18 Essential Nonprofit Leadership Skills [+ Career Tips]

5 min read
18 Essential Nonprofit Leadership Skills [+ Career Tips]

What Is Nonprofit Leadership?

Nonprofit leadership shares fundamental principles with leadership in other sectors but is distinguished by an organization’s focus on serving the greater good. Successful nonprofit leadership is rooted in the following principles:

  • Commitment to personal growth: Effective nonprofit leaders are dedicated to their personal growth, continuously seeking opportunities for learning and self-improvement. They understand that personal development is vital for leading others effectively.
  • Sustaining internal and external engagement: Nonprofit leaders must engage both internal stakeholders (staff and volunteers) and external stakeholders (donors, beneficiaries and community members) to ensure the organization’s success. Maintaining active and meaningful relationships with these groups is crucial.
  • Understanding of values and ethics: Nonprofit leaders must operate within a framework of strong values and ethics, as outlined in their organization’s mission statement. This commitment to ethical behavior is essential for maintaining the trust of stakeholders and upholding the organization’s reputation.
  • Big-picture thinking: Effective nonprofit leaders possess the ability to see beyond day-to-day operations and understand the broader mission and vision of the organization and its impact. This perspective helps in making strategic decisions that align with the organization’s goals.
  • Facilitating collaborative accomplishment: At its core, nonprofit leadership involves leading people, promoting ideas and directing resources toward a common goal that benefits the greater good. Successful leaders inspire and motivate others to work together to achieve that shared mission.

Nonprofit leadership differs significantly from management. While good managers ensure an organization functions smoothly, leaders focus on human factors, including helping staff members understand where they fit in, engaging staff with an overarching mission, inspiring commitment and communicating a vision for the future.

How Is Nonprofit Leadership Different?

Nonprofit leaders are distinct from leaders in the for-profit sector in their motivations and objectives. Some key differences that set nonprofit leadership apart include:

  • Focus on long-term success: Nonprofit leaders are primarily concerned with the long-term success and impact of their organizations over personal gain. Their commitment to their work lies in achieving the organization’s mission and serving the community.
  • Definition of equity: Nonprofit leaders define equity differently from for-profit business owners. They seek to balance financial equity with community equity, recognizing that the social value created cannot be solely quantified using financial metrics.
  • Incorporation of volunteers: Nonprofit organizations rely on both paid staff and volunteers to fulfill their missions. Volunteer contributions — including time, donated goods and pro-bono expertise — are vital components of the nonprofit sector; rarely do for-profit businesses rely on volunteerism.
  • Social ROI: Nonprofit leaders must work to provide their staff and beneficiaries with a “social return on investment” over a financial one. Their goal is to educate and engage staff in creating a positive social bottom line, demonstrating the tangible impact of their work on the community.
  • Responsive to external forces: Nonprofits operate in an environment highly vulnerable to external forces such as financial markets, legislative changes and evolving donor needs. Leaders must navigate these complexities and communicate their impact effectively.

Nonprofit Leadership Styles

Most business leaders know that there are different types of leadership styles, and certain styles are best suited to certain workplaces. In the nonprofit selector, leaders tailor their approach to the needs of their organizations and stakeholders.

There are a handful of common nonprofit leadership styles.

Servant leadership

Servant leaders prioritize sharing power, putting the needs of others first and empowering individuals to grow and succeed in their roles. They are motivated by the well-being of people and the community and creating value for the greater good.

Transformational leadership

Transformational leaders display strong moral compasses, unfailing optimism and steadfast confidence — they are the quintessential “big picture” thinkers. They emphasize and embody values that align with their organization’s mission and inspire their teams by clearly articulating the “why” behind their actions.

Charismatic leadership

As the name suggests, charismatic leaders naturally exhibit qualities that make people want to follow them. They clearly convey their own excitement and enthusiasm for a vision or goal, using their personality and skills of persuasion to motivate others. As such, they are often highly effective communicators. To be truly effective, however, these types of leaders must be mindful of the need for strong team support in order to execute their ideas and sustain long-term change.

