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Unique Challenges in the Social Sector

By Martha Lasley, Virginia Kellogg,
Richard Michaels & Sharon Brown

Coaching for Transformation
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During the economic crisis of 2008, foundation endowments shrunk drastically and recovery has been slow. Many organizations have lost government funding and private donations have contracted. As the needs in the social sector increase, organizations are expected to do more with less. If nonprofits have a budget for leadership development at all, it’s considered discretionary and one of the first things to go when budgets are cut.

In the corporate environment, the training and development department recognizes that the long-term health of the organization depends on leadership development. Except for large organizations, most nonprofits don’t have staff who devote time and resources to leadership development, so getting coaching in the door is often the biggest challenge.

Coaches surveyed by the CAP Project overwhelmingly agreed (95 percent) that in order to be effective working in nonprofits, coaches need to understand nonprofit organizational culture.1 to effectively coach in the social sector, coaches need an understanding of:

Organizational Structure (leadership dynamics of executive director, board of directors and board committees, board governance)

Cultural Awareness (power dynamics, privilege, dismantling isms, internalized oppression)

Fundraising and Finance (budgeting, undercapitalization, third-party funding, funder criteria, sustainability needs of nonprofit staff)

Volunteer Management (recruiting, selecting, developing and assessing volunteers)

Mission (developing and living the mission, vision and values)

Roles (complexity of the many roles of the executive director and senior staff)

Human Resources (addressing burnout, lack of accountability, insufficient salaries)

Scarcity (shifting the culture from insufficiency, limited funding, human resources, support and time to an assets-based culture)

Sacrifice (martyrdom, rescuer’s syndrome, work/life balance, internalized oppression)

Succession planning (founder syndrome, developing leadership capacity)

With a full understanding of the challenges in the social sector, it’s much easier to work from an asset-based or strengths perspective and tap the passion and core values of clients. With familiarity comes ease in addressing issues of power, culture and recurring themes. In a mission-driven culture, connecting with the yearning of clients helps us engage people in self-reflection, strategic thinking and effective action.

As a coach in the social sector, you might find yourself supporting leaders to move away from dependency on the “heroic leader” toward a culture of shared leadership. Unlike their corporate counterparts, social sector leaders are more likely to use empowering, creative leadership models. For instance, social justice organizations often utilize a collective leadership model with more than one person at the top, or a shared-leadership model, where everyone on the team considers themselves a leader. Their decision-making process is often more inclusive, using a participatory decision-making process to nurture organizational creativity.

Below is an example from a coach working with a new executive director:

I worked with a mid-thirties director, Valdez, who had been a community organizer and was mentored by the founders of the organization. When one of the co-directors died suddenly and the other co-director didn’t want to be the exclusive director, Valdez was promoted to director. He inherited a seasoned organization and older members questioned whether he was capable of leading the organization. It appeared that the previous director had worked himself to death. Literally. So Valdez was thinking, “I don’t want to die doing this work.”

He felt scared, excited, proud and nervous about honoring the Co-Founders’ legacy. He knew that he was meant to inherit the organization and get everyone to recognize, “We can survive even under someone else’s leadership.” His work was to convince Baby-Boomers that Gen-Xers, and even younger, could be leaders of the movement; that they could carry on. He felt incredible responsibility about his role and said, “As one of the younger ones, I’ve got to do it right because they’re expecting us to fail. They’re waiting to see that we’re not as committed; we don’t work as hard.” Valdez often heard comments like, “You all aren’t as committed as we were. We were the ones who started this. Look at us, we’re still doing this work after all these years.” Valdez was very much concerned and wanted to ensure that the organization would survive the transition, so I coached him on creating a thriving organization that would survive beyond his leadership. We used several pathways—Embracing the Shadow helped him face his fears; Expanding the View to explore his challenges and Envisioning the Future to help him expand his dreams. Once he reached full alignment, I asked him how he wanted to partner with others, which called out his power as a leader.

A social sector coach describes an experience of coaching when the life of the organization is at stake.

