Nonprofit Leadership: 5 Things We Can Learn from Buffy (the Vampire Slayer)

Perhaps like many in my generation, I, too, was a rabid Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan (if you weren’t, you should’ve been. It’s fantastic.). Looking back on how the adventures of this no-nonsense heroine inspired me growing up, I knew I couldn’t avoid blogging my tribute to Buffy. In fact, I think we can learn a lot from The Slayer when it comes to nonprofit leadership. So here it is, my unabashedly geeky account of 5 things we can learn about nonprofit leadership from Buffy (the Vampire Slayer!):

  1. Get a Mentor: Having a mentor is a tradition for Vampire Slayers, and Buffy found connection, guidance, and support in her ‘Watcher’, Giles.  Nonprofit leaders aren’t required to seek mentors of course, but having one (or more!) is a great and arguably necessary part of skillfully navigating the nonprofit sector and those within it as new Problems-Of-The-World Slayers. In addition to having the emotional support of a mentor as a nonprofit leader, there are practical reasons to work with one. There is a notion in leadership that you should “surround yourself with people more skilled than you” in order to exercise humility and practice important skills. Even for those starting out with a natural talent for working with people, writing, or branding your cause-efforts, mentors can help you hone your skills at practical nonprofit tasks: meeting other movers and shakers, writing or presenting requests for financial support, or developing a strategic branding plan — Things it might have otherwise taken months or even years to learn alone. I know it was only because of one of my mentors that I learned how to write a good grant proposal – and I can definitely credit her for our success in getting our very first grant.
  2. Train. Always.: Despite her super-strength, speed, agility, and know-how, Buffy always remembered to revisit the gym. As we grow and develop as nonprofit leaders, we’ll learn a plethora of useful skills, but just like any other muscle, our brains and hearts will atrophy if we don’t work them out every once in awhile. As I admitted in another post, we may never be exactly the leaders we hope to be, but we can always get closer to our ideal. As nonprofit leaders it’s important to always be learning and practicing: Read articles and books on the sector to keep fresh perspectives. Attend learning sessions and network with others. Don’t be afraid to take a class to refresh your knowledge on a subject.
  3. Delegate: It’s always easier said than done. But Buffy, though she may have been the Chosen One, knew she couldn’t do it all herself. As time went on, she surrounded herself with skilled friends she knew she could count on to get aspects of the saving-the-world business done, and she never hesitated to call on them. And, driven by her confident leadership and trust in them, her friends always lent a hand. As nonprofit leaders it may be tempting to slip into the mentality, “if you want something done, you’ve got to do it yourself.” A hardened work ethic or feelings of guilt about asking others to help us may prevent us from seeking assistance, but this is a dangerous mindset to stay in for long. Many tasks may be over our heads, and trying to tackle them ourselves could lead to failures that impact our entire organizations and the causes we care about, meaning that a leader’s attempts to be selfless actually end up detrimental to his or her purpose. Like Buffy, we have to remember that the most important thing is saving the world, not saving the world by ourselves.
  4. Empower others, and give them the tools to succeed: When the end of the world was nigh, and the only one strong enough to prevent the apocalypse was The Slayer, Buffy didn’t throw herself into the fray to try to battle the forces of evil alone. Instead, she recruited other potential slayers and worked to learn the secret to grant them her own Slayer-super powers. When it was time to save the world, Buffy had empowered an army of other women to be Slayers, just like her, increasing their collective potential for success. This is a crucial lesson in nonprofit leadership, and an obvious complement to #3: Delegate. If we are able to empower others around us to act on behalf of our cause, we will have an easy time entrusting them to be skilled advocates, and amplify our potential for impact.
  5. Have a life: No matter how much destiny called on Buffy to save the world, she always remembered to spend time with her friends. Doing so refueled her and in many ways, renewed her sense of purpose. Her connections to other people were added to her reasons to save the world, time and time again. Nonprofit leaders may be at greater risk of isolation and burn-out if they do not carefully cultivate and continue to enjoy the mutual benefits of relationships and friendships. Like Buffy, we should always remember our mission in the back of our minds, but save ourselves from detachment by remembering to enjoy the world we are trying to improve.

  • http://www.MyHatHasEars.com Brianne

    These are SO applicable to just about every leadership position or even just how you relate to coworkers or others in general. Love it.

