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Prof taps leadership principles from nonprofit-world interviews

MILL VALLEY, Calif. (BP)–The church can learn some leadership practices found in many nonprofit volunteer organizations, said a Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary professor after conducting research for an article in a professional journal to be published later this year.
“Historically, it’s been the nonprofit arena taking patterns from the church — like an adherence to a larger vision and building a caring community,” said Don Simmons, associate professor of Christian education and director of the Mill Valley, Calif., seminary’s continuing education program. “But participation needs to be on both sides. There are some excellent models for church leaders to see in local nonprofit organizations, and we can learn from them if we as individuals become more involved. The church needs to look beyond its walls.”
Simmons is on the board of directors of the International Association of Volunteer Administrators, encompassing multiple nonprofit organizations. His findings, to be published in the Journal of Volunteer Administration, and later as a book, came from 75 interviews and 150 surveys with nonprofit administrators, volunteer leaders and nonprofit executive leaders in four states ranging from a Cambodian relief agency in Southern California to the American Red Cross. He tried to veer away from churches and church-run agencies in the survey.
“Churches and religious organizations engage 67 percent of all volunteers in the nation, and that’s a huge number,” Simmons said. “A person who volunteers in church sometimes also volunteers in other things, and many organizations now not really Christian began in churches, so it’s hard to separate it all out.”
Still, Simmons extracted 10 leadership concepts many nonprofit organizations follow. “I asked those viewed as leaders what their volunteers looked for in a leader,” he said. “I only expected two to three common themes, but after hearing all these at least 10 to 15 times, I found some very consistent answers.”
The 10 concepts are:
1) A commitment to a global purpose with a local perspective is the most common thread in leadership, Simmons said. “They wanted to change the world, so their vision covered an area bigger than the local area, but they always brought it home,” he said. “Half the people I talked to said, ‘Think globally; act locally.’ I couldn’t help thinking that’s a commission of the church. How do we put our purpose at our address?”
2) A more surprising common thread for Simmons was a high level of trust in people to accomplish tasks, whatever the salary, position, gender, age, ethnicity or title. “Some of these organizations said that volunteers had the best ideas,” he said. “Because of their broader experiences, the volunteers could often bring more to the table than the leaders. If an organization was viewed as difficult or having a difficult time accomplishing its purpose, the next few statements focused on lack of trust and rigidity.”
Simmons said a church parallel would be the difference between a pastor/staff-driven church and a lay-driven church. “Something that I developed as a volunteer is still going on in Orange County,” he said. “But I don’t see that in church. I see programs developed by the staff or a denominational board that we try to breathe life into and don’t work. People nurture what they give birth to.”
3) Successful nonprofit organizations have high levels of engagement in their day-to-day operations, Simmons said. Staffs in those organizations do not perceive their leaders as micro-managers. “They felt the administration knew their names and what they did, but didn’t do their jobs for them or tell them how to do it,” Simmons said. “It’s ‘management by walking around.’ They’re genuinely interested in details, but they keep their eyes on a wider perspective.”
Church leaders should be aware of the church’s schedule and speak vision through it, but not manage it, Simmons said. “Sometimes in church, there is a distance between what the leaders call the grand vision or the main ministries and the people who are doing the ‘maintenance and mundane tasks.’ It’s unfortunately rare that people in senior leadership would know the names of all the workers in the day care or Mothers’ Day Out programs, for example.”
4) Workers and volunteers at all levels see nonprofit leaders as hard workers, Simmons said. “They would say of their leaders, ‘I’ll never be able to work as hard as he or she does’ and ‘I’ve never been able to get here before or stay later than him or her.’ For the church, I think that says that the senior leadership should not ask people to do anything they wouldn’t do. They need to get away from the idea that the staff should think of things for people to do.”
5) An important common thread was open communication within the organization. Most worked with a “no surprises” policy with little filtering down of information, leading to a more trustworthy environment and fewer rumors. “You don’t have to wait for information,” Simmons said. “The same messages get to everyone, both good and bad — information flows freely. It tells the truth faster, so the real work and vision of the place can continue without a falter.”
