Improve Your Nonprofit’s Leadership: 4 Top Tips

Leadership plays a crucial role in the success of any nonprofit. While your board and executive director might not typically be on the very front lines of fundraising, these bodies are the ones that create the strategic plan for that initiative and greenlight any funding put toward it. Both are essential tasks.

However, from tension within nonprofit boards to leadership that is disengaged from their organization’s work, sometimes sub-par nonprofit leadership is an organization’s biggest complication.

Just consider the Survey on Leadership and Management in the Nonprofit Sector conducted by Stanford University’s graduate school of business. When given a list of 11 options, 38% of respondents noted weak or ineffective management as a top challenge in the nonprofit sector as a whole.

If that sounds like your organization, it’s time to make a concentrated effort to improve your nonprofit’s leadership. We’re going to explore the following strategies to help you do so:

  • Outline roles and expectations for each leader clearly.
  • Cultivate a culture of philanthropy.
  • Bring in professional help.
  • Recruit quality leadership from the start.

Strong leadership will have a domino effect on your organization, motivating every team member of your nonprofit to perform at their best. Continue reading to learn how to improve your nonprofit’s leadership today!

Outline roles and expectations for each leader clearly.

Consider how your organization would fare without a nonprofit strategic plan in place. While you might be able to easily navigate short-term fundraising efforts, any longer-term efforts (such as building fundraising capacity or even projecting your annual fund needs) would be significantly more difficult without a 3-5 year plan in place.

It’s a very similar scenario for your leadership! Without clearly outlined operating rules, your leadership’s “strategic plan,” successfully completing their job is significantly more difficult.

This doesn’t just mean copying standard nonprofit bylaws from a digital template and calling it a day. Rather, in addition to bylaws tailored to your organization, you should outline clear roles and expectations for each leader on paper.

What are the expectations of a board member? What are the expectations of executive directors? Answer those questions clearly and concisely and make sure every leader is aware of it.

Just like your bylaws, revisit these documents regularly to make sure they’re still relevant for your organization and leadership.

Cultivate a culture of philanthropy.

When discussing nonprofit leadership, there are generally two facets considered: executive leadership and board members.

While the former (directors and other salaried leaders)  play hands-on roles in your organization by mere definition of their role, the latter (board members) can often be found in distant roles in many organizations.

Think of it like this: your executive directors coordinate the planning of fundraising activities, while board members simply sign off on the funds needed to hold the initiative. Of course, the exact level of board involvement will vary greatly from one organization to another. The main point is that board members typically have their own very separate lives and careers that occupy most of their time.

Whether filling a less-present role or not, it’s crucial that all members of your leadership feel connected to your organization and cause. They need to feel the philanthropic spirit that fuels your cause because that’s what will motivate them to fulfill their role to the highest degree.

There are a few different ways to cultivate this culture of philanthropy in your leadership:

  • Encourage leaders to participate in fundraising efforts. This could be as simple as writing giver thank-yous as a capacity-building task after a major campaign.
  • Set an expectation of board member fundraising. During each fundraiser, your board members should be making gifts and reaching out to their networks to do the same.
  • Hold leadership retreats. Bring your leaders together for a weekend of training on fundraising best practices. Bonus points for adding a volunteer aspect to the retreat and incorporating nonprofit-branded t-shirts into the mix!

Regardless of how you get there, it’s important that each leader in your midst pitches in to your cause.

Bring in professional help.

Sometimes, improving your nonprofit’s leadership is simply too large a task to handle within your team. It makes sense— evaluating where your leadership is failing and instructing your peers on how to improve is a sensitive task.

If that sounds like your organization, consider bringing on a nonprofit consultant to help navigate the improvements. Consulting firms offer a variety of leadership-strengthening services, including conducting leadership learning events and embedding expert staffers in your team to provide in-person, daily training.

An outside perspective will notice issues in your leadership that you might not notice yourself. After all, it’s hard to see all of the details of a picture when you’re standing too close to it! Plus, consultants can help guide critical but necessary conversations with your organization’s leaders.

Learn more about hiring a fundraising consultant, and the associated fees, through this guide by Averill Fundraising Solutions.

Recruit quality leadership from the start.

Improving your nonprofit’s leadership doesn’t always refer to improving those already serving in your nonprofit’s highest ranks. It could also mean hiring new leaders to enhance (or replace) those already in position. Or, it could mean building your leadership from the ground up if you haven’t had much of a formal body before!

Regardless of why you’re hiring new leaders, it’s crucial that you recruit quality team members from the start. Evaluate each board member and director you hire against specific criteria most important to your organization.

For board members, consider the following criteria:

  • Is the candidate considered a thought leader, or a “go-to” expert in their industry or your greater community?
  • Does the candidate have an impressive social following, specifically on social networks?
  • Do they have experience relevant to your nonprofit’s cause, or nonprofits in general?
  • Do their interests align with your organization’s values?

For executive directors, consider:

  • Does the candidate have stellar communication skills?
  • Do they have extensive knowledge of fundraising and the nonprofit sector overall?
  • Do they have technical skills specific to your organization’s fundraising efforts?
  • Are they able to keep a level head under pressure?
  • Do they have a long-term vision for your nonprofit that aligns with yours?

This is another task where it might be helpful to bring in a nonprofit consultant. Some consulting firms offer executive search services, through which they recruit impressive executive leaders that fit your organization’s existing culture. Further, these consultants can help create a strategy for successfully onboarding new leaders! Check out this guide to learn more about nonprofit fundraising consultants and strategy development experts.


Having strong leaders at the helm of your nonprofit is crucial for future success. Luckily, improving your leadership doesn’t have to be a difficult task!

Consider incorporating any of the above strategies and watch your leadership become more engaged, more philanthropic, and more helpful participants in your organization.

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