Patton McDowell Gives Advice on Becoming a Better Leader

Patton McDowell Fundraising Superheroes
Can leadership be taught or is it a skill we are born with? We all have the potential to become great leaders if we seek to actively develop that skill. But it’s more than just looking inside yourself, it’s being able to engage your staff, community and board members with your cause. 

Patton McDowell has a 30-year career in nonprofit leadership, strategic planning, and organizational development. He founded his organization PWA consulting in 2009 and is helping over 240 nonprofits become more successful leaders. 

He speaks with us on the basics of good leadership and the mentality needed to guide your team to success. 

Patton’s 3 Aspects of Good Leadership 

  1. You can attract and maintain good talent. A good leader will look after their staff and do what they can to ensure everyone on their team feels supported. This also means being able to choose the right volunteers for your board of directors and engage with your community. 
  2. Good leadership is a skill you have to work on. This means actively seeking out tools and resources to better educate yourself as well as being open to growing with your team. 
  3. Don’t be afraid to reach out for support. Find 2 individuals in similar positions you can lean on for support or go to for advice when needed. 

Our Favourite Quotes 

[05:44] I'm always impressed. And frankly, the best leaders could rest on their laurels, right? They've had achievements that would suggest they could kind of relax. But I find the best leaders never get satisfied because they know the missions they serve require them to remain on the kind of cutting edge.

[19:00] If there's a silver lining for this pandemic, it is an increased ability and comfort to engage through platforms like this. I have reengaged with people from 20 years ago that I just have not done a good job of connecting. And we all as leaders should take advantage of this opportunity to maybe reconnect and therefore help add to our resource library just through these personal


Learn how to unlock your leadership potential with Patton McDowell.

Hi and welcome to Driven's Fundraising Superheroes Podcast. I'm your host, Sabrina Sciscente, and as an innovator in nonprofit technology, our team at Driven is determined to help you unlock your true fundraising potential, visit us at to learn more about how we can help you with your donor, volunteer or member management.

Is leadership a skill we are born with? Or do we all have the potential to lead? And as a leader, how can you make your organization better? How can you continue to grow?

These are the questions that we seek to answer today with the incredible Patton McDowell, Patton has enjoyed a successful 30 year career in nonprofit leadership, strategic planning and organizational development. His consulting practice has allowed him to work with more than 240 organizations throughout the Southeast, including almost any sector you can think of. He founded his organization, PWA Consulting in 2009, helping nonprofit like yours become better leaders. He is also the host of the podcast titled Your Path to Nonprofit Leadership.

It's a really great podcast. I recommend you to give it a listen, and I am so excited to have him on the show. So thank you, Patton, for joining me today.

Sabrina, I'm delighted to be here. Thank you for the invitation any time.

So I would love to start off with your definition of what good leadership is. I feel like it's so subjective. So I'd love to hear what your opinion is on what makes a good leader.

Yeah, I'm delighted to tackle that, because in particular, in the nonprofit sector, I divide it in three ways, and I think good leaders, of course, have people following them. So the three distinct areas I look at in terms of followers, number one, can a good leader attract and retain talent? So first, we talk about staff development and clearly in our sector, you have to be effective at that. If you're going to be able to build a team around you and related to that in terms of talent is your board of directors.

Can you cultivate and develop talented volunteers, including those who are going to be part of your board? That's just a critical dynamic of nonprofit leadership. And the third follower group is the community itself. You are as a leader, an ambassador. You are the spokesperson for a cause in your community or multiple communities. And so I think the best leaders have an ability to get out there and make a compelling case for the nonprofit cause that they lead.

That's really interesting, because normally when I ask this question, what's good leadership? They automatically start with personal attributes. So they're, like, a good leader is loud and they're organized. But I love that you focused it more on the result of those attributes. So they have a strong team. They're able to motivate that team. And it really shows that good leadership really is shown through the product of your actions. So anyway, I love that.

I think you're right Sabrina, you can tell again, use those three categories as a self-assessment. It's one thing to be talented in your own mind, but does your staff see you as a leader? Does your board see you as a leader and does your community lift you up as a leader? And that, to me, is a good way to make that assessment.