Churches generally have difficulty with communication and who makes decisions about communicating, Simmons said. “It usually stems from a lack of trust about how people respond to information. Because difficult information is usually not shared openly, the church doesn’t get the maturing opportunity to work through active forgiveness and reconciliation.”
6) Nonprofit organizations tend to value team successes more than individual successes, with many believing that individual success is only possible with team success, Simmons said. “Even five years ago, many organizations didn’t value a team as much as they do now,” he noted. “There’s a greater amount of time spent in building teams so people can work together. I can’t get a whole lot done by myself, but a team of different people with different abilities can. Even with this new focus, the organizations don’t minimize individual successes, especially involving teams of volunteers.”
The church, meanwhile, has found it harder to move to team leadership, Simmons said. “It’s still pretty individual-focused and hasn’t quite grasped Jesus’ model of creating a team like his disciples. In Acts 2, Christians ate, met, prayed and accomplished together.”
7) In all but three interviews with leaders, personal concern for co-workers, their family members, friends and extended social contacts was a high priority, Simmons said. “There is no anonymity. No one is completely separate from who they are at home. There are always conversations about children and grandchildren. There is a circle of concern that people keep going back to because they really care about them.”
The church does this rather well, Simmons said. “It looks at a person’s whole life [rather] than just church life. We usually take a holistic view of people and not just see them as church attenders.”
8) Nonprofit agencies usually make fun, humor and community vital ingredients of everyday operation, Simmons said. Leaders calendar birthdays and anniversaries and instigate spontaneous fun events. “But this intentional fun doesn’t have just one instigator,” he said. “There is much community-building. The managers and administrators sometimes say their staffs think they’re crazy or a little nuts, so it becomes an engaging place to go back to. They get the work done because there is built-in community fun time.”
Organizations working in disaster relief have to find humor in their situations because the work is so difficult, Simmons continued. “My experience in doing relief work after earthquakes in Los Angeles and processing people in a downtown tent was that there was a large amount of teasing, humor and laughter.”
Even “street-level” projects like working with the homeless or those with life-threatening diseases try to maintain a refreshing sense of community, Simmons said. “But sometimes we take the work of the church too seriously. God has given us the most important task in the universe, and we spend time in groups, but not in community necessarily.”
Things like “cheerful banter before a committee meeting or during a choir rehearsal should be viewed as intentional, fun community-building and be given a reasonable place in the agenda in order for the task of the community to be accomplished,” Simmons said. “Those kinds of things should not be viewed as a waste of time.”
9) Another common thread is an outlet for creativity, Simmons said. “Often there would be dream sessions where everyone is involved,” he said. “Some called it ‘drive-by’ thinking. Everyone would shoot out pieces of ideas. They’d decorate things, play music and be expressive.”
In the church, Simmons said, probably some creative people are frustrated. “They’re valued usually to the extent that the senior leadership thinks that they can manage creativity. They value reproduction more than creativity. The church tends to adopt ‘tried-and-true’ models rather than trying new things.”
10) Finally, the leader regularly “rallies the troops” in face-to-face meetings, meals, parties and events, Simmons said. “Everyone sees the leader as the No. 1 cheerleader. He or she repeats the vision statement often to the team. They rally through recognition and celebration, and it’s ongoing. One volunteer at a senior-adult program in Arizona said she could count on the administration to give her some form of encouragement every day.”
In church, rallying is usually left to the pulpit, Simmons said, cautioning, however, that rallying the troops is not solely a large-group event. “There should be a more direct and one-on-one sense of recognition. It’s more than standing up front and saying ‘I’m the leader, so follow me.’ It’s walking with people, putting your hand on their back and saying, ‘Come with me. We’re going in the right direction. I’m with you.'”
For more information about leadership lessons learned from nonprofit organizations, Simmons can be contacted at (415) 380-1450.

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