3 Leadership Lessons from a Nonprofit Founder

Seven years is a long time. Seven years in your twenties is especially a long time.

I co-founded Kollaboration Atlanta, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to empowering the community through the performing arts, and have spent the last seven years of my life building it from the ground up.

During my time with Kollaboration Atlanta, I experienced many trials and errors, which ultimately fueled my growth not only as a person but also as a leader. Reflecting back on my experience, I realize how unique it all was – my position as a leader, the challenges that I faced and the people that I worked with. You see, a nonprofit start-up is a different beast. From defining what success is to finding the right incentives for your staff members, I’ve learned some of the most valuable lessons of leadership by being a part of a nonprofit organization. Here are three key learnings from my experience with Kollaboration Atlanta that have greatly impacted my philosophy in leadership.

1. Do more with less.

As a nonprofit, we were always challenged with limited resources. We didn’t have a designated space for meetings nor a streamline of financial support. But that didn’t stop us from accomplishing our goals. Instead, it left us no choice but to be scrappy. We started meeting at coffee shops and when our size expanded, we utilized our volunteers’ access to Emory University’s meeting spaces. When we were turned down by big corporation for sponsorships, we reached out to various local businesses asking for gift cards and item donations, which we turned into revenue through a silent auction fundraiser. I’ve learned that being scrappy is what’s going to differentiate you and your organization. Don’t be discouraged by what you don’t have, but rather, maximize results with what you do have.

2. Focus on a doing a few things well.

The first few years of my time at Kollaboration Atlanta reminded me of my experimental high school years when I was trying on different clothes and hanging out with different cliques. Kollaboration Atlanta started out by being known for our annual talent showcase, where we would feature local performing artists. Over the years though, we became involved with numerous other events and activities that started to dilute our identity. This all changed when we got together for a cabin retreat in the North Georgia mountains where we spent days brainstorming our organization’s mission and goals. After writing hundreds of disintegrated ideas on post-it notes, we were able to narrow down our ideas to three main pillars that now represent who we are as an organization. I’ve learned that when you get involved with too many things, you can lose sight of who you are. It’s important to take a step back, re-evaluate what is most important and focus on doing a few things well.2. Focus on a doing a few things well.

3. Lead with authenticity, not with authority.

Throughout my time as the Associate Director, I often had to manage and work directly with people who were not only older than I was but also more experienced in the professional world. This was especially a challenge considering all of our work was volunteer driven with no financial compensation. In the corporate world, it’s easier to accept your directive because you’re paid to follow orders, no questions asked. So I knew that in this case, exercising my authority would only backfire and discourage the staff members. Instead, I focused on being true to who I am and giving my best in everything that I sought out to do. Over time, my staff members recognized my passion and the efforts I put in for the organization and began to respect me as a leader. I learned that if you want to influence others as a leader, you need to give up the idea of authority. If you stay true to who you are and invest your time in building relationships, people will naturally follow you.

I know that the nonprofit world, especially in its early stages, is full of various different challenges that are unique to this sector and it can feel like a lonely journey. But think of those challenges as a way for you to grow as a leader and it will make an imprint on you. These are just three of the many things I’ve learned while leading a nonprofit that I’ll be taking with me as I embark on the next chapter of my journey. I hope that they’ll be informative and helpful to you. If you have anything you’d like to add on to what I’ve said, feel free to share in the comments!