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3 Innovative Nonprofit Leaders (And What You Can Learn From Them)

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My father is my role model. He taught me about patience, respect, responsibility, and kindness both through his personal actions and through his life philosophies—he’s a huge reason why I wanted to get into advocacy and nonprofit software to begin with.

No matter our age or career path, we need figureheads to inspire us all to reach higher places and the lessons these role models teach make a significant impact on the people we become.

Nonprofits need role models just as much as individuals do, and what better place to look for them than the success stories in their own industry? The nonprofit sector is loaded with stories of kindness, charity, and success. What separates the innovative leaders from the bunch are the mindsets that lead to success on all fronts of philanthropy.

Here are three nonprofit leaders you should know and the important lessons you can learn from them. These leaders were selected based on their notoriety as well as their propensity to buck trends.

1. Diana Aviv, Feeding America

“Nonprofits have to be more agile and innovative, because they’re doing everything with less resources.”

Diana Aviv has had an illustrious career, from working as a social worker in the 1970s to leading multiple nonprofits, such as the National Council of Jewish Women to United Jewish Communities. She is currently the CEO of Feeding America, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting hunger in the United States.

What can we learn from Diana Aviv?

  1. Don’t be afraid of changing direction

Aviv’s departure from Independent Sector to head up Feeding America was considered “unexpected” when she announced it two years ago. She was a successful CEO with a reputation as a “visionary,” especially when Independent Sector was faced with the challenge of “re-founding” the organization into a more modern charity.

Changing course when the current direction is comfortable is requires courage, especially when those changes may result in failure. We all seek comfort, but Aviv’s career at Independent Sector, as well as her announcement to move on from her successful position to a new nonprofit, shows that her leadership philosophy is based in consistent change for the better.

  1. Have strong resolve, but still respect your opponents

Diana Aviv’s career is full of work that was ahead of its time. Bloomberg has chronicled her life from early childhood all the way to her current position as CEO of Feeding America. Their timeline shows a leader with strong views on contentious issues, but her views on her opposition are ones we sorely need to emulate:

“It’s possible to have strong opinions and firm views without demolishing the opposition.”

She grew up in South Africa during the era of apartheid. Her opposition to this policy was what sparked her career in social work, which she claims was “the only legal way to get involved with the anti-apartheid movement without ending up in prison.” It is clear that while Diana Aviv may disagree with whatever opponent she may face, she will always take the time to debate and challenge them in a respectful manner.

This lesson is particularly important during these times of deep partisan divide.

2. Sonya Campion, Campion Advocacy Fund

“My own focus has been to expand the capacity of the nonprofit sector, ranging in everything from strengthening the fundraising profession to encouraging philanthropy to invest in capacity building to mobilizing the collective advocacy voice of the entire sector.”

Sonya is a thirty-plus year fundraising veteran and leadership role model in the nonprofit sector. She is the president of the Campion Advocacy Fund, a founding board member of Funders Together to End Homelessness, a founder of Philanthropy Northwest’s Capacity Building Learning Cycle, as well as a board member to many other organizations, including Independent Sector.

What can we learn from Sonya Campion?

  1. Find meaning

In an interview with BizJournals, Campion explained the shift in her career from financial brokerage to the world of nonprofits:

“I just didn’t get it. Your product is money, you sell money, you make money — I couldn’t see where the meaning was,” she says. “I was sad about it. I liked money and wanted to make money, but I knew I needed a connection to the community.”

Campion found meaning in the nonprofit sector and provided her wisdom in fundraising while working for Collins Group, a nonprofit consulting organization. How many of us go day-to-day working at our jobs while finding little meaning in our work? Before I began my work at Capterra my work didn’t inspire  me or provide any sense of meaning. I was simply working to pay the bills.

Finding meaning in your nonprofit work is key to driving success or even building from a passionate failure. Don’t just go along with what other organizations are doing simply because it is the trendy thing to do. Instead set your organization or your philanthropic work on a path that will inspire your passions.

  1. Branch out

As most nonprofit salaries show, philanthropy is not a lucrative career path. Instead, your wealth is the satisfaction you receive by helping others better their own situations. Sonya and her husband, Tom Campion, started the Campion Advocacy Fund to protect wildlife and since then have branched their organization out into other issues, such as fighting homelessness or expanding the effective capacity of the nonprofit sector.

It obvious that Sonya and her husband derive a lot of enjoyment from their philanthropic work and continue to seek new ways to make an impact, which is net benefit themselves as well as to society as a whole.

As your nonprofit continues to grow, opportunities to branch out will present themselves to you. If your organization capacity allows for such expansions or collaborations, why not take the chance?

3. Bill Gates, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

“As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.”

In spite of being an Apple fanboy, I have an admiration for Bill Gates, the company he built, and the philanthropic network he has fostered over the years. His nonprofit, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, works to solve an impressive list of worldwide problems, including vaccine delivery, global education, agricultural development, HIV, and countless scientific research projects.

What can we learn from Bill Gates?

  1. Always question the status quo

Bill Gates has never been a fan of “things the way they are.” In the early years of Microsoft, Gates shook up the computing world and strayed from the personal computing approach of building a machine and system to accompany it. Instead, he sought to market his operating system to any computer manufacturer interested in just building the hardware, the first of which was IBM.

Bill Gates has carried this philosophy into his philanthropic work. One of the most notable instances of this work was challenging the status quo of education by helping develop the Common Core educational standards. Bill Gates’ philosophy of social responsibility as global corporate leader is apparent when you inspect the ever-growing list of projects adopted by his foundation.

  1. Collaborate to make your vision a reality

Gates’ philosophy of social responsibility goes hand-in-hand with his desire to collaborate with others, even those he is in direct competition with.

As head of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Bill Gates has collaborated with many other initiatives in order to make their vision of a healthier and more prosperous world a reality. In March of 2015, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation collaborated with CureVac in order to speed up the development of vaccines by providing the organization with substantial funding for projects, including HIV research.

Collaborating with likeminded organizations is a fantastic way to innovate new approaches to solving social issues and the success born out by Bill Gates’ efforts is a testament to this approach.

Looking for more lessons and inspiration?

Nonprofits are not only meant for bettering society, but they are also meant to inspire and bring others together to achieve this goal. If you are looking for further inspirations or ideas, here are a few Capterra blog posts filled with lessons and ideas for your organization.

Do you like to read? Then be sure to check out The 10 Books Every Fundraiser Should Read.

If you need a quick reassurance of what makes your nonprofit work worthwhile, then 7 Reasons to Be Thankful for Nonprofits is just what you need. (Sonya Campion would approve)

And finally, nothing motivates me more than an inspirational speech. These are The 7 Best TED Talks to Inspire Small Nonprofits.

Are there any nonprofit leaders you felt were missed in this piece? Be sure to let me know in the comment section below!

Looking for Nonprofit software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Nonprofit software solutions.

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About the Author

Nick Morpus

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Nick Morpus is a Content Writer for Capterra, a free resource that matches buyers and sellers of business software. He has a background in politics, economics, and journalism, which he dedicates his off-time to contributing his thoughts to other political sites. In his free-time he enjoys reading, drawing, photography, playing guitar, writing, and cooking.

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