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10 characteristics of a successful non-profit leader

The past 18 months have challenged everyone, especially non-profit leaders. Many have not only bought their organisation through the pandemic but also lead them through successful digital projects. But what qualities enable these successful leaders to achieve these feats?

Here are ten characteristics of highly effective non-profit leaders.

  1.  Adaptability

    • We talk a lot about the accelerated pace of change being driven by the digital age and exacerbated by the pandemic. As a leader, you need to maintain strategic objectives but be adaptable to circumstances when it comes to tactics
  2. Capable of navigating uncertainty

    • The pandemic reminds us that we can be at the mercy of unprecedented events; leaders negotiating a pathway through it for their non-profit have to be able to plan in a world of uncertainty, recognising that elements are beyond their control and ensuring they have contingencies and mitigations to offset unforeseen disruptions.
  3. Adept at building relationships

    • No one can claim ownership of a successful non-profit strategy, it takes an array of skills and experience. The physical distribution of workforces caused by the pandemic has enabled us to prove that we can build relationships and collaborate remotely, but more to the point that we need to collaborate. No successful leader is an island.
  4. Decisiveness

    • Timely decision-making is crucial to being successful, and there’s a delicate balance to find since the decisions you make will have consequences. The line to find is such that you don’t take too long to make decisions or you’ll miss opportunities, but you have to be confident in them.
  5. Flexibility

    • Aligned with the point about being decisive, you also have to find the balance with being flexible. Don’t shy away from changing your mind, that’s a sign of being adaptive and flexible, but you can’t change your decisions too often or you’ll appear indecisive and create uncertainty.
  6. Boldness

    • It’s not a time for the feint-hearted to deliver leadership, whether you’re driving change or resisting it you need to be committed and show the courage of your convictions. Sitting on the fence and waiting for the storm to pass just won’t cut it now.
  7. Engaging/charismatic

    • Being the voice of a non-profit means being able to share your passion in a concise and engaging way, with multiple audiences and demographics.
  8. Connected

    • Your non-profit’s ethos and success is driven by its cause; your employees, funders, donors, members are part of your world because they want to be associated with it so keep it at the heart of everything you do and connect your initiatives to the impact they have on your cause
  9. Understanding the need for Trust

    • Trust is another area that cuts both ways for a successful non-profit leader. It’s vital that you are trustworthy, that you cultivate people’s trust, that you live up to that trust in your actions, and that you reward people’s trust in you by being transparent and consistent.
    • Equally, you need to trust those around you; they’re there with you because they share the cause (see above) and because they choose to be there. That of itself tells you that they believe that you have shared objectives and that they can contribute, they have a role to play. If you lay claim to leading them then your responsibility is to understand where that trust is coming from and to harness that goodwill.
  10. Being open to influence, and critique

    • Don’t be too precious about your ideas holding sway, you want to encourage input from the experience all around you, and you need to be open to adopt or adapt suggestions where appropriate, then recognise and praise the source.
    • Similarly when you’re challenged or critiqued the mark of a true leader is to accept and embrace the challenge, to use it as an opportunity to make your case (respectful of the challenge) or to acknowledge the value of the different perspective and to negotiate a new approach or decision or direction in its light.