The trend in leadership strategies for nonprofits is explored in the Nonprofit Pro’s “The Year of Innovation” publication in this way: “Many of the most effective leadership strategies that have served other sectors well will continue to emerge in the nonprofit sector…leadership strategies that are congruent with the purpose-driven nature of nonprofit organizations are likely to continue to be big in 2019. Strategies that involve alignment and collaboration …can ultimately fuel tremendous results and a positive culture for nonprofit organizations as the organization and its people are truly able to focus on and achieve their mission.”

It is clear that leadership is critical to all organizations in every sector including nonprofits.

It is therefore not surprising that the results of a recent survey consistently indicated that, “leadership remains the number one talent issue facing organizations around the world, with more than 86% of respondents rating the challenge as urgent or important. At the same time, only 13% say that they are doing an excellent job of developing leaders at all levels.”

Finding good leaders in both the corporate world and the nonprofit community has always been a crucial issue. But for nonprofits, a lack of great leaders seems to be even more concerning. We can no longer afford to overlook – or worse – dismiss – the value of the nonprofit community.  Here are some numbers to consider as we open a conversation about the importance of developing great nonprofit leaders:  

Fact #1: In the United States, the nonprofit sector contributed $878 billion to the economy in 2012, or about 5.4 percent of our nation’s GDP.

Fact #2: One out of ten workers in the United States is employed by a nonprofit organization. The nonprofit sector is the third largest employer after retail and manufacturing with nearly 11 million paid employees. Perhaps more importantly, it is one of the few large areas of the U.S. economy adding jobs at a rate of nearly 2% per year!

Fact #3: 26.8% of all Americans volunteered in 2011 which when totaled together provided nearly 8 billion hours of service.

Given that the United Ststaes - as well as the global community – relies significantly on the nonprofit sector, it is obvious that ensuring strong leadership is the first key step to success.

In any conversation about leadership, the question often raised asks whether great leaders are born with the ability to inspire others, or if these traits can be taught over time?  While there may be a handful of people who have had the good fortune to have some innate qualities that enhance their leadership, for the most part, leadership skills can be acquired. It is difficult to overlook the power of natural charm and charisma, but those attributes are not really what motivate and engage others.

Everyone has the capacity to lead with excellence. 

Nonprofit leaders who build high performing boards, who interact and encourage volunteers, and who help to develop loyal and generous donors do not count on their personality to captivate their audiences and influence the community.

Instead, great leaders typically share specific characteristics. In other words, they are known to consistently be:

  • Sincere and genuine
  • Trust worthy and honest
  • Self-confident
  • Flexible and adaptable
  • Empathetic
  • Good listeners who are interested in others
  • Good mentors and coaches
  • Strategic thinkers
  • Humble
  • Forgiving 

Because they have emotional intelligence and self-awareness, leaders who have worked to develop these traits set a good example for others as they resolve conflict, foster camaraderie and collaboration, delegate authority, support the success of others, learn from their own mistakes, and share their vision for the future that will motivate action to attain the group’s goals and objectives.

It takes effort, practice and desire. It takes passion and energy – but great nonprofit leaders know that the investment of time is worth it.

Having developed the common characteristics that serve as the foundation of good leadership, executive directors, board chairs and others can leverage their skills by embracing different leadership styles. 

Where coercive or authoritative leaders mobilize the nonprofit organization by demanding compliance and obedience, those who opt for a more democratic approach use the power of consensus building whenever possible.

These are the leaders who ask questions and appreciate feedback and insights from all involved.  While the leader ultimately holds final responsibility, the communication is upward and downward, allowing for greater fairness and for creativity among all participants. The leaders who work in a democratic environment thrive on win-win situations and gain buy-in and support along the way. They do not need to force compliance from the staff and volunteers because they use their training to empower others. They accomplish this by integrating all the individual egos who have a seat at the table in order to create high performing, cohesive teams founded on mutual high regard and a desire to cooperate with each other.  

Having strong, strategic leaders at the front provides the nonprofit with a distinct advantage as an organization. But that is only one-half of the process.

Strong leaders can only have limited impact on their own. Without dedicated staff, fellow board members, volunteers, and donors, the mission will ultimately remain out of reach.

Executive Directors and Board Chairs must work together to inspire the team and attain their mission. To do this successfully, they must have confidence in each other and they must nurture a process that enables good communication to take place consistently.

How do EDs and Board Chairs learn to work well together? They must agree that a dysfunctional board will never be acceptable. What does this mean? It means that boards that cannot operate smoothly with agreed upon goals will not be tolerated. The ED and Board Chair are in the position of being able to shape the culture and to advance an attitude of camaraderie for the good of all.

But it is not easy! Here are some important guidelines for creating a positive atmosphere that Board Chairs (and other lay leaders) can strive to achieve in partnership with the Executive Director. 

  1. They meet regularly – a good relationship cannot be built where there is only sporadic or inconsistent interaction.
  2. They are candid with each other. They need to have the courage to share their insights clearly and succinctly without challenging each other - while avoiding the festering that can take place beneath the surface when honesty is compromised.
  3. The common bond of a shared vision is more important than specific personalities. They do not need to be best friends, but they need to be open, direct, and decent with each other.
  4. They need to demonstrate reliability. This means they know they can count on each other and there will be no hidden agenda.
  5. They understand their distinct roles. The less they step on each other’s toes, the easier it will be to maintain a good working relationship.
  6. They learn to accept constructive criticism from each other with the thoughtful intent with which it is delivered.
  7. They “park” any pre-conceived anger, animosity, frustration or antagonism at the door. This means they don’t lobby amongst the other leaders, erect false walls, or attempt to pit the players against each other.

As the relationship at the top strengthens, attention can be turned to how to build a high performing board!

For nonprofit leaders, the fundamental goal is to build a smart board that can contribute to the organization’s mission. They help to generate enthusiasm for the organization in the community, they contribute to building brand awareness and forging key relationships. They bring energy and commitment but they also bring critical thinking to the decision making process.

However, not all boards are comprised of high performing members. They struggle because they do not have the right people in the right seats, which is often the result of poor recruiting and poor training.

Savvy Executive Directors know they need to identify the best and brightest board prospects, recruit them by using a disciplined process that establishes realistic expectations, integrate them with a structured on-boarding procedure and making on-going training available throughout their term.

The final step is to enable board members to be their most useful by holding relevant board meetings. When meetings are poorly run,  lack focus and strategic direction, or do not allow for a meaningful dialogue, it is very discouraging for board members who are eager to voice constructive ideas.    

Some key tools for having high impact board meetings include:

  • Distributing all materials at least one week prior to the meeting
  • Using a ‘timed’ or ‘consent’ agenda for greater efficiency 
  • Including a strategic discussion at every meeting
  • Avoiding ‘surprise’ announcements
  • Providing time for executive session on a regular basis

Remember: great leaders attract great board members – by using their time wisely and leveraging their contributions they are the nucleus of all great organizations.

Great results.

Great leaders have great results. They help their board members ‘experience firsthand why the work matters by creating opportunities for interaction with staff and residents. This is one of the most effective ways to keep board members engaged in their role and enthusiastic about opening new doors for the organization,’ writes Mark Angelini, President, Mercy Housing Lakefront.