The last two years I served on the Executive Board for the Oklahoma Writer’s Federation, Inc., first as conference chair in 2014 and then as president in 2015. I love the people and the organization. However, leading a non-profit is harder than anything I’ve ever had to do. I had no idea how hard until I did it. It’s impossible not to learn from an experience like mine. Here are ten lessons I learned.
1.) Volunteers for non-profits work harder than anyone else. They work for passion, not for money. You can ask for 100% and they’ll voluntarily give you 150%.
2.) Five percent of the people will scream loud and long about everything you and the other leaders are doing wrong. It’s easy to doubt your actions even though the good of the organization was behind every decision. The best way to test resolve when people complain is to suggest they volunteer so their ideas can be put into motion. In my experience, none wanted to volunteer.
3.) Ninety-five percent will remain quiet or send the occasional note of support. You have to know that the screaming minority have agendas that have little to do with the organization. This makes it easier to put the negativity behind you.
4.) Ten percent of your members will do all the work. They will also belong to the 95% who are quietly supportive.
5.) Never respond to a complainer in a way that is rude or disrespectful, even if they are being that to you. The attack may feel personal, but it rarely is.
6.) The buck stops with you. If something goes wrong, it doesn’t matter if you had nothing to do with it, you accept the blame. Pointing the finger only makes it harder to find solutions.
7.) With that thought in mind, always seek opinions regarding every decision. From your board, from your membership, from people who have done what you’re trying to do. Then, make the decision. Be definitive.
8.) When conflict arises (and it will, regularly), get all the information; and if you find fault, be firm but kind. It is rarely the intention of the member to make things difficult. In most cases, our passions are what leads to disagreements. However, right or wrong, the parties need to apologize for their part. After all, it takes at least two to agree and two to disagree.
9.) NEVER forget that your decisions impact others and that the result is not always positive. When you have to make a decision that someone isn’t going to like, be prepared to listen. Give them an audience. However, if you made the decision for the good of the organization, that’s all you can do. Most of the time, all the person wants is to know someone listened and considered what they had to say.
10.) There’s no such thing as too much communication. Keep communication open with the board, the other officers, the volunteers, and the members. Anything that might be misunderstood, get out in front of it as soon as you can. If you drop a ball(nearly guaranteed), accept the responsibility, fix the problem, and make sure everyone knows it.
Working with so many awesome people and amazing talents was a joy. I believe my time with OWFI has made me a better writer and my year as president has made me a better human being.
Have you had a similar experience where leadership taught you valuable lessons? I’d love to hear what you learned.