Authentic leadership

In the course of achieving a common goal, authentic leaders strive to create meaningful relationships with and among their teams. They often have high integrity, always take responsibility for their actions and make decisions based on moral principles rather than the promise of short-term success.

Key Nonprofit Leadership Skills & Strengths

No matter their industry or place of work, effective leaders need to possess a wide and varied range of skills, from practical to personal.

Personal skills for nonprofit leaders:

  • Emotional intelligence — the ability to understand and manage our own and others’ emotions — is crucial in a leadership position.
  • Nonprofit leaders must adapt to changing circumstances, remain agile and demonstrate resilience and perseverance in the face of challenges.
  • Good leaders take the initiative to stay ahead of issues.
  • Inspiring and motivating team members and stakeholders is essential for maintaining everyone’s commitment to the organization’s mission.
  • Creative problem-solving skills help leaders address complex challenges and find innovative solutions.
  • The ability to acknowledge and celebrate others’ achievements boosts morale and fosters a positive organizational culture.
  • Effective leaders build trust by communicating transparently and consistently with internal and external stakeholders.
  • Good leaders are able to articulate ideas and concepts clearly and persuasively.
  • Great leaders lead by example, treating all individuals with respect and valuing diverse perspectives.

Practical skills for nonprofit leaders:

  • Leaders must establish clear and achievable objectives to guide their organizations.
  • Effective communication skills, including public speaking, are vital for conveying the organization’s message and inspiring action.
  • Leaders must know how to think and act strategically to develop and implement plans that align with the organization’s mission.
  • Understanding financial principles and managing budgets is crucial for nonprofit sustainability.
  • Nonprofits rely on fundraising to support their missions, so a leader with this skill set is invaluable.
  • Networking and building strong relationships with donors, partners and the community is essential for nonprofit success.
  • Leaders must be methodical, able to develop structured processes to efficiently guide their organizations toward their goals.
  • Effective leaders delegate tasks and responsibilities to empower team members and focus on strategic priorities.
  • The ability to understand and effectively work with the board of directors is critical.

How to Become an Effective Nonprofit Leader

Leadership is a skill anyone can learn — contrary to popular belief, “leadership” is not always an inherent quality. Similarly, there is no “one best way” to be a leader; yes, there are some essential skills leaders should possess, but every leader has their own style that works for them and their organization.

If you aspire to successfully lead an organization whose mission you care about, there are a series of steps you can take to grow into that role.

First, join professional networking groups and associations related to nonprofit leadership to build valuable connections and stay updated on industry trends. You will likely meet others with similar aspirations to yours, and you can lean on one another as you seek out advancement opportunities.

Leverage this network to find both formal and informal professional development opportunities, such as advanced degrees or certifications. Take relevant training courses that cover key areas such as board governance, nonprofit finance, strategy development, program evaluation, ethical leadership and organizational transformation.

Talking with experienced professionals is invaluable — they will likely offer surprising and eye-opening insights. Consult with senior leaders who have climbed the ranks within the nonprofit sector. Schedule informational interviews to gain insights and guidance. You can even “learn by doing” through shadowing or being mentored by someone in an aspirational role.

If you are already working in a nonprofit setting, consider volunteering, either for your own organization or another; this will provide crucial visibility into the “front lines” of the work. Participate in special projects or explore different roles to gain hands-on experience and expand your skill set.

You can even demonstrate your innovation and proactivity by identifying specific needs within your organization and workshopping solutions. For instance, if your organization lacks a development department, consider designing and implementing a pilot program.

As you embark on your leadership development journey, there is no such thing as starting too small. Seek out leadership or management positions at smaller nonprofit organizations first, since they may offer more diverse skills-building opportunities and increased chances for career advancement.

If you are ready to dive into leadership development, consider earning an advanced degree in Nonprofit Leadership and Management from the University of San Diego. This online Master of Science program takes a hands-on approach to leadership development, emphasizing the practical application of management theory as it pertains to nonprofit governance. In just 20 months, motivated nonprofit professionals can develop the hard skills necessary to lead with passion, confidence and innovation.

For more information about this unique master’s program, explore the curriculum or connect with an enrollment advisor.


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