Historically, my work with nonprofit executive directors focuses on four major issues: How do I work effectively with my board? How do I transition out? How do I get some work-life balance? How do I raise money? But rarely have they ever thought about who they are as a leader and how that impacts all their decisions.

In an era where lots of organizations have gone under, an executive director was getting ready to do a big “ask” to a foundation and came to coaching to boost her confidence. We explored two things: “What is the best way to talk about your work?” and “What’s compelling about you that you need to remember when you go in to do that ‘ask’?” She was facing increasing competition, considering a merger, and unsure about how to have merger conversations without undermining her organization. Coaching helped her to balance her personal leadership style (very open and sharing) with the realities of the marketplace which required her to be more strategic.

Another coach describes the joys and challenges of social sector coaching:

A lot of executive directors are facing retirement now, but they don’t actually have a retirement plan because they simply haven’t had the financial means. Personal needs tend to get put on the back burner. I do a lot of coaching with executives who are uncertain how to interface effectively with their board. They ask, “What is my job as an executive director—to direct the board or take direction from the board?” The success of the executive directors’ work depends on the efficiency and effectiveness of their board. Procuring funding is another major concern because there’s a lot of mission creep, where organizations slowly change their mission to meet the criteria of funders. When they say, “Just tell me what you’ll fund and we’ll make sure we provide that,” a lot of dependency and power issues arise which makes the whole system dysfunctional. This problem increases when funding is less available.

When coaches understand these power dynamics, we can help leaders get really clear about their mission. How can they communicate their mission in a way that funders understand, without having to bend over backwards like a pretzel to fit what the funders want? Coaching helps executive directors get a stronger backbone—to really take a stand for what the organization does.

Here’s an example from a coach working with a client with a strong connection to her values.

I was coaching a board member of a nonprofit who had a strong personal stand for diversity, multicultural awareness and social justice. After joining a board that she thought was aligned with her values, she came to realize they actually had no commitment to social justice at all. Even though they put some sweet words on their website, there was no action toward social change. Because she made a commitment to herself to only serve organizations that valued diversity, she faced a tough decision—not whether to quit, but how to quit serving on the board. She agonized over many questions: Do I put my reputation on the line and take a stand for human evolution? Or just quit quietly without saying why? Will I be seen as a complainer in a culture where people make nice all the time? Will I burn the bridges I’ve worked so hard to create?

As her coach, because I knew how important this issue was to her, I was driving her to take a stand. I also helped her regain her trust in herself—that she actually has influence and that her stand could actually create a shift in the organization. Before she was out the door, the organization offered her the opportunity to create a diversity program for people in under-served communities. After some soul searching, she declined the offer, celebrated their decision and recommended someone else to run the program.

To thoroughly understand the complexities of the social sector, coaches need experience which can be gained by:

Taking a leadership position in a nonprofit

Serving on a nonprofit board

Volunteering in a nonprofit organization

Interviewing social sector leaders about their accomplishments and challenges

A favorite line from the nonprofit world is, “If you’ve seen one nonprofit… you’ve seen one nonprofit.” Each organization has unique challenges, but you can deepen your awareness of nonprofit issues by exploring the following websites:


Management Help:

1 Coaching and Philanthropy: An Action Guide for Coaches. 2009. Kim Ammann Howard, BTW informing change Michelle Gislason, CompassPoint Nonprofit Services Virginia Kellogg, Leadership that Works

Excerpt from the book Coaching for Transformation: Pathways to Ignite Personal & Social Change by Martha Lasley, Virginia Kellogg, Richard Michaels and Sharon Brown. As faculty at Leadership that Works, they certify coaches who offer personal, organization and community transformation. Check out the free Power of Coaching teleclass.

Coaching is life-changing, world-changing work. The coaching programs at Leadership that Works go beyond theories and models and work with clients on a deeper level. You learn how to coach the whole person: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Whole person Transformation.

Leadership that Works

Transforming the world.
One heart at a time.

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