  • Jeanette

    Mentors are the best! For the first time I’m actually working with someone I consider to be a mentor; someone that wants to see me advance in my career & the organization.

  • http://www.ambermsmith.com Amber

    Thanks for the comments, Brianne and Jeanette! I love how there are so many good life lessons in Buffy, ha.

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  • Zach

    Thank you for this! I see myself falling into so many of these traps without even realizing it!

  • Sheena

    Thank you so much for this! You brought together two of my favorite things – Buffy and my career!

    • http://www.ambermsmith.com Amber

      Hi Sheena! Glad to hear you liked my post. :) It sounds like you work within the nonprofit world too – Care to share which causes you are most passionate about?

  • Corinna Olson

    One of my favorite Buffy moments was when the potentials had rejected her leadership. She through her support behind her successor. She told her, Faith, “Don’t be afraid to lead them.”

  • http://www.ambermsmith.com Amber

    Hi Corinna! YES, good point! Buffy was more concerned with doing right than being a leader, and if letting go was the same as doing the right thing, she did it.

  • http://www.twitter.com/melindamckeee Melinda McKee

    Buffy IS how I have a life, or one way….just started watching it on Netflix, and it’s become how I decompress from work. :)

  • http://www.twitter.com/skullsflying Julia Campbell

    I can’t believe there is a blog post that combines my two favorite things in this world – Buffy and nonprofits! Great job!

    • http://www.ambermsmith.com Amber

      Hi Julia,

      I’m learning that more nonprofit people like Buffy than I originally realized!

  • http://herqueue.wordpress.com Alexa

    Love the post. I’m a Non-Profit Management/Philanthropic Studies student at IUPUI who also runs a blog on great film and television geared towards female audiences. Buffy is my favorite tv series and I often think about the connection between the series and non-profit work. I’d love to write an in-depth post or paper about it sometime, because there’s a lot of potential material there. We have awesome interests, ha.

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  • Jen

    Wonderful list!! I am also in nonprofit work, and a HUGE Buffy fan (I just finished a massive re-marathon of the entire series last week, as I do every other year), and I think these lessons definitely carry over.

  • Laura

    “Here endeth the lesson…”

    Well done, Amber. You have my compliments as a writer and as a fellow non-profit professional.

  • http://chriwclmna.typepad.com/blog/ Loma Burris

    Great article, Thanks. I really like your site:)

  • http://whiskeys-place.blogspot.com whiskey

    Please. Buffy is a study in “What Not to do” and pretty much had no leadership whatsoever (in fact negative leadership) by the end of the show. Citing is pretty much evidence that most women don’t understand a thing about actual leadership and power / patronage networks.

    Buffy pretty much mocked/ignored her Mentor for the hot bod bad boy. A typical female move, btw, the equivalent of “Mean Girls” social exclusion, power by excluding. A move that consistently fails when put into practice. [See Hillary Clinton needlessly making enemies of the military as First Lady by treating uniformed generals as waiters, repeated by Obama Aide Valerie Jarrett treating a bemedalled General as a waiter at a recent function.] Like Buffy wrt Spike/Giles-Robin Wood, this played to a female clique sense of social exclusion, but needlessly made enemies.

    At the end of series, Giles (and Robin Wood) were neutral to hostile, active enemies for no other reason than Buffy found her hot bad boy more important than social cohesion.

    Buffy never trained, and training is not something that can produce great leaders. Captain Bligh was as astonishing seaman and navigator, taking his men 6,000 miles in open water in a tiny boat to safety. But as a leader he failed miserably. Washington was only a so-so (at best) leader during Queen Anne’s War, but his bravery and personal example counted for a lot.

    Buffy’s delegation was that of playing favorites (particularly with sore points Spike and Angel). That’s great if you want to have hot bad boy sex. Bad if you want to actually lead a lot of people you’re not sleeping with. Buffy actively ignored advice and caution from: Giles, Xander, Dawn, Robin, and others over Spike’s danger. Why? Because Spike was hot. Being a hot cheerleader in other means, with a vampire pseudo QB, may appeal to an audience but is pretty bad leadership examples in real life.

    Empower others? Please, Buffy didn’t give them much power or say in their lives, just a dictat (to a life she herself found often violent and unpleasant).

    Have a life? Spike, Angel, that’s a life? Please its no separation at all from work.

