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The Unique Challenges of Leading Non-profits

For 40 years, we have been creating leadership tools primarily used by for-profit organizations. During this time we’ve frequently been asked whether leadership looks different inside non-profits (not including military or education). We still get these questions today.

We regularly research this question and we’re still finding that, while there is a lot of overlap, leading a non-profit brings some unique challenges and opportunities.

There is near consensus around the leadership skills of non-profit leaders. To successfully lead a non-profit organization, certain leadership characteristics are necessary. Here are eight key traits and skills for leading effectively:

  1. Strategy and Vision: An effective non-profit leader should have a clear vision of the organization’s purpose, goals, and long-term strategy and direction. They need to communicate this vision to inspire and motivate their team and, especially, outside stakeholders. They must think strategically and have the ability to develop and execute well-defined strategies. They must identify opportunities, anticipate challenges, and make informed decisions to advance the organization’s mission.
  2. Passion and Commitment: Leading a non-profit requires genuine passion and commitment to the organization’s specific mission. A non-profit leader should be deeply and personally invested in the cause, demonstrating dedication and enthusiasm to inspire others, especially donors and volunteers.
  3. Communication Skills: Excellent communication skills are essential. Leaders need to articulate the organization’s mission, values, and goals clearly to various stakeholders, including staff, volunteers, donors, and the community it serves.  Active listening is crucial to understanding the needs of both the beneficiaries of the products and services offered, and the stakeholders.
  4. Relationship Building: Building strong relationships is crucial. Non-profit leaders must develop partnerships, collaborate with other organizations, cultivate a supportive Board of Directors and engage with volunteers, donors, and the community to build trust and support.
  5. Team Building, Engagement and Empowerment: A non-profit leader should be skilled at assembling a diverse and talented team and creating an inclusive work environment. They must provide guidance, support, and mentorship, empowering their team members to contribute their best and to develop, professionally.
  6. Adaptability, Continuous Learning and Resilience: Leading a non-profit involves navigating challenges, uncertainties, and limited resources. A resilient leader can adapt to change, think creatively, and quickly find innovative solutions to overcome obstacles.  Effective non-profit leaders are career-long learners. They stay updated on emerging trends, best practices, and new approaches in their specific sector, seeking opportunities for professional development and personal growth.
  7. Ethical Leadership: Non-profit leaders must uphold high ethical standards and integrity. They should prioritize transparency, accountability, and responsible governance to build trust with stakeholders. Non-profits are especially sensitive to any hints of fraud, misrepresentation or mismanagement.
  8. Fundraising and Financial Management: A leader in the non-profit sector needs to have a solid understanding of fundraising strategies and financial management. They should be adept at securing funds, diversifying revenue streams, and effectively managing budgets to ensure the organization’s sustainability.

It’s important to note that while all these characteristics are valuable, leadership is a complex and multi-faceted role. Effective leadership in non-profits often involves a combination of these traits, tailored and emphasized specific to the context of the organization’s mission and goals.

So What’s Different  

Non-profit leadership doesn’t look much different than for-profit leadership. In for-profit organizations there are shareholders instead of donors, more paid employees as opposed to volunteers, and products and services customers/consumers are willing to pay for as opposed to a stated service mission. While for-profit leaders need to believe in and support their products and services, the requirement is simply not the same.

In our research we identified these unique differences specific to non-profits:

  • Mission Creep
  • Recruiting, Managing and Retaining Volunteers
  • Non-profits led and run like for-profit businesses are more successful

Mission Creep

Mission Creep, applied to non-profits, refers to the gradual expansion or deviation from an organization’s original mission. Non-profit organizations are typically established with narrow and specific goals and objectives to address a particular social issue, provide a service, or advocate for a cause. However, mission creep occurs when the organization begins to engage in activities or pursue goals that are outside the original scope, often resulting in a dilution of focus and potential diversion of resources.

Mission creep happens for various reasons. Sometimes, it is a response to external pressures or emerging needs that seem tangentially related to the organization’s mission. Other times, it can stem from a desire to increase funding or public support by broadening the organization’s appeal. In some cases, it may even arise from the personal interests or passions of the organization’s Board, leadership or staff.

While adapting and evolving to meet changing circumstances can be essential for the long-term viability of a non-profit organization, mission creep should be approached with caution. It is crucial for non-profits to maintain a clear and focused mission statement that aligns with their core values and ensures efficient use of resources. Straying too far from the original mission can lead to a loss of credibility, confusion among stakeholders, and reduced effectiveness in achieving the organization’s intended impact.

