Nonprofit Leadership Traits

Four Nonprofit Leadership Traits Needed Now

The more I work with nonprofit leaders the more I am convinced that the central difference between successful nonprofits and nonprofits that are leaders in their practice is found in the alchemy between the Executive Director, the Board, and a clear strategy.  Taken together, these three ingredients are the drivers that distinguish between those who are doing good work from those who are making a deeper impact.   Weakness in any of the three will hold an organization back from the achieving its full potential. In this first of a series of three blog posts I want to overview the four characteristics of nonprofit leadership critical to organizational success.

As simple Google Scholar Search will demonstrate that there is a growing body of literature that delves deeply into leadership qualities of nonprofit leaders.  In this post, it is not my intention to do a comprehensive literature review but rather draw from my “field experience” collaborating with a wide range of nonprofit leaders over the last several years. Out of the composite of these interactions, four big ideas emerge as traits of leadership that are needed now.

1.   The Ability to Make Tough People Decisions: More than ever, successful nonprofits are marked by a leaders ability to create a high functioning team that is focused on performance.   On the positive side, we know that teams are build when they have a shared vision, clear expectations, are empowered to act, and can work collaboratively. Yet, while many leaders are effective at building teams, I have seen on more than one occasion, that some of these same people struggle to manage performance at the individual level.  On more than one occasion, I have encountered a nonprofit leader who complains of his/her one or two “problem employees” who chronically underperform. When I ask where the leader is in the process of resolving the performance difficulties, I have been met with vague generalities rather than a clearly staged performance management plan. The inability to quickly identify and manage performance challenges can be an Achilles heel to an organization’s ability to perform, adapt, and lead.   Not terribly long ago I read an excellent blog post titled, Three Employees You-Need to Fire Now, and I have to agree that there are times when deconstruction and renovation are part of the team building process.

2. Ability to Execute on Strategy: There might have been a time when nonprofit organizations were funded to do good works. While there may be some threads of that thinking that remains, they are unraveling fast.  Performance matters. This is the mantra that is increasingly coming from funding agencies and even from individual donors.  More and more we hear “As dollars get more limited, we care that our dollars are making a difference.”  I have written about performance elsewhere (see here, here and here) and in this post  I simply want to underscore that the leadership demanded today must be focused on execution of the strategic.  Effective nonprofit leaders do their level best to resist chasing the urgent at the cost of the strategic.  Holding strategy and execution is an art (see this Strategy + Business blog) and those nonprofit leaders who do it well, position their agencies for excellence.

3. Ability to Innovate: A third nonprofit leadership trait, needed more than ever, is the ability to encourage innovation.  Many nonprofit organizations may wrestle with the nature of innovation (see here) but few leaders actually embed innovation in the DNA of the organization and create systems that support the ability to think and to act innovatively.  Indeed, as nonprofit organizations seek to address compelling needs, the ability to innovate becomes a leading edge practice that supports the quest for greater impact.

4. Ability to Think and Act Systemically: I have argued that systems thinking is a basic competency of nonprofit leaders (here and here). If a nonprofit leader can’t see that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts then s/he is creating a limited destiny for his/her organization.   For example consider this quote “A small food pantry will stay a small food pantry until it sees itself as part of the system addressing food insecurity.”  Now, take out the underlined words and insert the focus of your organization in the first two blanks and the solution system you are part of in the third blank.  Nonprofit organizations wanting to be more than “small” (even if you are large) need to focus on the third blank.  This requires a leader to look and act as part of the system. Such leaders ask themselves “to what degree I value collaboration, policy, and look for ways to broaden and deepen program reach?

In an increasingly performance driven environment nonprofit leaders need to think and act courageously.  Making tough people decisions, executing on strategy, innovating, and thinking systemically are four traits of such courage.  Developing each will increase the potential that your organization will move forward with confidence towards success.


Photo Credit: Saltiair


Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.