4 Tips for More Effective Nonprofit Leadership

Our coaches are passionate about helping leaders find balance and maximize their impact — and nonprofit leadership brings a unique set of challenges.

In Concord Leadership Group’s recent survey of more than 1,000 nonprofit leaders, 78 percent said leadership has become more difficult in the past two years. And 55 percent of nonprofit CEOs surveyed said they didn’t know how to create a compelling vision for their organization.

With low resources and a never-ending list of needs to fill, it’s easy to understand why many of these leaders become overworked and disillusioned — but it doesn’t have to play out that way.

Here are a few of our coaches’ tips for nonprofit leaders.

Refine your priorities

Since most nonprofits have annual budgets of less than $1 million, many of these organizations lack the resources to carry out the programs and services they want to provide.

As a result, leaders may feel the pressure take on extra tasks to combat staff shortages or fill gaps in funding. But Coach Dick Savidge says this is a recipe for burnout.

“Just because there is a need does not mean that they need to fill the need,” he says. “The need is not the call.”

Instead, Savidge says leaders should try to find where their passion and their skills intersect and use that to determine their priorities.

One way he helps clients discover their most significant work is by walking them through the results of a behavioral assessment such as the DISC Assessment or a team evaluation such as the Leadership Circle Profile.

These assessments give the coach and the client a sense of their background and tendencies.

“Then, the coach and the client together can come up with a game plan for moving forward that allows the client to win — to go from meaninglessness to great joy and purpose,” he says.

Develop relationships with board members

Nonprofit leaders can’t just lead themselves and their teams — they also have to find a way to work collaboratively with their board.

Coach Shannon Eckmann, a nonprofit board member and former board chair, says leaders should provide board members with training opportunities and communicate expectations such as event attendance and financial contributions.

But most importantly, she says, leaders should connect with board members on a personal level to build trust and tap into why members wanted to join the board in the first place.

This could be as simple as scheduling a phone call or coffee meeting with board members. But it’s important to connect with each member at least once a year.

“You can’t just show up to a board meeting and think that that relationship is being developed,” she says. “You’ve got to nurture that relationship so that the people sitting around the table are known to you, not strangers.”

Clarify your vision

Most nonprofits grow out of a desire to fill a specific need. But when leaders and their teams start trying to respond to every need they encounter, it’s a sign that they’ve lost sight of their vision.

Coach Dr. Laurel Emory says every nonprofit leader needs to have a clear and compelling vision that brings their organization’s priorities into focus and drives their most important work forward.

“Often people in these positions are running themselves ragged because they believe so wholeheartedly in what they’re doing,” she says. “They have a hard time drawing boundaries and saying ‘no.’”

Using our Business Vision Tool, Emory works with clients to develop an organizational vision and communicate that vision to their teams, boards, volunteers and communities.

When leaders and teams understand their core values and long-term goals, they’re better prepared to say “no” to needs and opportunities that don’t fit. They can focus on their most impactful projects at work, and have a personal and family life outside of work.

A clear vision allows the organization to streamline marketing and fundraising efforts around its important efforts and goals. And it gives employees and volunteers an inspiring future to work toward.

Provide the right incentive

Recruiting can be a challenge for any leader, but it’s especially tough for nonprofit leaders who are competing for talent against for-profit companies that offer higher pay and greater benefits.

According to a 2013 report from the Urban Institute, which surveyed more than 4,000 nonprofits of varying types and sizes across the United States, many nonprofits were forced to freeze or reduce employee salaries or cut back on staff benefits in the wake of the Great Recession.

Because nonprofit salaries tend to be low by comparison, nonprofits often attract employees who are more motivated by doing good than making money. These employees might have a passion for the mission, they may also lack the ideal background or skills for the job.

Emory says it’s up to nonprofit leaders to bring out the best in their employees and offer other incentives, such as professional development and opportunities to expand their skills, when higher pay isn’t an option.

“Employees have the opportunity to gain a ton of knowledge and experience in these small grassroots nonprofits,” she says. “It’s kind of like in a startup.”


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