To chill mission creep, non-profit organizations should regularly evaluate their activities and initiatives against their mission statement. This evaluation process can help identify potential areas of mission drift and provide an opportunity to realign the organization’s focus and priorities. Additionally, establishing strong governance structures, strategic planning processes, and regular stakeholder engagement can help non-profits stay true to their mission and maintain clarity in their work.

Mission Drift can come during good times when there might be talent and financial surplus to dabble in other missions, or in bad times as an effort to get more support and funding.

Recruiting, Managing and Retaining Volunteers

Attracting volunteers to a non-profit organization requires planning and implementation of strategies to effectively find and engage potential volunteers. Mostly unpaid, volunteers have to be enticed by things other than money.

Some key elements that can help attract volunteers are:

  1. Clear and accessible volunteer recruitment process: Streamline your volunteer recruitment process to make it easy and accessible for individuals to get involved.  Be user friendly and provide support and rapid response.
  2. Clear mission and purpose: Clearly define your non-profit’s mission, goals, and the impact you aim to achieve. Make sure your mission resonates with potential volunteers and inspires them to contribute their time and skills.
  3. Compelling storytelling: Share compelling stories that demonstrate the positive impact your organization is making and what more can be done with each additional volunteer. Highlight the stories of individuals or communities that have benefited from your non-profit’s work. This helps volunteers to connect emotionally and to understand the importance of their involvement.
  4. Engaging communication: Develop a strong communication strategy to reach out to potential volunteers. Utilize various channels such as social media, email newsletters, website, and local community events to spread awareness about your organization, its products and services, and volunteer opportunities.
  5. Volunteer roles and responsibilities: Clearly define volunteer roles and responsibilities, ensuring they align with your organization’s needs. Create diverse opportunities that cater to different skill sets and time commitments. This allows volunteers to find roles that match their interests and availability. Provide volunteers with meaningful tasks that align with their interests, skills, and expertise. 
  6. Volunteer recognition and appreciation: Implement a volunteer recognition program to acknowledge and appreciate the efforts of your volunteers. Publicly recognize their contributions through newsletters, social media shout-outs, or annual volunteer appreciation events. Make volunteers feel valued and part of a community.
  7. Volunteer training and support: Offer adequate training and support to volunteers to ensure they are equipped to perform their tasks effectively. Provide them with necessary resources, guidance, and a point of contact for questions or concerns.
  8. Flexibility and inclusivity: Accommodate volunteers’ schedules and commitments as much as possible. Offer flexible volunteer opportunities that cater to different availability, such as weekend or evening options. 
  9. Positive volunteer experience: Create a positive and fulfilling volunteer experience by fostering a friendly and inclusive environment. Encourage teamwork. Establish feedback and evaluation mechanisms to assess volunteer satisfaction, understand perspectives and collect input on improving the volunteer experience. 
  10. Networking and partnerships: Collaborate with other organizations, businesses, and community groups to expand your volunteer base. Attend local community events, engage in networking activities and build relationships to attract volunteers through word-of-mouth referrals.
  11. Long-term engagement: Focus on building long-term relationships with volunteers. Regularly assess their interests, motivations, and evolving needs to provide them with ongoing opportunities that align with their goals. Demonstrate that their commitment is valued by offering pathways for growth and leadership within the organization. Always solicit ideas. Listen to suggestions for improvement.  

Remember, each volunteer is unique, and their motivations may vary. Maintaining a flexible approach and adapting to individual needs will help create a positive and engaging environment that encourages volunteers to stay committed and contribute to the non-profit organization’s success. Remember that many are working without pay.

You could change the words above and most of it would apply to the recruitment, management and retention of paid employees. But, it’s not quite the same. Volunteers offer a more complex dynamic than paid employees. if they leave, they may never come back.

Non-profits managed like for-profits

One interesting thing we found in the research is that non-profits managed like for-profits were more successful and had better sustainability, better strategy and planning, better financial management and accountability, better talent management practices, and more and better outcome measures.

Over the years, many non-profits have decided to use our tools made for for-profit leadership and management, with special attention to Mission Creep and Volunteer Management.  The good non-profit leaders knew it was a better approach, although with tighter lanes within which to operate. Many on non-profit Boards were business leaders and they too, understood the need for rigor and discipline.

It can be harder to lead a sustaining non-profit. It takes a special kind of leader who is highly likely to be better paid in a for-profit business. Less pay, yet greater impact.

Passion is the key differentiator.

Authored By: Roger Pearman and Robert Eichinger

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