And going back to those personal attributes. Lot of the times, some people feel that leadership is a skill that you are naturally given. But some people also feel that it's something that you can learn. So what are the skills, the attributes, the kind of personality traits that a good leader possesses?

That's a great question. And I fall in the latter category. I do think you can develop and become a better leader. It's not just born with you. You have to work on it. And so, in fact, I've been doing a lot of coaching with nonprofit leaders in our mastermind program. And we talk about ten key skills and experiences that I think the best leaders demonstrate. And that includes some things like you would expect strategic planning, financial acumen, things that you would kind of put on a job description for nonprofit leadership.

But a couple of them that I think are nuanced. Number one, the best leaders have a clear learning plan. No matter where they are on their journey. They have a clear sense of what they still need to learn. It's not just kind of a vague notion of something I'm going to do in the future. But what are you going to do this year as part of your learning plan? And so the other thing, I have found that the best nonprofit organization leaders have personal organization skills.

Sabrina, you know it, the volume of stuff coming at a nonprofit leader is almost overwhelming. The tasks, the data, it's just your inbox is constantly bombarding you. So the best nonprofit leaders need to have a methodology if you will, not just to keep a to do list that's endless. But how did they assess that list and determine what is to be a priority? In other words, are they getting the right things done? And so that, to me, is a skill we can develop. But I think we do have to be intentional about it.

Yeah, it is about being very intentional. And growth is a huge part of any position, especially leadership. You expect your staff to continue to grow and improve. So why should you not continue to grow and improve?

Exactly? You have to set that example. I'm always impressed. And frankly, the best leaders could rest on their laurels, right? They've had achievements that would suggest they could kind of relax. But I find the best leaders never get satisfied because they know the missions they serve require them to remain on the kind of cutting edge.

One other aspect of leadership, as you mentioned, focusing on the community is super important. But how important is that support system? Because being in charge can be extremely isolating, you're expected to make all these decisions on your own. Even the most experienced leaders can have challenges.

I feel like COVID was a perfect example because who could have prepared for that? And you created your consulting business right during the market crash of 2008/2009. So both of those are perfect examples of just crazy, unpredictable situations. So when you're a leader, how do you build that support system?

How do you make decisions when there's so much uncertainty?

That's such a good question. I'm glad you raised it because it was a lonely world to be a nonprofit leadership before the pandemic. And I've talked to so many leaders who struggled, frankly, with their board is either micromanaging them or disengaged. And there's a lot of turnover on the staff side. So in a leadership role, you're right. It is a lonely world. There are two things I have suggested that have helped me that might help your listeners as well. Number one is, of course, develop your own peer support system.

In fact, I would say, specifically identify two individuals who have a similar role to you outside of your organization. Maybe they're in your community. Maybe they're in a far way community, but yet they have similar characteristics of their job requirements that you've met them before. Maybe this is a chance to reconnect. But I also suggest finding what I call aspirational peers, the support structure of someone who's been there, maybe further along on their journey than you are. That could be a best practice example for you and someone to turn to.

When I first started with Special Olympics, I worked for the North Carolina office of Special Olympics. And the first question I asked among my peers who are considered the best program directors, the role I had across the country. And it was so fascinating because several names kept coming to the top and they said, oh, yeah, you need to talk to the woman who's the program director out at this state or some other person. And it was such a relief and so helpful to have that peer support group.

And what was fascinating is that they were so generous with their time, they could have blown me off as the rookie on the staff side. But they were happy to help because they had been there and done that. So that support structure of comparison, peers and what I would call aspirational peers. And then finally, I would talk about something called Building Your Own Personal Board of Directors. Keith Ferrassi references this in his book Never Eat Alone, and I've used this concept in the nonprofit sector. In other words, as a leader in a nonprofit, you are going to run into tricky situations that may have legal ramifications, financial, human resources.

I build a personal board of directors that brings that expertise for me personally and have suggested to nonprofit leaders do the same because there will be issues that come up that you will feel alone and you need somebody to talk to. So find some expertise that can help you at those times when you really need it.

