6 characteristics of the new nonprofit leader

Recent surveys and reports have shared that nonprofits are facing a tough road ahead, tackling increasing turnover and decreasing revenue. But what do these challenges mean for nonprofit leaders? In the article below Nell Edgington—President of Social Velocity, a management consulting firm that helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door and use resources more effectively—outlines how fewer resources and more competition are requiring nonprofits to rethink leadership.

This post originally appeared on the Social Velocity blog.

by Nell Edgington

Photo credit: John Morton, Creative Commons/Flickr
Photo credit: John Morton, Creative Commons/Flickr

Last week I spoke to a group of nonprofit leaders about 5 Nonprofits Trends to Watch in 2013 and a woman stood up and said “These trends are all well and good, but we need to talk about the fact that the money just isn’t there anymore. We are having to compete with more organizations for much less available funding. We need solutions to that.”

Agreed — fewer resources and more competition for those shrinking resources is the reality we are facing. But it’s not going to change anytime soon. So it is up to nonprofit leaders to embrace and adapt to that new reality. Instead of beating our heads against the wall of change, let’s adapt to meet it.

In fact, it is time for a new kind of nonprofit leader, one who has the confidence, ability, foresight, energy, and strength of will to really lead the nonprofit sector forward.

This new nonprofit leader:

Moves to Impact. She realizes that it is no longer enough to just “do good work.” Nonprofits must create a theory of change and then find a way to measure and articulate the outcomes and impact they hope they are achieving.

Finances the Work. He works toward completely integrating money into the mission his nonprofit is trying to achieve, understanding that big plans are not enough, he also must finance them. And beyond just recognizing his lack of infrastructure, he puts together a plan for raising capacity capital and convinces donors to start investing in a stronger, more effective organization behind the work.

Refuses to Play Nice.  She overcomes the nonprofit norm of politeness at all costs and gets real with funders, board members, or staff who are standing in the way of the mission and impact of the organization.

Looks Outside. He understands that a nonprofit can no longer exist in a vacuum. He and his board and staff must constantly monitor the external marketplace of changing client needs, demographic and economic trends, funder interests in order make sure their nonprofit continues to create community value.

Gets SocialShe embraces the idea of a networked nonprofit and is willing and able to open her organization and let the world in as fully engaged partners in the work her nonprofit is doing.

Asks Hard Questions. He constantly forces himself, and his high-performing team of board, staff, funders and volunteers to ask hard questions (like these and these) in order to make sure they are pushing themselves harder, making the best use of resources and delivering more results.

This new nonprofit leader is confident, engaged, and savvy. She will, I have no doubt, lead this great nonprofit sector to new heights.

If you need help figuring out how to adapt to this new reality, let me know.



Nell has over 17 years of experience innovating in the nonprofit sector. In her work at Social Velocity she has helped nonprofits grow their programs, find firmer financial footing, create a pitch for money to strengthen or grow their organizations, create strategic plans and much more. In addition to leading Social Velocity, she writes and speaks extensively on innovating in the nonprofit sector. Learn more about Nell and Social Velocity.




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    • Jack
    • March 21, 2013

    I think the constant focus on fundraising, capital projects, etc. is interesting as there often seems to be little discussion about money in regards to the staff who keep these cultural institutions up and running (and successful, and profitable, and so on). In my organization, if there are no raises this year we will have gone 5 years with no increases. We do receive an optional, small “bonus” at the end of each year, however when discussing turnover one must pay attention to the fact that stagnant salaries/wages will start translating over to the larger career of the people making the business go. I’ve been asked to make sure that I’m managing my human capital effectively (which is not a bad thing), however where is the focus on investing in our human capital beyond throwing a few dollars or a free dinner for two for outstanding service at someone in the hopes that they’ll stay motivated to achieve the mission of the organization? If you’re at a senior level management position perhaps you are comfortable in your career trajectory (if it’s flattening out), however those of us in lower and middle management are looking for career growth and it’s stunted, at least financially (and often overall as these are usually smaller organizations with no where to grow), and then you’re looking at the problem of turnover and constantly struggling to teach that mission to new people who may leave soon after they’ve learned it.

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    • Lorraine Goodman
    • March 31, 2013

    I agree with Jack. A professor I had at NYU Stern used to call great leaders “Janus-faced” — meaning not only did they need to ‘look outside’ and be aware of trends, etc, but s/he also needed to look INSIDE. As the business SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses / Opportunities, Threats) teaches, Strengths and Weaknesses and INTERNAL, while Opportunities and Threats are EXTERNAL. A good leader will be aware of all, always Janus-faced, looking inwards and outwards.

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  4. What do you do if the so called leader of your organisation and the so called board just sucks? (Sorry for my use of words but I’ve overcome my politeness.) A lot of (good) advice and models depart from the assumption that the board of directors are the right people at the right place and that good leadership and change start from there/them. What if this is not the case? How do you changes this from within the ‘staff’? In the case of my organisation the ‘staff’ has all 6 characteristics described in the article in mind and try to implement them but… what if the board is not interested? How do you organise bottom-up change?

    Something else. Some suggestions:

    – Use ‘social profit’ in stead of ‘nonprofit’. (that’s the new trend 😉

    – Use ‘team’ in stead of ‘staff’.
    (In most social profits the ‘staff’ doesn’t just do the work the board tells them to do but plays an important role in organizing and creating a strategy, implicit or explicit, recognized or not.)

    – And maybe use ‘head of organisation’ in stead of ‘leader’.
    (The leading way of an organisation can come from many directions. Otherwise, the organisation of the organisation does not always come from the so called ‘leader’ and his board…)

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