    • http://www.ambermsmith.com Amber

      Hi Whiskey. Thanks for providing your counter-arguments. While I don’t agree with a great majority of them (and while I’m trying to ignore certain misogynistic undertones), I appreciate your willingness to share, and welcome any one else to provide responses.

      • Wtf.

        If by “undertones” you mean “blatant and deeply offensive and probably the reason why the only women who have sex with this guy are paid professionals,” then yeah, definite undertones of misogyny.

        Any argument that attempts to make use not only of stereotypes, but the sort of outdated, “Get back in my kitchen and out of my workforce” stereotypes that immediately paint you as some kind of silly (And I’m talking Circus-Clown levels of silly) jackass is good for a laugh at the arguer’s expense, but little else.

        I always thought Buffy fans took the show a bit seriously for what was, in the end, a light-hearted, child-appropriate approach to telling stories about Vampires and the Evils That They Do©, but drawing positive life lessons from the show is to be commended, and will probably help out a lot of people.

        That said, congratulations are in order! Having someone absolutely nuts (Like Whiskey up there) show up out of nowhere and troll a blog post (or someone like me, who takes the bait and ruins an otherwise civil and adult comment section by calling him a jackass) is probably the first indicator that you’re getting serious exposure in the blogging world.

    • http://www.MyHatHasEars.com Brianne

      A) It’s a television show. Calm down.

      B) You may have been trying to prove a point but the only thing you proved is an underlying hatred of women and that you get irked very easily.

    • Doom Ugget

      I feel like Whiskey, while a little misogynistic for my taste, makes a good point: Buffy did make a lot of mistakes. She made plenty of stupid, selfish decisions. And you know what? That, to me, just makes Amber’s argument even stronger.

      Buffy was human. Non-profit leaders are human. All do-gooders and world-savers are, in the end, still fallible. Sometimes they make the wrong decisions, and sometimes a good leader in the non-profit sector comes up with an awesome project or program that doesn’t work out. Maybe it doesn’t get funding, or maybe it ends up needing a lot of tweaking in order to become a viable program. And, if we’re following Buffy’s example of leadership, we learn something else: When she falls down, she gets back up. Whiskey, if anything, her human weaknesses and mistakes make her victories even MORE potent. They don’t make her less of a role-model. In fact, her mistakes show us that all good leaders sometimes fail, and how you handle your mess-ups is just as important as how you handle your successes.

      And on more of a fandom note: Buffy didn’t choose to trust Spike in season seven because of his body. They didn’t engage in physical intimacy that season. She trusted him because she saw he had changed–a change he had to work very hard to accomplish. If anything, that storyline teaches us the importance of forgiveness and new perspectives.

      Also, Buffy trains constantly. In season five she’s training especially hard, which Joss uses as a buildup to make the season’s end that much more shocking. And in season seven, she trains the new recruits. Furthermore, by “empowering” them to become full-fledged slayers, she’s hardly dragging them into a brutal life. The First Evil is targeting all potentials. Either she gives them the power to protect themselves, or they’re all going to die anyways.

      But this isn’t really a blog about fandom debates. It’s a creative way of the author combining her passion for social change with what is clearly a show she loves. There’s really no purpose in arguing with her about the various interpretations of Buffy the Vampire Slayer because, honestly… that wasn’t the point of her blog. The point was we should try to be good leaders, make a difference in the world, and be kind to people. Why argue with that?

      • http://www.ambermsmith.com Amber

        :) <3 Doom Ugget.

  • http://ajbartlett.wordpress.com/ Andrew

    Amber…

    How dare you take something that was originally, for all intents and purposes, meant for entertainment purposes and use it as a basis for doing something good!

    What nerve you have, allowing it to be something of a backbone to the reasoning you have for why you do what you do!

    And how GALLING it is, to see this elaborately well-written piece, helping to explain how said piece of entertainment can be used to relate to what you are doing with those who may not understand what it is you ARE doing!

    Pardon, but you might need to invest in some Brawny paper towels to sop up that dripping sarcasm, above. The point is that while it was a television show with, I’m sure, several flaws to characters and their responsibilities in the premise of the show, you decided to turn it into a learning experience where you share your knowledge for the greater good.

    So, while there might be a misogynistic synopsis of what NOT to do, you have subscribed to the contrary. Good on ‘ya, and though I have been silent, as of late, I am still thoroughly impressed and in great admiration for what it is you do.