There's that saying it's like you never want to be the smartest person in the room. Yeah, it's almost true because I think that going back to what you're mentioning before about always learning and growing. You always want to see people who you can learn something from, and everyone has the opportunity to gain experience from other people. So it's really humbling to not only be able to seek out that knowledge, but identify when you do have gaps in the knowledge, because leadership isn't always about being perfect.

And I think that you put it really well in the sense of, yeah, you're starting a new position. So what can you do to learn from other people? How can you find people to fill the knowledge that you don't have? So building that ideal board, how can you, when you are going through those decisions, recover from perhaps a bad decision or a loss or maybe something that you thought was going to really work and didn't how do you begin to pick up the pieces and tear that negative into a positive?

That's hard. But such a good point. Again, my peer groups, the ones you and I just talked about often were the place for me to help me break down where I was at fault. What can I learn from this and help me kind of with a clear-minded assessment, do something about it so that the mistakes, the problems that occur don't totally break you down for the long haul. And again, what I found by having an aspirational peer group, often they had experienced the same problems or challenges.

And so it was reassuring both to get tactical advice of all right. What do you do about it? What can I learn from this, but also just to reassurance that hey, we all make mistakes. We all are going to go through these challenging areas. And so instead of kind of beating yourself up or allowing yourself to be beaten up, you find that there's a support structure that can help you in two different ways.

Yeah, the support structure really is everything. And as an executive director, you have to be able to work with that support structure. But you also have to inspire other people and work closely with like you mentioned, your board. So how can you be motivating when you have conflict with your board? You mentioned that some executive directors often have either a disengaged board or they have a board that's super micromanaging, maybe wanting to over control some of the decisions. So how do you cope with that when you're not getting that support that you need?

Great point. And I've had that struggle myself and certainly had lots of conversations with leaders who are struggling with that as well. There are three things I think come to mind. Number one is making sure the job description for your board members are clear. I hear a lot of that from board members themselves. Yeah, I got something this three-ring binder when I started, but it's not really an active part of their role as board members. Therefore, they wander. And so if we wonder sometimes how come they're micromanaging me or they don't seem to be helping, maybe they're not clear as to their role.

And so, first and foremost, I think we want to revisit our job description for the board, at least annually, even if the terms are longer revisit your job description for the board annually. In fact, encourage a recommitment, if you will, because I think a lot of times board members need to be reminded of their duties. They help at a strategic level, not tactical. They shouldn't be micromanaging, you or the staff. Also, I suggest every job description for the board includes a graceful exit clause. In other words, if you've got a disgruntled board member, someone that is disengaged, give them a graceful exit.

In fact, the best job descriptions I've seen include a clause that says if I'm unable to fulfill the duties as described here, I'll step down. In other words, no hard feelings, but allow someone who is, for whatever reason, disengaged or frustrated, allow them an easy exit that to me often averts crises before they occur. And we let things fester sometimes on our boards that create even more tension that we perhaps could have avoided instead of waiting for their three-year term to end revisit it sooner.

So we don't have that challenge. And the other thing I do not see enough of is boards that are willing to do an annual self-evaluation. Have each individual board member basically ask how did I do? And then also, how did we do a collective evaluation? Too many boards don't do that, but I find if you let them hold the mirror up to themselves, they will self-diagnose some of these issues that are driving you crazy, and perhaps they will be moving more toward fixing as opposed to micromanaging.

Self-assessments are really good because it makes you think, am I working up to my standards? So in the application process, I'm curious to know, are there traits for board numbers that the executive director should look out for because somebody can be incredibly skilled. But how can you really pinpoint if they're the right fit for your organization?

One framework I like to use, and you've talked about it. I'm sure amongst many of the fundraising experts you talk to, but using the fund development cycle as a means to both Orient and engage board members, not every board member wants to go ask for money the classic solicitation phase of philanthropy, but every board member should be willing to engage somewhere in that cycle. I use the terminology first. Can they help identify prospective funders in your community? Whether that be individuals, corporations, foundations or whatever, and what they want to help there?

