What does an effective nonprofit leader look like?

“A strong nonprofit leader drives a sense of mission down through the organization, upward into the board and outward in to the community. He or she is willing to do whatever it takes to enable the organization to follow their mission effectively.” (Light, P. 2002. Grasping for the Ring: Defining Strong Nonprofit Leadership)

Sound like a tall order? It is. In fact, leadership is the starting point to effective performance, organization-wide. To successfully lead and move his or her mission forward, today’s nonprofit leader needs to be more than just “the boss.” Research shows that today’s leader needs a comprehensive set of financial, operational and executive skills that combine the best qualities of corporate-world “C-level” executives (think CEO, CFO,COO, CMO and the like).

The best leaders:

  • Have strong executive, operational and financial skills.
  • Are emotionally intelligent – trustworthy, persuasive, perceptive and flexible.
  • Infuse the organization at every level with a commitment to the big-picture vision.
  • Advocate for the mission at every turn.
  • Collaborate with people and organizations that can help to advance the cause.
  • Motivate people with passion, a proactive attitude and a commitment to set and reach goals.
  • Fundraise and encourage the board to do so too.
  • Clarify board and staff relationships and encourage open communications.
  • Embrace participation, build strong teams and encourage risk taking.

A great nonprofit leader is of course a “big idea” person. But he or she is also the organization’s chief storyteller, brand advocate, brand guardian, crisis spokesperson, chief marketing officer and chief fundraiser. To be effective in these roles, he or she must be authentic, and be able to connect, collaborate, persuade, mediate and negotiate with the best.

A great leader is also the ambassador for the health of his or her organization, both structurally and financially. This means he or she is responsible for building and maintaining relationships that enable the organization to flourish. He or she must recruit and retain the talent, and supply the tools necessary to develop a strong infrastructure and a culture that builds morale.

A great leader is “tapped in”, to his or her constituents, staff, board and the social and economic conditions that affect their mission. Faced with funding shortfalls, increased demand for services, and donors seeking demonstrated results for their dollars, today’s leader is a master at adapting, recognizing challenges to be overcome and seizing opportunities as they arise. Innovation is the name of the game, and a great leader is adept at making tough decisions that drive the mission forward, and keep the organization financially stable.

Most of all, a great leader, leads. Everyone around you should understand where you are headed and why. Ideally, they will live for it. This is where it’s your job to constantly express the mission with enthusiasm and build the big picture into absolutely everything. If it seems like it’s not working, resist the urge to blame. Instead, explore the motivations and interests of employees, volunteers and board members. Maybe it’s time to get some insights into what’s driving people (or not) toward your mission.

Leadership FAQ

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