A day at the beach can be relaxing and provide a few lessons for life beyond the sand and sun, especially this time of year.  Whether you are a nonprofit, small or large business, perhaps some of the best lessons can be learned from watching the attitude of the surfers who take on the ocean waves.

Relaxing on the balcony of a condo I noticed several surfers walking toward the ocean waves with great anticipation.  It reminded me of that same attitude when hungry, new leaders are starting their businesses or heading into the nonprofit worlds.  There’s always a bit of excitement and yet uncertainty about what lies ahead.

Everyone in a nonprofit does a bit of surfing; volunteers, board members and staff alike. However, you must be prepared for the unexpected, the wipeouts.  You can’t really understand what it means to work for a group of people with different backgrounds and expectations if you come from the corporate world.  In fact, that might be like surfing in a lake as opposed to the ocean.

Nonprofits are unique animals and they would do well if all (especially executives) involved could take a few minutes to reflect on the SURF acronym when leading the organization.

S – Sight 

A surfer knows where they are headed – toward the shore.  It may seem simplistic, but everyone needs to have a clear line of sight to the future.  Mission, vision, core values and strategic plans can help clarify, but you can’t rely on those alone.  There need to be opportunities to build the line of sight, perfect it, and bring everyone in alignment.  Board and staff retreats are a great way to hammer out the details and provide general agreement on the path that lies ahead.  However, you must have a vehicle in place that clarifies the line of sight and always keeps it in front of the players.  Yes, this includes volunteers.  They need to understand how their actions impact the overall direction of the organization because many times they are its face.  They also need to understand how to contribute in order to move closer to the vision.

U – Unity

Organizations need to present a united front and it sounds easier than it may be.  Culture, policies, history, and branding are the major influencers, so it’s easy to see the difficulty in bringing it all together.  Walking the walk and talking the talk will do a lot for organizational unity.  Consistent leadership also provides the glue that holds the organization together while establishing the appropriate direction.  Cracks will form, some from inside and others forced by environmental influences, but the key is to address them as soon as possible across the organization.  Nothing can eat away more quickly than allowing exceptions in one area while trying to support another.

R – Ride

Surfers must ride the waves and go where the water takes them.  Organizations are much the same.  It’s fine to have a strategic plan and a sense of direction.  The reality is that times and the operation environment will change, people will change and more than likely a board will change.  Successful organizations and their Executives need to be able to adapt, make the necessary adjustments, shift their weight and ride out some of the turbulent times to enjoy the calmer ones.  Don’t search for the anchor, real leaders are built in the challenging times, use them to your advantage and remember, the shore is just ahead.

F – Follow-up 

Do you think that surfer rode the most challenging of waves on their first attempt?  More important than the attempts themselves is the way that a person follows-up or gets back on the board.  We’ve all heard, “it’s not the mistake, it’s how it’s handled that makes the difference.”  Think of how that speaks to follow-up, as does running an organization.  When bad things happen, sales are down, an event wasn’t a success, etc., the key will be how one follows up.  It’s not time to stick your head in the sand but rather use the sand to build your visionary response. 

Everyone is watching, employees and volunteers are quick to note how follow-up happens.  Did you return the call immediately?  Did you address the problem they surfaced?  How many times have they asked about “x?”  Follow-up can make or break your efforts.  If you’re not successful the first time, admit it.  Let your people, volunteers or sometimes even donors know.  “That didn’t go as we had planned, but we’re learning from the experience, making adjustments and moving in the direction of success.” Astute supporters get it, they’ve been there, and they appreciate the honesty.

Running a nonprofit or business is challenging in this sea of change and the ability to surf may be one of the best qualities one can possess.  With today’s technology, social media, labor issues and more, change is nearly as fluid as the water beneath a surfboard.  Just remember, whatever stage you are in this journey, it’s all about the balance.

David J. Fry, CDT, MPS is the president and CEO of Effective Advancement Strategies in Greensburg and consults with businesses and nonprofits throughout Indiana.

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