Five reasons introverts make great nonprofit leaders

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Before we dig into the reasons why introverts can be excellent nonprofit leaders, let's first make sure we're all on the same page when it comes to what an introvert actually is.

Introverts are people who gain energy by spending time alone, as opposed to extroverts, who gain energy by being around other people. While everyone can enjoy spending time with others or time alone, usually people go with one or the other when they need to rejuvenate.

Full disclosure: I myself identify as an introvert.

The nonprofit sector is made up of people with diverse interests and traits, including introverts! When we think about successful people and initiatives in the nonprofit sector, we often celebrate the outgoing, networked, outspoken individuals. And while introverts can be outgoing, good at networking, and outspoken at times, we often fly under the radar.

So what about introverts can make us great leaders in the nonprofit sector?

We listen first

Whether it's in meetings with fellow staff members, in our work with clients, or in our stewardship of donors, listening is important! An introvert's default mode of listening first, speaking second means that we hear people before sharing our thoughts. This helps people feel heard, valued, and important when we are in one-to-one situations. “Generally, introverts offer a grounded and more quiet stance,” says Andrea Canales, a program manager with Immigrant Services Society of BC. “This is hugely necessary when working in times of crisis and supporting people dealing with complex issues.”

It also results in great things when we are in large groups — we are able to notice themes and have new ideas spark in our brains to share at later point. We also provide space for others to share and this helps, whether as a participant or facilitator. Alan Chen, director of McGill Spaces Project, shared “I take up less space in group conversations...in order to give others more room to speak. It's been helpful when learning to facilitate, and I've had others express their appreciation for feeling included within a larger group.”

We focus on building a few deep relationships

Kathleen Sheppard, executive director of Environment Lethbridge, feels “as an introvert, I think we are good at building strong one-on-one relationships and at making connections between people and organizations.”

Introverts are social — we’re just social with fewer people on a deep level. As nonprofit leaders, this means we can make people feel important and valuable by focusing our efforts on people that matter most to our work, whether that means board members, staff, community leaders, legacy or major donors, or vulnerable clients. And because we know those people well, we are good at making relevant connections to others in our network.

We run good meetings

A few of the most important aspects of a good meeting are:

  1. There is an agenda, distributed in advance.
  2. There is balanced contribution from meeting participants.
  3. There is a clear conclusion.

Introverts like being able to think in advance of meetings, so when we’re at the top of our game, we prepare agendas and send them out in advance so that others like us can also think and prepare in advance.

We’re also really good observers, noting when some people are contributing more than others or when others look like they want to contribute but are having a hard time cutting in (since introverts hate interrupting others!). We encourage new voices to add their input, and maybe even interrupt on behalf of others when one person is dominating discussion. Sylvia Ceacero, CEO of SHARE Family and Community Services, shares her favourite quote about how introverts interact in a group setting (from author Laurie Helgoe): “Introvert conversations are like jazz, where each player gets to solo for a nice stretch before the other player comes in and does his solo.”

Finally, since we’re thinking and reflecting in real time during meetings, when the end of the meeting comes, we often excel at providing a summary of what has been said and synthesizing the different viewpoints and contributions.

We think deeply before big decisions

Vanessa LeBourdais, founder and creative director with DreamRider Productions, feels her introverted side helps greatly with vision and strategy. “I go into silence regularly, just being present with everything that I have listened to, heard, felt, sensed and seen. I wait. Eventually an awareness comes to me of what is wanting to emerge in the organization. This has answered questions like, 'What is the right action to take to resolve this horrendous board issue?', 'Are we on the right path?' 'What is wanting to emerge now?' and innumerable small issues, conflicts and worries along the way.”

Whether we seek hard data, gather observations, or solicit other peoples’ perspectives, we like collecting information and thinking and reflecting on important decisions.

We focus the spotlight on the mission and our people

As in every sector, we all know those people who make the news about themselves rather than their cause. Introverts are less likely to do that. We can speak up and out when needed, but often are best at talking up our cause rather than ourselves (sometimes to the detriment to our own careers!) and at passing on opportunities to other team members. Sheppard shares, “we're good at getting out of the way and letting others take the lead when it’s appropriate.”

Since we feel uncomfortable when people praise us publicly, we are quick to spread the love around and redirect the praise to other deserving individuals.

While introverts may have specific preferences in the ways we go about our days, we can work outside of our comfort zone, for a good cause. And since we’re in the business of good causes, we do what’s necessary to get good work done.

As principal of 27 Shift Consulting, Trina Isakson focuses on two things: deep thinking on the future of the nonprofit sector, and taking sticky projects off the corner of executives’ desks and running with them. Ideally both at the same time. She is also founder of Quiet Changemaker Project and the Do Good Better Podcast, and has taught a variety of university courses on community development and nonprofit governance and leadership. Trina holds an MBA in community economic development from Cape Breton University and a Certificate in Dialogue and Civic Engagement from SFU.

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