Finding Our Way Forward in 2021: Three Imperatives for Successful Leaders

Emily H. Benham | CEO, NLC Tips

While 2020 will likely be remembered for its relentless challenges, the lifelong learner in me is struck by the many lessons the past year taught us. Nonprofit leaders have stretched and grown faster than ever, being required to think differently, reimagine new ways of serving communities and speed innovations to deepen impact. While we can’t predict the future, we can control how we prepare for and respond to it. Here are three imperatives for nonprofit leaders to ensure success in 2021.

3 Imperatives for Leaders in 2021

1. Start with wonder.

Several years ago, the Nonprofit Leadership Center’s board of directors created a list of principles to guide their work. It included expectations, such as how they would treat or speak to each other, how to work through complex issues and how to approach disagreements. One of my favorite values from their list is “start with wonder.” To me, starting with wonder means having an open mind, imagining what possibilities are inherent in a situation and seeking to first understand an issue and others’ perspectives.

In 2021, at a time of great divisiveness, starting with wonder is essential to finding our way forward. During the 100+ training workshops we facilitate each year, we often hear leaders say things like, “We are different from everyone else, so that doesn’t apply to us,” or “We tried that in the past and it didn’t work,” or even, “I’ve been in this field for a long time. I know what to do.” 2020 taught us that we can neither predict nor control the future, and we don’t have all the answers. But if we start with wonder and actively engage others with different perspectives in a meaningful and respectful dialogue, we can move the best outcomes forward, together.

2. Give yourself grace.

As nonprofit leaders, we’ve all tried our best each day to make good decisions and have answers for those we serve. For the times at NLC when that wasn’t always possible during the past year, we gave each other permission to say: This was our best we could do today. The first line of Emily Dickinson’s poem, “It’s all I have to bring today, this and my heart beside,” was a quote we referenced many times in meetings. By allowing ourselves and each other a bit of grace, we live to fight another day and become a little better than the day before — ultimately to strengthen our communities.

3. Tend to your garden.

No one has a crystal ball for what lies ahead for the nonprofit sector in 2021. With a COVID-19 vaccine in early distribution, new funding available for qualifying nonprofits through the Paycheck Protection Program and many other near-term positive signs, I am filled with hope and optimism for the future. We learned in 2020 that this is a marathon rather than a sprint. We experienced prolonged stress, fatigue and worry like never before. Many nonprofit leaders expressed concerns about burnout for themselves and their teams. As we march forward in this time of healing for our nation, let’s remember to put our own oxygen masks on first. Time and space will not magically appear on our calendars to do this. We must create that time for self-reflection and self-care. Make space for yourself so you can be your best at work, at home and in life.

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As much as we want to “get back to normal,” the truth is that there will be no “back to normal” — just a next normal and another one right after that. Our constituents and communities need strong nonprofits and courageous leaders like never before. By starting with wonder, giving yourself and your colleagues grace and prioritizing self-care, you and your nonprofit organization are sure to thrive in the year ahead.

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Lead for Success in 2021

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Emily H. Benham, FAHP, CFRE, has nearly four decades of experience in the nonprofit field. Before taking on the role of CEO of the Nonprofit Leadership Center in 2014, Emily was the interim president for Bayfront HERO (Health, Education and Research Organization), a health legacy foundation formed in 2013 with the net proceeds of the sale of Bayfront Medical Center. She also served as a member of Bayfront Medical Center’s senior leadership team, directing its philanthropic arm for more than 20 years.

Prior to her work in health care philanthropy, Emily led fund development efforts at the Florida Orchestra, American Stage and the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami.

Emily is a native of Reading, Pennsylvania, and received her bachelor’s degree in music from Amherst College in Massachusetts. She’s an avid equestrian and competes regionally in dressage with her equine partner, Current Affair.


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