Social Impact organisations are different.  Sure they have to make a surplus or profit.  Yes they have to be nice places to work.  Yet they also have this added dimension of doing social good, public benefit its also called in the UK.

© Yuri_Arcurs / iStock

© Yuri_Arcurs / iStock

So what does it take to lead an organisation that wants to deliver social impact and leave the world a better place?

I have found that successful social impact leaders have a few traits in common:

  1. Be dedicated to your vision: I’ve assumed that a leader already has a vision (if they don’t then nothing I write below is going to help).  But it is easy to get distracted by pressures from the board, from donors, investors, supporters, staff and beneficiaries and mission-drift is a real and pressing issue for many leaders.  So stay true to that long-term goal that got you into social impact work in the first place;
  2. Listen: The people that work for a social impact organisation are just as special as anyone else, and they have a pretty good idea of what they are doing and how they can do it better.  So listen to their ideas and let them implement ideas that everyone has agreed on.  You can define who ‘everyone’ has to be, but it is more than just the leader;
  3. Empower: Let the team or teams that work in the organisation that you lead get on with the job.  Let them organise how they want to work (where possible) and let them take as many decisions (even financial decisions) as possible.  Find innovative and different ways to manage things like conflict, R&D, HR, target setting (if you need targets), etc. that doesn’t always end up in the executive office or suite.  Leaders need to know when to step back and let go;
  4. Communicate: let everyone know as often as possible what you’re thinking and what is important to you.  Even if it is a blog or a weekly email, the more you communicate about what is going on and where your priorities are, the  more you will take people with you towards your vision, the less surprising some decisions will be to others and the more relaxed people will be in the work place.  They will get better at communicating too;
  5. Demonstrate: Leaders are the brand and the vision of the organisation, whether they like it or not.  People who work in the organisation will feed off your energy and behaviour.  You cannot empower a team one day and take back that power the next day.  You cannot listen to a team one day and then ignore everything they’ve said.  You cannot say one thing and do another.

These are not the usual list of traits that some might be looking for in a leader (financial management, strategic design, taking difficult decisions, etc.).  That’s because social impact organisations don’t have to be the usual kind of organisations – they are a chance to do things differently and better.

It really is something special to be running a social impact organisation (either non-profit or for-profit).  So social impact leaders should be someone special too.

What are your experiences of social impact leaders and leadership?  Which leaders do you admire? Why? Which leadership traits are important to you?


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