7 habits of highly effective nonprofit leaders

For the past year I have had the incredible fortune of working with an executive director named Dan who, in the past 12 years since being hired as CEO, has taken his organization from operating at a deficit to now being a $1.6 million dollar charity and a leader in their community. Every time I get off the phone with him, I am totally in awe of two things – the results he has achieved and how he has achieved them without losing his sanity or his sense of humour.

Although technically he has hired me to coach him, I can safely say I have learned more from him about what it takes to be an effective and happy nonprofit leader than he could possibly ever learn from me. In conversations with my other clients, I find myself referring over and over the seven habits I have noticed being practiced by this amazing ED and how they can help anyone looking to advance their organization’s cause.

1. Actively practices servant leadership

I don’t know if I have ever met anyone who is more humble than my friend Dan. He is so gracious, kind and patient when working with others and takes every opportunity possible to make you feel that you matter as a person. He becomes less so that others can become more – a true servant leader.

2. Models patience and wisdom in communicating with others

I have watched Dan coolly handle situations where I would have totally lost my mind. Sometimes he shares with me some stories from his personal or professional life and it’s all I can do to not ask him how he didn’t end up having a huge temper tantrum. He shrugs his shoulders and smiles – an amazing example for all of us type-A leaders.

3. Sincerely dedicates himself to growth & learning

There has been more than one occasion where I have asked Dan what it is exactly he wants me to do for him, as he has forgotten more than I could ever learn about nonprofit leadership. Luckily for me he doesn’t seem to be bothered by that fact that he started as an exec when I was still in high school. Instead, he attentively listens, takes notes during our coaching sessions, and asks powerful questions.

4. Balances being optimistic with being realistic

One of the things Dan is amazing at is balancing the short-term needs of his organization with the long-term needs of his community. Although he sets goals that require his team to stretch out of their comfort-zones, he spends an equal (if not more) amount of time strategically mapping out just how they can get to said goal. He’s a visionary and a planner – the one-two punch of any leader.

5. Takes “criticism” like a champ

As a coach, part of the job is to play the role of devil’s advocate and ask some tough questions about something your client may not have thought about. For many of us leaders, our gut reaction to someone coming along and picking apart our great idea is to be defensive and hostile. No matter how many things I’ve said that must have been hard to hear, Dan considers my questions and asks himself how he can use my feedback to improve. It’s truly amazing to witness (as I don’t even know how well I could take my own advice sometimes) but he has shown me the way true champions do it.

6. Puts his own priorities on the agenda

One of the things I admire most about Dan is that he prioritizes his own life as well as leading his organization full-time. He writes, spends time with his family, consults, and shows up to things. While many nonprofit leaders focus entirely on their work, Dan conscientiously keeps his professional and personal lives separate not allowing one to monopolize the other – a critical sanity saving habit.

7. Maintains a sense of humour despite the challenges in his life

What this guy can endure truly challenges my belief about just how mentally tough I really am as he operates at a whole other level; however, despite the heaviness of some of the situations he faces in his life, he is always able to laugh and see past the obstacles he faces. After working together now for over a year, I have noticed that a significant chunk of our coaching-call-time is spent making jokes and just having fun together as we both work towards becoming better in our respective roles.

As a nonprofit leader, do you feel you have developed a habit that has significantly helped you advance in your career? Leave a comment below.


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Natasha is the Founder of Next Level Nonprofits – an online training company dedicated to equipping new nonprofit executive directors with the skills and support they need to enjoy successful, sustainable and satisfying careers.
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  1. Great article: directly on the point.

    1. Thanks so much for the comment, so glad you liked the post!

    • Willis Kettrell
    • February 17, 2014

    Great Work.

    My interest is to transform non-profits to apply a business model/ capitalist approach to manage their organization. Also, my notion is to look at competitive strategies for non-profits and generate different income streams/revenue for the organization.
    I look forward to connecting with you

    1. Hi Willis, thanks for your comment. How long have you worked in the nonprofit space? Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn and we can chat : )

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