Reflections on nonprofit leadership

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Editor’s Note: This week Julia Burns offers all of us a fresh perspective on how we define, develop and select leaders. One way or another, we all are part of organizations or communities and have a voice in selecting leaders. Julia, a Florida-based consultant with nonprofits through a collaborative firm Clarity Transitions, shares lessons from her practice that have broad application.

As a consultant who works with nonprofit organizations, I have a specific interest in succession and in seeing organizations becoming more equitable. A word that we often hear in this work is leadership. This word, for me, has some deep, almost ancestral resonance while at the same time making me a little uneasy.

The resonance is undoubtedly because leadership is highly valued in our society.  A leader is someone who takes charge, directs us and is the first among us. A leader has commanding authority and acts as our guide. Even to have a “lead” is to have an advantage of superiority or position.  (Definitions courtesy of Merriam-Webster.) Though these attributes are often socialized as positive, I question whether a more equitable definition would be better.

So, what does leadership look like in applied practice in nonprofit organizations? My partner and I have had two separate but contrasting opportunities to help networks of organizations define leadership and the path toward internal succession.  

The two networks we worked with are quite different. One is a national network of basic needs organizations offering diapers and period supplies. Many of these organizations are small, many are run by their founders, most rely heavily on volunteers, and some are entirely volunteer-driven. The other network consists of organizations that run school food programs. These are structured organizations working in a regulated environment and are usually part of school systems. Many are quite large, and most have professional and experienced staff.

The two groups identified just three competencies of leaders in common, and all three were highly valued. They named being a strong communicator as the most important competency. Both groups also included relationship building and developing their team as important leadership competencies.  

After these, however, differences in mission and organizational structure led to diverging competencies.

As they work primarily in larger, government-regulated organizations with easily defined career paths, the food program leaders had more structured needs.   

  • Being customer-focused was a key competency as they provide students with culturally appropriate food that is appealing, nutritious, and cost-effective. (Public school lunches are quite different than in my school days!)
  • Political acumen was another unique competency identified because many food programs must work successfully with a combination of parents, elected school board members, and state regulations.
  • Food service (mission) expertise was also identified, but it was one of the lowest-ranked competencies.

The basic needs nonprofit leaders needed a broader and less tightly defined set of competencies because their organizations tend to be more loosely organized and evolving.

  • Big picture thinking was a key competency as they run more fluid and adaptive organizations that often quickly pivot to take advantage of opportunities and emerging needs. Leaders need to understand all the moving parts and how they interact in order to manage change.
  • Developing resources was also identified as a competency because these leaders juggle grants, seek donations, and receive and distribute a large number of in-kind donations.
  • A strong vision for the future, including passion for the mission, was rated as being a highly important competency, but no competency specific to mission was identified.

This work, though drawn from a limited sample, starts to explain some of my unease over leadership.

In independent nonprofit organizations, the Board of Directors is tasked with hiring, evaluating, and, if needed, firing the top staff person, the Executive Director.  When I hear nonprofit Board members talk about the leadership qualities of their next Executive Director, too often they cannot precisely define what they mean.  Or they assume that what constitutes good leadership in their experience in for-profit jobs (at a bank, retail establishment, tech company, etc.) will apply equally to a nonprofit organization. Our work has shown us that someone who’s successful at a school food program may struggle to run a basic needs organization.  To get a good perspective on the leadership needs in their nonprofits, Board members are well-served when they ask staff members, who deliver on the agency mission every day, about the most important qualities for the next Executive Director. Leadership is not one size fits all.

Socially, we often place a higher value on leaders than on the whole team. It is noteworthy that the three common competencies identified from two vastly different groups are oriented toward other people. They underscore the importance of the team and that leaders cannot succeed in isolation. 

Because their supporting teams may be undervalued, nonprofit Board members sometimes prefer external candidates when seeking a new Executive Director. Though not every internal team will include a strong successor, our consulting practice advocates for building up strong teams who know the mission, who are already part of an organization’s network of partnerships, and are well-trained in the competencies needed to succeed in that work.

Our work also advocates for doing this work in an equitable way. Equitable hiring, development, promotion, and compensation practices are key ways in which nonprofit organizations can proactively tackle systemic forms of oppression including racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, ageism, and others. A leader, for me, embraces diverse people and perspectives, removes barriers to advancement, and creates a culture of developing and promoting talent from within.

Finally, and personally, that leader who takes charge, directs us and is the first among us feels outdated and limiting. I strongly value coordination and a unified direction and seeing those achieved in a collaborative way. I value those who bring us together while valuing each of our contributions.

Here’s our advice to nonprofit board members:

  • Value and invest in the whole team, not only those in “top” positions. Put this in the budget.
  • Make sure internal people practices are part of how you address systemic oppression.
  • Work towards a promote-from-within culture. Even if team members leave, many will be going to organizations that share your mission.
  • Assess the strength of the leader by the depth and strength of their team.

To read more on this topic or to contact Julia Burns, visit her website at


  1. Horace Grinnell

    this is an excellent reflection on leadership. as I read it I realized how important and yet, sometimes undervalued, are some aspects of good leadership – team building – a vision for the organization – flexibility in dealing with customers – good communication.

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Tuck, indeed we are programmed in our culture to reward hero leaders. It does indeed take a village and we all have gifts to share. May we work for a world where power is shared and all are welcome to contribute and to be. Tom

    • Pat Nichols

      Echoing Horace’s accolades. Great advice, Julia. Glad Tom provided you the forum. My current Interim ED engagement is with an organization with a storied history but without sufficient investment in building the team. Fortunately, the board and the Executive Team share that diagnosis and the latter, nudged along by a strong HR leader, is dedicated to addressing that shortcoming.

      • Tom Adams

        Thanks Pat, great to hear from you and know you are still making the world better! Let me know when you want to share some thoughts as a guest writer! Julia has worked on this for a number of years. We all owe her for her persistence! Tom