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Theresa Adkison

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Theresa Adkison
Fall 2021 Alumna, ASU Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management

If you’re like many of us working in nonprofit leadership today, you’re more than likely exhausted and running out of actionable ideas. Between the pandemic and workforce shortages, you are also possibly navigating reduced income, unable to resume all of your normal events and programming, and struggling to compete for funding.

The past two years have been rough for everyone. It’s said that adversity drives innovation, but for many, that well is starting to dry up too soon. So where are all the good ideas? As leaders of nonprofits, we have the power to create the perfect formula for innovation within our organizations. While there are no quick fixes, the effort and energy you put into these solutions now will be the garden for future innovative abundance.

It all starts with your organization’s mission statement. Nonprofits must have a clear and compelling mission statement that states the organization’s reason for being. It must be articulate enough to measure progress against, inspiring enough to move people to action, and still broad enough to withstand the test of time. If it has been a while since you reviewed or revised your mission statement, start here. Make sure you and your stakeholders agree on your nonprofit’s reason for being. With this clarity of purpose, the nonprofit can focus on its culture.

Every new hire is an opportunity to build the organization of your dreams. As nonprofits, we have limited resources, which means limited compensation options. With our staff being the most valuable of our assets, every position needs an all-star employee filling it and every vacant position is an opportunity to find your ideal candidate.

Once the employee is hired, we need to set the stage for building connections and psychological safety. When nonprofit leadership takes the time to build relationships, mentor staff, elicit insights and feedback and demonstrate the ability to act on that feedback, the staff will begin to trust that they have a place and a voice within the organization. Leaders set the tone for this through transparent and open communication with staff and stakeholders. Every person on the staff and every community member has some insight to offer, but they might not be presented unless the leadership communicates the value of these insights and the need of the organization to hear from everyone. This is where participatory practice comes in to play.

Participatory practice is a concept which means giving voice to those in the community who know the issues best, and then planning and organizing solutions to these issues using the resources of the nonprofit to implement solutions. By engaging the community in which we serve, and by including our own staff and volunteers, we are opening ourselves up to the most diverse feedback, insights, and ideas available. However, we must act on this feedback or we risk losing the connection and trust we have built.

Once we have built a culture that is connected and engaged, nonprofit leadership is primed to use the insights of this culture to build a strategic plan that everyone is invested in. The goals must be SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and measurable). If the culture is invested in the goal, the leadership can drive the innovative ideas into reality by communicating the mission and vision of the organization, keeping metrics front and center through regular reviews, and then looping the data back to the community and the employees. This data is necessary to ensure that everyone is thinking about and working toward the same goals. This data is how we measure our impact.

Innovation and impact are not lotteries we hope to win, nor are they a gamble that might someday pay off. Innovation and impact are within the reach of any nonprofit organization that is willing to put in the time and effort into building it. Through intentional mission drive, culture building and strategic planning, innovation and impact will bear the fruit of these efforts.

Theresa Adkison is a 2021 graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University. She serves as the chief strategy officer for Triumph in Yakima, Washington. She is a substance use disorder professional and a certified peer counselor who has devoted her career to helping others effected by addiction. Through her unique brand of passionate storytelling and empathetic leadership development, Adkison is raising awareness about this deadly disease and helping her community to address this pressing need. She has a bachelor’s degree from Washington State University in Comparative American Cultures and a certificate in substance use disorders from Yakima Valley College. With her master’s degree completed, she intends to continue to work with nonprofits and improve the lives of those in her community through treatment and awareness of substance use disorder.

Learn more by enrolling in the Nonprofit Executive Leadership Certificate from the ASU Lodestar Center’s Nonprofit Management Institute. This is an exclusive learning and networking experience just for executive directors, senior-level managers and emerging executives of nonprofit and public organizations. Gain the confidence, skills and networks you need to successfully lead your organization into the future. Scholarships are available.