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A Year in Retrospect: Lessons Learned from Leading a Not-For-Profit.

Having enjoyed working together on the PWN Global Strategy team for two years, in January 2018, we (Carina and Sheila) decided to join together as a team to run as Co-Presidents for the PWN Global Network.

In June 2019, the election of the new PWN Global Board was about to close, and we did not have any idea which way the voting would go. We were thrilled to be chosen as Co-Presidents of PWN Global for the next two years.

Now, what is PWN Global, and why does this association exist? PWN Global is a global network of people accelerating gender-balanced leadership in business and society, through professional development and cross-industry online and in-person networking. As a volunteer-led organisation, we rely on funding from corporate partners that align with this vision to change the world. To find out more, please connect to

The past 12 months have been a rollercoaster. Now we are pressing pause to reflect on the first year of our presidency. A year that we will not forget and a year that has taught us so much about leadership, comfort zones, cultures, humanity and humility. We have reflected on this period and created five lessons learned from leading a global voluntary organisation.

“Let me start by saying: Leading a voluntary organisation is not the same as leading an organisation with paid staff. There is a significant difference in terms of the order of motivational drivers. Do not be fooled into thinking that you can manage a voluntary board, the same way as you manage a company.” Sheila

“This was my first experience in a leading role for a not-for-profit organisation at this level. I am a learner by experience, and I quickly learned the value of deploying resources in my network to support me. As someone with wisdom once shared with me — ‘it is a learning experience, but it is not a learning environment…. learn fast’.” Carina

#Lesson 1: Understand the governance — Become familiar with the bylaws and other legal documentation. Know the roles and responsibilities. Create clarity on decision-making powers and the duties of every board member. Seek to understand before being understood. A lot of confusion and miscommunication comes from blurry or unknown governance rules. Having a robust governance structure is an essential foundation.

#Lesson 2: Understand your people — Take the time to understand cultural differences. When dealing with a diversity of people sprinkled across multiple continents, it is crucial to be aware of the cultural differences and nuances, and how they influence the formation of a new team. You need to have patience and invest time to understand your teams and individuals’ preferential communication style. A super resource book which we both enjoyed reading & got a lot from is “The Culture Map- Decoding how people think, lead and get things done across cultures” by Erin Meyer.

#Lesson 3: Manage expectations — Be aware that everyone brings their standards, backgrounds and motivations to the group. When people are volunteering, and especially when there is more time involved in the actual work than expected, volunteers tend to follow their compass. This can result in new board members feeling overwhelmed. Volunteering needs to enrich your life and for most has a lower priority than income-generating activities, which is logical. Volunteers differ, and because it is volunteering, they can sometimes expect others to comply with their expectations and standards. It is a very fluid environment, and it is essential for volunteers to both understand and voice what they want from their volunteering experience, and for you to understand their personal goals. This helps you to support them in a meaningful and impactful way.

#Lesson 4: Know your key objectives — Keep them on track, measure them and communicate that information to all stakeholders, with clarity. Be agile in adapting to the context and the people around you. We endeavour, as a team, to get things done. PWN Global is an association with no funding and limited resources, but one that strives to operate as a commercial organisation — this can bring its challenges. Ensure that you don’t get stuck in the operations, and keep your eye on your vision, mission and strategy.

#Lesson 5: Set your boundaries — You can easily spend up to 4 hours a day on your voluntary work. We have both experienced this over the past twelve months. With the volume of communication and tasks that need to be completed, you need to put boundaries on your time and energy. We try to spend, on average, no more than 10 hours per week on association work. We communicate when we are available, and we strive to keep meetings with individual board members and working groups spread evenly across the week. It is a puzzle, and often we need to invest more time because of particular situations or unforeseen challenges, such as COVID-19. Take care of yourself, your time and your energy.

Before we stepped up into our role as PWN Global Presidents, we already had experience as City Network Presidents of Dublin and Amsterdam. Transitioning into our new role over the past year has been a challenging and exciting journey, with a steep learning curve and lots of discomforts. We will be here for another year, stronger than ever, and still endeavouring to learn, grow, and collaborate. We firmly believe the mission of our organisation to accelerate gender-balanced leadership is more critical than ever as we navigate the unchartered waters ahead.

We look forward to our next year leading together.