Inside the Non-Profit: How Shared Leadership Enables Autonomy, Risk Taking and Empowerment.

In my second year of university, I began working in social service positions across campus while also playing varsity football. The scale steadily tilted towards a higher focus on my work positions where I felt like I was offering a higher level of my gifts and making a meaningful impact. Thus began my road to working in social enterprise, community action and nonprofit work. 

In my 5 years worth of experience working with a variety of nonprofit & community groups, I have seen behind the curtain of a strong face. 

The first priority of a nonprofit – by definition – is to contribute to the development of societal wellbeing. Though this is so large of a task that many treat it like an enigma; workers in this arena are not valued equally. They are definitely recognised for their humble efforts, but rarely supported in a manner that can ensure longevity. As a result, the workers in this field seriously grind. 

Sometimes a source of funding ends and a program suffers. Sometimes we’re operating on a short staff and striving to do our best to keep paid employees happy. Or it could even be that a lack in membership and recruitment limit the capacity to make an impact for social good. 

Ahh! The forces of nature in this sector can hit hard. Which is all the more reason to establish a healthy culture of collaboration, communication and collective impact.

I hope you can see that in my recent experience below. 

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Over this summer, I traveled all around the province of Nova Scotia (NS) delivering Juniorpreneur camps through my role with CEED, where youth aged 8-14 spent a week working towards running their own business for half a day, earning revenue, calculating costs and enjoying the rewards of their hard work by retaining their profits. 

We met our young entrepreneurs in Kings County, Pictou County, Yarmouth and the HRM. I must say that learning about these different pockets around NS from an experiential rather than “word of mouth” point of view definitely added to my knowledge of what is customary in certain parts and what is needed for progression. 

Now, this was my first crack at coordinating and facilitating these camps so I was fortunate to have a strong leader & teammate with prior experience. 

Throughout the summer, I became more familiar with the process as we started rolling through our six iterations. BUT – I always stuck to my strengths. I was very certain of where I could benefit the team and where a task could be done to a higher level by a teammate. Every person on that team served a purpose. The decision-making limits were clear, we had the autonomy to completely own and conduct our tasks as we saw fit, we offered honest feedback on practices/ideas and didn’t second guess each other’s decisions to adapt in the moment. 

I felt supported all summer long and I was extremely thankful for that. I couldn’t dream of managing the process by myself.

*The stars*: "what’s that you say? A fear? Oh goody :)”

As life is full of as many tests as it is lessons, I was destined to take mine at the end of the summer as our lead facilitator would be away and myself (as the second permanent member of the education team) would need to account for her responsibilities. 

I can’t lie, I was feeling the pressure a little bit. I was a new employee and even though I had a team, I would hold the most responsibility for the outcomes in this camp. 

When Monday came, I wanted to make it clear to the team that I would need them just as much as they would need me. We clearly and honestly articulated how our individual skills could contribute to elements of the process and we also spoke about venturing out of our usual roles to explore different expertise. Our souls were shining through.

“A few people of integrity can go a long way.”

– Bill Kauth

Per the quote above, I couldn’t echo this sentiment enough. Above any hard skill my teammates had to aid the efficiency of their work, the characteristics that allowed for what many fellow colleagues, associates and family members observed as a smooth and well-facilitated process were:

1. Integrity

2. Ownership in the process

3. Willingness to trust & share 

From being on multiple forms of teams before through school, sports and work – I knew that the key to success was that we all show those three characteristics above. 

Our integrity kept us rooted in times of decision-making and resolving conflict. It also allowed for each of us to form bonds with the young campers through personalities that matched similarities in theirs. So, our integrity made way for good decisions, honest opinions and the ability to have fun being 100% authentic. We created a space where nobody would feel afraid or nervous to do so. 

The ownership in the process was felt by all of us. We all knew that we were missing the strong leader we had before and so our approach empowered each one of us to step up. My other two teammates, who in previous times could be misperceived as submissive, became assertive in their own right. We knew what we were capable of and we delivered to the highest level we could because we were all driven to leave our mark on this final camp. The scope of responsibility may have grown but it didn’t come as a worry because of the final characteristic below.

Lastly, it was the willingness to trust that was the magic in this past week. During camp, a number of critical decisions need to be made to ensure the safety of the youth, the growth of their acquired learning, proper documents for organisational/parental use as well as proper accommodation for supporters and guest speakers. We trusted the abilities each of us had to carry this through and there was no overriding of decisions because, for the most part, all the decisions were made together. We openly voiced our concerns and tackled emerging challenges in a focused, collaborative manner. We all continually asked each other questions about steps in the process which deconstructed any shame or doubtful feelings about moving forward with our respective tasks. We empowered each other because we all knew that was important to work at our best. 

Throughout the camp, I was responsible for holding the process and ensuring the details were in order – previously not my strong suit as a big picture thinker. Nevertheless, because I felt so supported, I was able to hone these skills as the week went on to create a smooth, well-facilitated operation. I was able to manage our group time well, keep an organised set of documents for our itinerary, stay in contact with a variety of partners, increase my decisiveness and ask openly for feedback. 

Let this be a case for developing young professionals in the workplace.

In a nonprofit, the pace is fast. At times, you’re assigned to tasks outside your range of expertise. The number of responsibilities grow due to the need for ‘more hands on deck.’ Things can change in an instant and so you need to be able to adapt & prioritise. 

Despite being a new graduate (or even current co-op student, in some cases) – you are thrown into the fire and advised not to burn. 

Once we do go through this fire transformation we come out with more confidence, more experience and a higher knowledge of what best serves us to do good work with the assertiveness to voice it. 

We grow up fast. 

We learn to respect our intellect and rightfully place ourselves on a pedestal before those whose title may seemingly place them there. 

We see the value in collaboration and healthy work relationships so we leave our ego at the door to accomplish team success. 

Each one of us is a leader in our own way. It might just be the right team we need for us to acknowledge it. 

*P.S, I have to say that our campers definitely helped make this week great for us as well by being so bright, engaged and well-mannered (as much as kids can be).


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