The Opportunity is Now

Michael Brennan, President and CEO of the United Way for Southeastern Michigan delivered the keynote address at the Nonprofit Management Conference, hosted by the Troy Chamber Non-Profit Network and Walsh College.  He made some inspiring remarks, and called upon those attending the conference to pay close attention three central leadership imperatives:

1. Create a powerful vision, a powerful future state that is results-specific.
Are you focused on sustaining the operations of an institution, or are you working every day to advance transformative community change? Too many organizations seek to maintain their current programs, failing to adapt to the changing circumstances surrounding them. In order to make your work relevant, you must adapt your programs and policies to the current environment so that you can work to realize the vision of the world you want to see. Brennan referenced efforts by the area YMCA, who sought to maintain relevance by making an impact on academic achievement. In order to make a direct tie to academic performance, the YMCA has opened up a school, the Detroit Leadership Academy. By focusing on the future state you want to see, and tying this vision with measurable results, you will not only adjust to changing conditions but also advance the transformative change to realize your future state.

2. Call into question the things that matter.
Too often, we spend time on questions that are operational, limited to the work of our organization. This will not help us get to where we want to go. According to Brennan, “we are back on our heels as a sector.” For too long we’ve branded ourselves as the recipient sector; that it is now time to graduate to the leadership sector. Rather than being the folks with our hands out, nonprofit organizations should be developing pathways and new models, demonstrating results and doing so at scale. “Most Boards are bored.” It is imperative upon the executive and volunteer leadership to identify how we move to a more generative, strategic place to fulfill our mission. He called upon all executives to ask themselves, “Am I leading on questions that have the probability of getting me fired?” According to Brennan, that level of tension must exist in order to we are at the cutting edge, helping to advance social change.

3. Do whatever it takes to attract the talent needed to lead against the complexity of the problems we face.
In the next ten years, 600,000 professionals will age out of the nonprofit sector. The onus is upon nonprofit leaders to set the queue for talent needed to fulfill the mission. If this isn’t done, nothing will be sustained. Brennan spoke about recent efforts at United Way to transform their work space to attract young talent, as was discussed in this Detroit Free Press article. He called upon all nonprofit leaders to make an effort to attract the most talented in our country. As nonprofits, we must constantly seek to position ourselves so that we can compete for, retain and attract the best talent.

Brennan admitted a bias towards action, calling upon all in attendance to be up on the balls of their feet, leaning forward, willing to face the tough questions, making the changes necessary to realize their big hairy audacious goals. He challenged participants to “set the aspiration against results and bring in the talent to see this come to life.” 

Though his remarks were targeting CEOs and senior management of area nonprofits, I believe his words can both inspire and equip young nonprofit professionals as they seek to advance social change.  In addition to ensuring that we pursue a powerful vision of the future and call into questions the things that matter, we as young professionals can take ownership of constantly advancing our own talent.  What will you be doing, in the words of Jessica Journey, to move nonprofits from the third sector to the first sector?

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