Or maybe they can help with the next stage, communication. Will they help you get the word out? Will they help you design the marketing plan to help your nonprofit improve its profile in the community, particularly amongst funders? Can they help you engage funders? Are they willing to go to lunch with you? Are they willing to take someone out for coffee? Notice again, those three elements don't require asking for money, but they're important. Then, of course, the fourth phase is actually asking for funding, and some board members like that, and they're willing to go out and make the ask.

And, of course, the final phase of stewardship they can help take care of and thank existing donors. My point, though, in response to your question is to me, if a board member doesn't feel any kind of obligation to help on any of those phases, I think that might be hard for you to really involve them on the board. Now. They can have other expertise. I get it. They might be your legal expert or your real estate expert or your medical professional, but I do think they need to embrace the role of being an ambassador and support at least one of those five phases of your philanthropic platform.

It's more than just offering the skills. You're right. It is about being an ambassador. I'd love to go back to the learning piece because your website is absolutely incredible. You have so many resources, and you have your own podcast, but you also offer amazing consulting for all organizations. I'd love to know what nonprofit leaders can do to expand their knowledge. How can they continue to grow? Are there any resources? Maybe you would recommend that they use.

You and I talked about some of it. I think I start with that self-assessment, and we have a tool that I'd be happy to share if any of your listeners want to connect. But those ten skills and experiences and knowledge areas give a framework for a leader to say, you know what? I'm really strong in some of these areas. In other words, I would expect that my question to them will be, how do you build on that? If you feel like you're a talented public speaker, how do we get you in front of more audiences so you can spread the word?

But in other areas, you might say, you know what? I'm not as comfortable with the financial acumen required to lead yet. So what can I do to improve my budgeting skills and my financial experience and find ways to, as I said earlier, build a curriculum of knowledge or coursework if you will, that you can work on so that's something we do in terms of our coaching. And again, we have a mastermind program that allows leaders a safe space to discuss these exact topics. And so we talk about it holding each other accountable.

And it's one thing to identify these areas of weakness or things I need to work on, but it's another than to activate a plan. So my role, I think, is just a coach in a friendly way, but to say, all right, let's do something about it. What can you do in the next month, the next six months or the next year to help you advance in any of these ten categories? And to me, that's what I've tried to put resources together to address each of them.

And as you said, I've had the privilege of speaking with a lot of folks through our podcast and hearing their journey. Because I think again, Sabrina, you and I talked about at the outset, we can learn from each other. And if there's a silver lining for this pandemic, it is an increased ability and comfort to engage through platforms like this. I have reengaged with people from 20 years ago that I just have not done a good job of connecting. And we all as leaders should take advantage of this opportunity to maybe reconnect and therefore help add to our resource library just through these personal connections.

Yeah, that's really what it is at the end of the day is building your connections and understanding that people are there to help. So before we go today, can you let our listeners know how else they can connect with you? Where can they find you?

Thanks, Sabrina. Well, I'm on LinkedIn. So find me Patton McDowell on LinkedIn. And our LinkedIn page is called PMA Nonprofit Leadership. So we also have a page there that everyone who's committed to nonprofit leadership can find me and our firm there. My website is, and on that you can find information about our podcast, which is called Your Path to Nonprofit Leadership. So hopefully that is symbolic of what the podcast is about, because I love working with leaders who are currently in a role that allows them to demonstrate leadership or they want to get there.

And that's really what we're about. So

well, a big thank you again to Patton for joining us. Like he mentioned, you can find him pretty much anywhere. I've linked his website along with the socials and his podcast Your Path to Nonprofit Leadership in the description box, I really recommend you give him a listen. The podcast is phenomenal. His guests are amazing, and they have really important conversations around how to become a better leader. If you're interested in learning more about us at Driven, we are happy to have you join the Driven family by signing up for our newsletter.

I have Linked our website below. You can check us out there and get more information and listen to past podcast Episodes as always, thank you so much for listening and we'll see you next time on the Fundraising Superheroes podcast.

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Podcast Nov 4, 2021, 12:00 AM

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