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What mission-driven nonprofits can teach us about leadership

Mission driven nonprofits can teach us a lot about one of leadership’s most powerful levers: discretionary effort.        

I recently attended an extraordinary conference about the future of leadership development in New York. As part of this experience, we (corporate and consulting leaders) took small group field trips to mission-driven nonprofit organizations in the NYC area.

The agreement: trade time and field trip experience with nonprofit leaders in exchange for our advice. What we found in our trip to City Harvest, a New York City food rescue operation, was that in the end we were the learners, and the lessons were powerful. 

The nonprofit leaders we met at City Harvest brought home a simple but powerful formula for creating value: 
Power of mission + work with meaning+ empowerment and opportunity = commitment and discretionary effort.

Let’s deconstruct:

The Power of Mission

It’s no secret that people who truly believe in their work can feel more connected and committed to their employer. This is true at for-profit companies as well as nonprofits. Mission makes us feel part of something bigger than ourselves that can make a positive difference in the world. This feeds our needs as humans for meaning and impact. And, according to Gallup, “as employees move beyond employee engagement and view their contribution to the organization more broadly, they are more likely to stay, take proactive steps to create a safe environment, have higher productivity, and connect with customers to the benefit of the organization.”

Work with Meaning

While City Harvest is a nonprofit, it is not a volunteer organization. The leaders and workers we met were, to be clear, working for a paycheck. The money is as important as it is to all of us who work. The people we met were happy to have the work; but they were particularly grateful because it was not just a job, it was work with meaning. They could clearly see how the food they moved in the warehouse, the trucks they scheduled and coordinated, loaded and unloaded, made a difference in feeding the poor, the homeless and the hungry.


Empowerment and Opportunity

Those we met at City Harvest were proud to tell us stories about their work, things they had done to improve the efficiency or performance of their part of the operation. The leaders were especially excited to tell us of things their workers had done independently: ideas they came up with simply by thinking about how to do their job better. Changes that materially impacted the performance of the organization, like the forklift driver who reorganized warehouse layout. The senior leader’s philosophy was clear: give people not just accountability but empowerment and opportunity to improve their work, and they will find a better way.  Both the employee and the organization benefit.

So what can we all learn from mission driven nonprofits like City Harvest, to apply to our own work as leaders?

  • Focus on the mission of our work to give it meaning
  • Reward those who live the mission not only with basic needs (jobs, compensation, work structure), but with empowerment and opportunity. Invite them to find a better way, and get out of the way.
  • Tap into fulfillment and unleash creativity to benefit both the individual and the organization. 

Everyone wants something to believe in. Even in a highly resource-constrained environment, combining empowerment and opportunity with mission and gratitude creates an ideal set of conditions for discretionary effortThat’s a great formula for real leadership. 

 Read more about discretionary effort


Nick Noyes is co-founder of Insight Experience, a Boston-based firm delivering contextually rich, immersive business simulations and learning experiences to accelerate and integrate leadership, business acumen and strategy execution.