Throughout the four-day Model United Nations (UN) conference last week, two questions about the non-profit endeavour were frequently asked: How does one start a non-profit project, and what is the best leadership style or approach one should adopt?
The answer to the first is a lot more straightforward: Just start it. Many are often immobilised in their search for that perfect moment – for instance, to assemble the most capable and committed team, to secure the biggest funding, sponsorships, or partnerships, and to implement the best programme or concept – yet barring an extraordinary stroke of luck that moment rarely materialises. This is perhaps tied to fears of failure, yet one will never learn if mistakes are never made. With my service-learning projects and at the United Nations Association of Singapore (UNAS), we are accustomed to (self-)criticisms and problematisation. But we cannot do so without actual feedback, and feedback can only be gathered if a project is actually implemented.
Answering the second is trickier. Tied to this question – especially in the non-profit context – is the challenge of sustainability, and even more so if the leader or the core team has been deeply involved from the beginning. Four years ago in 2013, after running two editions of the Model UN conference, I mused whimsically about my confusion over “good” leadership; in other words, is a “good” leader “present” or “absent”? “Present” leaders get their hands dirty, and in the context of a conference they are down in the trenches with their organising committees, tending to every detail such as sorting the logistics and ushering the participants. To some extent, they therefore lead by example. On the other hand “absent” leaders may not even be at the actual conference, but because of structures or processes (for which the leader may not be responsible) the project concludes without major hitches.
Notwithstanding disagreements with this present-absent dichotomy, my hypothesis is a progressive one: That good leadership for a non-profit project starts with being a “present” leader – which later also empowers the leader to advise and to speak from experience – and after this period of deep immersion, with organisational structures or processes in place, “absence” then entails a more advisory and strategic role.
From a distance this seems laughably obvious: “Of course you can only take a step back – or up – when the project is on a more stable trajectory”. But implementation is hard, and I suspect many leaders underestimate their attachment to the cause (leaving them overstretched or to overstay their welcome, and in addition if they are overly wedded to tried-and-tested practices the project could fail to innovate), or they overestimate how effective the aforementioned structures or processes are (leading to arrogance and potentially causing the project to deviate from its well-meaning mission or vision). Throughout my seven years with UNAS, five-and-a-half years of being “present” created familiarity, and the past one-and-a-half years of being “absent” has been a fascinating phase of balance: To do work, but not too much; to advise, but not prescribe; to be critical, but not cynical.
And it is by no means settled, these dilemmas. Leadership and advisory uncertainty for me can only be resolved – and has only been resolved – through hands-on experience, and in this vein I am even more convinced that individuals or groups with an interest in a non-profit project should just… Start it. The perfect moment does not exist, and in fact at every stage the questions and the doubts could multiply. Give yourself the chance to confront these challenges, and to fail while doing so. We can now run a successful conference. A new team can run an even more successful one. Whether we can continue to do so, we will find out… And that is, in itself, exciting.