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By taking a step back and letting your employees choose how they work best, you’ll multiply your organization’s impact tenfold.

We’ve all seen it: the Helicopter Parent scared to let their child fail. They hover over their little one's every move. When their child faces the slightest obstacle, they immediately come to the rescue. By doing too much, they cripple their child’s self-esteem, and the child grows up feeling like they can’t do anything.

As a mom, I expect to see this on the playground. But as a consultant with a lens into hundreds of nonprofits, I’m surprised at how often I see it in the workplace, too.

The Helicopter Boss and Helicopter Parent bear striking similarities. The two share the responsibility of overseeing the lives and tasks of those under their care. Both monitor behavior with hawk-eyed scrutiny. Both have profound, long-term effects on the personal development of their charges.

In the workplace, this behavior is crippling productivity and driving super-achievers away. By keeping your surveillance in check, you’ll get better results and more impressive performance. The Helicopter Boss can have an especially negative effect on nonprofits, where success is so reliant on staff being passionate and mission-motivated.

You should allow your employees to perform in areas where they have natural interests and abilities. This means you'll need to recognize the strengths of each member of your team and encourage them to implement them to advance the organization’s mission.

For instance, your detail-oriented employee could excel in a role like database management or event planning. Your outgoing, energetic employee, who might not excel at keeping track of details, could thrive in a role like donor travel and meetings.

Too often, Helicopter Bosses tell their people what to do and, worse, how to do it. People need to feel that they own their roles, goals, and how they’ll achieve them.

Give them the why (Why should they care? Why is this important to the organization? Why does that matter to them?) and the results you expect.

If you back off and give your staff more freedom, you’ll see higher morale, lower turnover, and a more productive work environment. Where leadership encourages experimentation and autonomy, creativity and innovation thrive. You’ll find that your employees are more likely to go the extra mile to do their job. What’s more, you’ll be more likely to attract the type of dedicated and motivated employees who are essential for achieving your mission.

By letting your employees choose how they work best, you'll increase your impact by ten times. In an industry where most organizations have to strive to maximize every donor dollar and cut waste, can you afford not to?


Here’s how NOT to be an HB, and maximize your employees’ results:

Hire right. Identify the goals you’re trying to reach and get excited about how your next hire could impact your organization. Tailor the role description as specifically as you can to bring in the best candidates to meet your needs. Beyond the needed skill set, find the person who aligns with your organization's values and culture. More on that here.

Establish boundaries. I’m not advocating for total anarchy. Clarity and efficiency depend on a certain degree of structure; ensure your staff know exactly what’s on- and off-limits. They’ll stop focusing on doing the bare minimum that prevents them from being fired, and instead start focusing on winning. State what’s grounds for firing (embezzlement) versus what’s looked down upon (taking a donor meeting in jeans).

Align goals and check in. If you can say why an employee should do something, the how should take care of itself. Explain why they have their job and what they need to achieve, then let them choose how to do it well. Make clear the promise of reward when they succeed.

Ask your team members to write their own goals that align with their duties and your expectations. These goals should be specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, and time-bound—the SMART goals marketing majors love to tout *ahem*.

Review these together, tweak where needed, and agree on a final (written) description.

Check in on these goals and their progress frequently. When performance is lacking, make your check-ins more frequent and your feedback more specific. If correction is needed, link it directly to their set goals. When your employees come to you with obstacles, help them plan how they can overcome them.

Celebrate wins. Celebrate wins! It’s worth repeating in a day and age when feedback is becoming synonymous with critique. Your employees should hear frequently what they are doing right to affirm the behaviors you want to see more of.

Recognize the positive impact and progress that your staff are contributing to advancing the mission. Your people are working hard to make the founder’s vision a reality and, in the mission-driven space, are changing the world. Celebrate their hard work and never miss an opportunity to express your gratitude.


One of my favorite quotes says: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

If you want your employees to excel in their roles, become key revenue generators as fundraisers, and make a significant impact, let them learn from their mistakes, see the outcomes, and solve their own issues. You’ll find your employees will take ownership of the organization’s mission and have the same pride in their role that you would see in a founder.

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