New leadership program develops nonprofit executives

Nonprofit LEAD 24/7 is a professional training cohort forged from Leading by Design curriculum.
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Patrick Cisler is shown facilitating a session of Nonprofit Next, one of Lakeshore Nonprofit Alliance’s other programs. Courtesy Lakeshore Nonprofit Alliance

Most often, nonprofits’ budgets go toward programming and overhead, and little is left for talent development. A new partnership in Ottawa County is trying to change that.

Patrick Cisler, executive director of Lakeshore Nonprofit Alliance (LNA), a membership organization that serves 160 nonprofits in Ottawa County, teamed up with Rodger Price, founder and managing partner of Grand Rapids-based educational consulting firm Leading by Design (LBD), to launch a version of LBD’s LEAD 24/7 curriculum that is tailored to nonprofits.

Nonprofit LEAD 24/7 wrapped its first 12-month cohort of nine executive director participants in May, which included Barbara Lee VanHorssen, Momentum Center; Beth Larsen, Resilience; Craig Spoelhof, Boys and Girls Club of Greater Holland; Darcy Fluharty, Children’s Advocacy Center; Deedre Vriesman, Resthaven; Drew Peirce, Good Samaritan Ministries; Josh Bytwerk, Love in Action of the Tri-Cities; Sarah Lewakowski, Mosaic Counseling; and Scott Rumpsa, Community Action House.

A second cohort launched this month.

Cisler’s organization is devoted to providing education, training and consulting to its nonprofit partners — “helping them do their good work even better,” as he put it. About five or six years ago, LNA began brainstorming how to put on a low-cost professional development program for nonprofit executives who often don’t get the support they need.

After exploring many options, three years ago Cisler began talks with Price and his team about doing a nonprofit-specific LEAD 24/7 program after Cisler himself went through a cohort with LBD.

“Rodger was gracious enough to open up his playbook and say, ‘I’d be happy to do that,’” Cisler said. “Certainly, it aligns missionally with him, and so he, again, opened up the curriculum for us, and then we as an organization raised the money to help subsidize the cost to be able to put nine executive directors through our first cohort. We were interrupted by the pandemic, but we just wrapped up our first cohort in May of 2021.”

The Nonprofit LEAD 24/7 cohort participants meet once a month for a year — in person, if possible, at a nonprofit or company that is a leader in its field — listening to facilitators including Cisler and Kurt Wassink, retired head of human resources for Gentex, on topics such as giving and receiving feedback, public speaking, healthy conflict resolution, building a solid team, casting vision, leading oneself, leading change and more.

As part of the program, participants break into small groups for discussion, then they also meet with an executive coach from Leading by Design to help them apply the concepts to their organization.

“They meet with (coaches) for about two hours in between sessions as another way to help process some of the content that they’re learning,” Cisler said. “I’ve done a lot of leadership development programs myself over the years, and one of the nuances of this program, where it separates itself, is in processing what you’re learning, just really trying to make leadership principles stick. … It’s not like going to a leadership conference where you may learn some great things and then you forget them two weeks later.”

Cisler said the first cohort of participants found the most value in content related to team development, such as hiring, firing, onboarding, training and managing conflict.

“Nonprofits particularly have a challenge leaning into conflict,” Cisler said. “We as humans generally have an issue with that, I don’t think it matters what industry you are in, but in West Michigan, we particularly struggle with it, with the whole ‘West Michigan nice’ thing. We don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, and then there’s an added layer on it when it comes to nonprofits, because most folks that are in nonprofits, they’re very kindhearted. … They generally would rather avoid dealing with difficult topics than addressing them. This program went a long way to helping our participants do that much better in their organizations.”

Many participants identified with the curriculum’s emphasis on being yourself and using your innate strengths as you lead, which can help avoid burnout. 

A bonus element that emerged organically, Cisler said, was the fact that the participants formed deep relationships and were able to lean on each other to navigate the pandemic.

Recognizing that nonprofits are funded heavily by donations, which in turn, often are earmarked for programming and services, not professional development, Cisler and his team at LNA raised funds for the program to subsidize it for participants, who then were responsible for $2,500 of the approximately $10,000 per person price tag LBD normally costs. Cisler said some participants were able to get additional support from community foundations to defray the cost even further.

“Nonprofit executives and nonprofit staff in general very rarely have the opportunity to focus on professional development, whether it’s cost-prohibitive or just an accessibility issue, there’s just not a lot of leadership development opportunities in West Michigan,” he said. “We wanted to give a very enriching experience to some of our best local nonprofit leaders, knowing that most of them had never had that opportunity before.”

Cisler said LNA and LBD will continue to evaluate and improve the program for future cohorts. One goal for next year’s group is to incorporate more of a diversity, equity and inclusion lens into the curriculum, including adding more diverse instructors and facilitators. 

Nonprofit LEAD 24/7 also likely will be adding cohorts for emerging leaders below the executive level, Cisler said, and in the future, he hopes to be able to offer the program to organizations outside of Ottawa County, as well. Leading by Design already has an international presence, so he thinks geographical expansion would be a natural next step for the nonprofit training program.

More information about Nonprofit LEAD 24/7 can be obtained by contacting Cisler at patrick@lakeshorenonprofits.org.

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