits invariably start with a profound insight—a distinct and compelling vision of how social change can come about. For many founders, the insight includes a sense of their personal role in that change and an epiphany about how their organization could maximize an opportunity or attack a challenge at its roots. Insight is often portrayed in our culture as a “Eureka!” moment: an apple on the head, followed by an understanding of gravity. But, in fact, many nonprofit founders gain critical insight through personal and professional experience, through hard work and deep thought, and through years of persistence and determination. 

Duncan Campbell, for example, had a tough upbringing as the child of alcoholics who lived on welfare, including a father who was sometimes in prison. But he was fortunate to have caring adults in his life who enabled him to rise above that challenge. That experience had a big impact on Campbell. Early in his career, he worked in the juvenile court detention system and found that many of the kids he encountered, even those who had committed serious crimes, changed their lives after he formed close, mentoring relationships with them. This insight convinced him to start Friends of the Children, a nonprofit that assigns paid, professional mentors to serve as “friends” of severely at-risk children. These mentors become an active and regular presence in each child’s life, and that relationship can last from kindergarten through high school. 

Courage, the second “turbine,” is an equally indispensable aspect of nonprofit strategic leadership, and it is often critical to ensuring that insight translates into reality. In some cases, nonprofit founders are obliged to display raw, physical courage. Consider Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, founder of the Afghan Learning Institute (AIL). During the era of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, AIL educated girls at a network of underground schools. Overseeing that network was an exceptionally dangerous undertaking that required Yacoobi to move constantly and to live in a perpetual state of fear. “I had to summon courage on a daily basis,” she explained. “I did so by allowing my passion for the cause to prevail.” 

Fortunately, most nonprofit leaders don’t have to function in such extreme circumstances. But they need courage nonetheless. They need it to act on their initial insight, to stay focused on their mission, to implement a cohesive strategy, to conduct impact evaluation—and to change direction if an evaluation shows that an intervention isn’t working as expected. They need courage to cultivate an active board whose members will engage with them and perhaps disagree with them. They need courage to make decisions that are unpopular but will maximize their organization’s long-term impact on its beneficiaries. They need courage to build and develop funders whose values and practices align with the needs of their nonprofit. 

Donors need courage, too—the courage to give away their money, for starters, and the courage to do what it takes to ensure that their donations will make an impact. Thomas J. White is an example of a courageous funder. Over many years, he gave money, time, expertise, and passion to Partners in Health (PIH), an organization whose mission is to “bring the benefits of modern medical science to those most in need of them and to serve as an antidote to despair.” White helped found PIH with a $1 million donation and continued to support it for the rest of his life, going so far as to sell his company, his assets, and his house to support PIH projects. After taking care of his family financially, White set out to die as close to penniless as possible. He and his wife moved to progressively smaller houses so they could continue making stretch gifts to PIH. After donating approximately $50 million over a quarter-century, White made his last gift to PIH two weeks before he died at age 90. It was for $5,000; that was how much he had left. 

Insight and courage are the sine qua non of strategic leadership in the nonprofit sector more broadly. Without them, leaders cannot successfully lead. We urge everyone in the sector to revere, reward, and fully value these crucial qualities.  

Your Engine of Impact: Insight and CourageWilliam F. Meehan III and Kim Starkey Jonker are co-authors of Engine of Impact: Essentials of Strategic Leadership in the Nonprofit Sector. This post—the fourth of an eight-part series—is adapted from that book. Learn more about the book at engineofimpact.org.

The image at the beginning of this post is reproduced from Engine of Impact: Essentials of Strategic Leadership in the Nonprofit Sector, by William F. Meehan III and Kim Starkey Jonker, Forward by Jim Collins. Copyright © 2017 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University. All rights reserved. No further reproduction is allowed without the publisher's prior permission, sup.org.

Topics: Nonprofit leadership Engine of Impact Courage Insight