Skip to Content

Try this: Supercharge leadership through community

September 21, 2023

By Sara Shahriari

Funding. Board development. Strategic planning. These are just a few of the many essential areas where nonprofit news leaders work in addition to journalism in service to their communities. As INN’s director of leadership and talent development, I see the incredible variety of immediate demands leaders face every single day. But I also see the profound benefits of stepping back from the intensity of daily work and joining a leadership community.

Thirty-five members of the Emerging Leaders Council — both past and present — gathered in Washington, D.C., in June 2023.

This was powerfully demonstrated when 35 members of the INN Emerging Leaders Council gathered in Washington, D.C., in June. The focused energy, hope and ambition brightened an otherwise nondescript conference room with metal chairs and round tables. As we kicked off a day of conversation and connection, I was struck by the fact that 35 of the busiest people I know set aside a full day for each other. It underscored to me just how much leaders in this field need to be in the community and share ideas. Now, as we rocket right into fall and Halloween decorations and pumpkin spice lattes pop up around us, my mind is still on the summer of conferences and first-time IRL meetups with INN members. Looking toward 2024, here are three nonprofit leadership takeaways I’ll carry with me and three strategies for putting them into action.

Leadership in emerging fields can feel uniquely lonely. It doesn’t have to.

In some ways traditional approaches to journalism work against creating an open, collaborative space for news leaders from different organizations. That’s because a landscape that prioritizes competition can breed an insular, proprietary environment where people are reluctant to share successes, strategies or challenges with one another. While that may be sustainable within large organizations that can invest heavily in talent development among their own ranks, it’s not often the case in nonprofit news, where many newsrooms operate with fewer than five full-time staff. In these organizations, connection with other leaders becomes vital to sharing knowledge so organizations can build sustainability. It also saves individual leaders from having to reinvent the wheel again and again and again in isolation — a task that exhausts even the most determined person. Whether it’s through a program like INN’s Emerging Leaders Council, other fellowships or networks leaders build themselves, well designed, safe and supportive spaces to share experiences, goals, successes and stumbles are fundamental to this new generation of nonprofit news leadership.

Nonprofit news is attracting talent from beyond journalism. How we welcome that talent matters.

When we think about news we think about reporters and editors. But for nonprofit news to continue to grow and flourish as a vibrant, representative and sustainable field, we also need founders, fundraisers, digital marketers, operations whizzes, and many others from outside the journalism field to join us. Over the summer, I met experienced professionals joining nonprofit news from other fields, which reminded me of how complicated it is to step into a new professional space. It can feel like everybody (except you) knows everybody else at the party, and there are whole rafts of history, knowledge and habits to absorb, along with connections to make and skills to acquire. As individual news organizations and a field, it’s imperative that we recognize how difficult these transitions are and adjust our onboarding and professional support accordingly. In my experience, investing in leaders who are new in our field, especially leaders from backgrounds historically underrepresented in journalism, can be transformative in terms of how they feel about their work and the scale of what they can accomplish. For organizations, this can mean pairing people who are new to the field with experienced pros who do simple things like explain our field’s acronym soup and more complex things like inviting newcomers into their networks of influence and knowledge.

Nobody can build a new kind of news leadership alone. But together, we’re already underway.

It’s easy for many rising news leaders I work with to think of previous experiences with managers that they absolutely do not want to replicate. It often takes more time to identify and focus on positive attributes and experiences. But making time to define and implement leadership for ourselves is essential as we build practices that are not just a rejection of what came before, but instead active, iterative, defined ways for bold leadership, humility and service to go hand-in-hand.

A news organization moves fast. It’s easy to push anything that doesn’t have to happen right now down the line. That’s why I’m always impressed when nonprofit news leaders carve out time for themselves and their staff to work on elements of leadership. They recognize that this is a skill to learn and improve, and there’s no magical point in our careers when we suddenly become infallible captains. When leaders generously share their experience and knowledge about practices like stay interviews, making remote work sustainable or involving staff in a strategic planning process, I know this isn’t breaking news or the campaign that launches tomorrow. But it’s work that is going to have a lasting and positive impact for individuals, their organizations and the entire field. It’s the work of building our brand of news leadership, and it can only happen together.

So, what can we all do to help nonprofit news — and its leaders — thrive?

This piece was originally published on INNsights.

Back to top