Essential Knowledge, Skills and Abilities for Nonprofit CEOs

The challenges of nonprofit leadership require a particular skillset. For instance, imagine working in an organization where you are responsible for overall administration and performance but not setting the organization’s strategic plan and significant goals. Furthermore, imagine working in an organization where a vast majority of your workers are not paid any remuneration. Meaning that they can come to and go from the workplace whenever they chose and could semi-retire at any time without providing any forewarning. This article will discuss the essential knowledge, skills, and abilities for Nonprofit CEOs to drive their organization forward.

Knowledge, Skills and Abilities for Nonprofit CEOs

Are there skills and abilities that differentiate not-for-profit chief executives from their counterparts in the for-profit world? Absolutely! In addition to the skill-set that one would seek in the chief executive of any corporate organization, such as visionary and financial management skills, other important abilities are especially needed for a not-for-profit organization.

In particular, the nonprofit CEO has three significant requirements: the ability to be a team player and a team leader, exercise diplomacy continually and act as a coach to others in the organization, both up and down the organizational pyramid.

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Team player | Nonprofit CEO skills

Nonprofit CEOs have to work closely with the volunteer board of directors in developing the strategic vision, strategic plan and major goals of the organization.

This requires a cooperative approach that can be quite unlike the process followed in for-profit corporations where the chief executive may make these major decisions alone.

Also, as a team leader, the chief executive has to work to motivate the volunteers serving on the board and committees without offering financial incentives to encourage good performance and often without the ability to remove under-performers.

This ability to get the collective group of staff and volunteers all performing at a maximum level within the not-for-profit environment’s constraints is an important aspect of the chief executive’s role.

Diplomacy | Nonprofit CEO skills

Diplomacy is a vital skill in not-for-profit management. Successful not-for-profit chief executives are accomplished at advancing their organization’s interests by working co-operatively with a diversity of other not-for-profit organizations, with business, with government and with political leaders.

 These chief executives will continually be forging and maintaining alliances with “like-minded” organizations to advance their own organization’s agenda.

At the same time, within the not-for-profit organization itself, diplomacy will be needed to deal with volunteers and the general membership and other stakeholders. While catchphrases used in the business world, such as “quality is job one” and “our strength is people” and “the customer is always right”, may fall from favour and be dropped from the corporate world’s lexicon, they continue to be central to the successful operation of not-for-profit organizations.

Coaching | Nonprofit CEO skills

Coaching is important in corporate organizations to develop future leaders within the employee ranks. But coaching normally involves guiding those who will, at some future date, follow the “coach” up the corporate ladder.

Coaching in the not-for-profit world certainly includes this important work, but it also involves guiding those who occupy the organisation’s top echelons.

Coaching the members of the volunteer board of directors on media relations, how best to interact with politicians and the political bureaucracy, and how best to fulfil their legal and governance responsibilities is an important function of the not-for-profit chief executive.

Final thoughts on the unique challenges of recruiting an Nonprofit CEO

Make no mistake about it, corporate management skills are important for nonprofit CEO’s- but the chief executive of a volunteer organization needs more. The chief executive cannot succeed without motivating and leading a unique team of paid and unpaid people.

The nonprofit CEO cannot succeed without exercising superior diplomatic skills when dealing with constituents, stakeholders, political masters and allies. Furthermore, nonprofit CEOs cannot succeed without being a coach for both the staff and the organisation’s volunteers.

Finding the right leader, who possesses the abilities of a successful corporate chief executive and the additional abilities required in the not-for-profit world, is one of the unique challenges of the volunteer board of directors.

*Author’s Note: The generally accepted definition of a not-for-profit organization is that it is an organization that does not seek, as a primary organizational goal, to generate a profit (often called a surplus) on its operations. This does not mean that the not-for-profit organization cannot make an annual profit. Indeed, I advise not-for-profit organizations to generate a surplus on their activities, wherever possible, so that the organization will have the funds available to undertake, from time-to-time, those important projects that have no possibility of breaking even.

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AMC’s governance training helps nonprofit boards navigate governance and management to stay focused on their organization’s mission and visions. It includes valuable tools and clear guidance to address many not-for-profit organizations’ governance challenges.

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