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9 Practical Boundary Spanning Tactics for Nonprofits

Boundaries can be contentious, they can create borders that divide groups into “us and them.” The result, particularly in the nonprofit sector, can be severed relationships, diminished resources, disappointing outcomes, and disruptive conflict. The good news is nonprofit leaders have a ground-breaking concept that can help them do their work and solve pressing social sector problems. This concept is called boundary spanning leadership and the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) defines it as the ability to create direction, alignment, and commitment across boundaries, fields, or sectors to achieve a higher vision or goal. According to CCL, Boundary spanning leadership involves creating direction, alignment, and commitment across five types of boundaries:

  1. Vertical – leading across rank, class, seniority, authority, power.

  2. Horizontal – leading across expertise, function, peers.

  3. Stakeholder – leading across partners, constituencies, value chain, communities.

  4. Demographic – leading across gender, generation, nationality, culture, personality, ideology.

  5. Geographic – leading across location, region, markets, distance.

Development By Design works with many nonprofit leaders who have expressed their desire to expand their partnerships and collaborations. We have also found that funders often ask their grantees to form collaborations for many community-based projects. The future will only continue to require more cooperation between nonprofits, government and private organizations. Nonprofit leaders will continue to wear many hats – from establishing legislative contacts to forming collaborations with other nonprofits to educating the public about programs. Boundary spanning leadership is a crucial skill when building healthy, sustainable nonprofits, and ultimately strong communities.

CCL found through extensive research that leaders, groups, and organizations can effectively span boundaries by managing them, forging common ground, and finally discovering new frontiers. Here are some practical boundary spanning tactics:

Manage Boundaries: Ironically, the first step to spanning boundaries, is to create or strengthen them. You must be able to clearly define group boundaries before you can bridge them.

  1. Create a team charter. Clarify the group’s mission and vision and make roles and tasks clear for each member.

  2. Create communities of practice. Allow similar groups to meet, define their boundaries and assert their identities.

  3. Accept and extend invitations. Create opportunities for groups to listen and learn about one another. Invite leaders from other groups to your team, organization, or community meetings.

Forge Common Ground: The second step is to forging common ground - to bring groups together to achieve a larger purpose. When you bring two groups, teams, or organizations together, you need to integrate. You need to create a shared vision to build trust, “buy in”, and shared ownership across boundaries.

  1. Broker a relationship. Identify two or three people from each group who need to work together and ask them to spend time together building their relationship so that everyone benefits.

  2. Consider the physical space. Bring groups together in a neutral zone that’s not your space or their space but a third space.

  3. Capitalize on social media. Create a Facebook group where people can share profiles, pictures, backgrounds and interests.

Discovering New Frontiers: The final and deepest work of boundary spanning leadership involves discovering new frontiers where groups intersect. You can create a “team of team” of sorts by merging distinct expertise, experience and resources, yet driven by an integrated vision and strategy.

  1. Practice. Implement simple, small-scale, low-cost projects where different groups can practice combining distinct expertise and experience without high pressure or high stakes.

  2. Question Legacy Boundaries. Look at boundaries that have been in place for a long time and question the “we’ve always done it this way” mindset.

  3. Host “alternative future” conversations. Host meetings with no agenda other than to have all groups imagine the ideal future five years from now. Invite external stakeholder groups such as nonprofit clients, other nonprofits, funders, community leaders, and other advocacy groups to join, as well.

Development By Design offers unique opportunities to enhance leadership development competencies while increasing fundraising skills. Development By Design partners with the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL©) to offer effective, dynamic leadership development workshops based on proven CCL research and experience. These customized, flexible half-day workshops build capacity around timely topics such as conflict, feedback and boundary spanning while fostering comprehensive fundraising and grant writing knowledge. See or email us at for more details.

Source: Center for Creative Leadership

Ernst, Chris. “Turn Leadership Boundaries Into Frontiers.” Forbes Magazine, (New York, NY), 2010.

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