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It’s Time For A New Kind of Nonprofit Leader

By Nell Edgington

FDRLast week I spoke to a group of nonprofit leaders about 5 Nonprofits Trends to Watch in 2013 and a woman stood up and said “These trends are all well and good, but we need to talk about the fact that the money just isn’t there anymore. We are having to compete with more organizations for much less available funding. We need solutions to that.”

Agreed — fewer resources and more competition for those shrinking resources is the reality we are facing. But it’s not going to change anytime soon. So it is up to nonprofit leaders to embrace and adapt to that new reality. Instead of beating our heads against the wall of change, let’s adapt to meet it.

In fact, it is time for a new kind of nonprofit leader, one who has the confidence, ability, foresight, energy, and strength of will to really lead the nonprofit sector forward.

This new nonprofit leader:

Moves to Impact. She realizes that it is no longer enough to just “do good work.” Nonprofits must create a theory of change and then find a way to measure and articulate the outcomes and impact they hope they are achieving.

Finances the Work. He works toward completely integrating money into the mission his nonprofit is trying to achieve, understanding that big plans are not enough, he also must finance them. And beyond just recognizing his lack of infrastructure, he puts together a plan for raising capacity capital and convinces donors to start investing in a stronger, more effective organization behind the work.

Refuses to Play Nice.  She overcomes the nonprofit norm of politeness at all costs and gets real with funders, board members, or staff who are standing in the way of the mission and impact of the organization.

Looks Outside. He understands that a nonprofit can no longer exist in a vacuum. He and his board and staff must constantly monitor the external marketplace of changing client needs, demographic and economic trends, funder interests in order make sure their nonprofit continues to create community value.

Gets SocialShe embraces the idea of a networked nonprofit and is willing and able to open her organization and let the world in as fully engaged partners in the work her nonprofit is doing.

Asks Hard Questions. He constantly forces himself, and his high-performing team of board, staff, funders and volunteers to ask hard questions (like these and these) in order to make sure they are pushing themselves harder, making the best use of resources and delivering more results.

This new nonprofit leader is confident, engaged, and savvy. She will, I have no doubt, lead this great nonprofit sector to new heights.

If you need help figuring out how to adapt to this new reality, let me know.

Photo Credit: John Morton

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (, a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.

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15 Comments to It’s Time For A New Kind of Nonprofit Leader

John Ueng
March 11, 2013

The advice to stop playing nice, and insinuating that being nice is some how contradictory to competency, is simply repugnant. The one common quality shared by non profits are and should be, to better the society where for profit entities cannot or are bad at. But when nonprofits forget this fundamental goal and start mimicking a for profit entity, then euphamize this as enhancing competence, then it is becoming a disservice rathet than a service to society. Being nice and competent have absolutely no contradictions. Competenceis an issue of skills, wheread being nice is one of character. Is one suggesting one must compromise character to improve skills? How ridiculous this is. The worst kind of non profits, or any organization or even individuals for that matter, is one who subscribes to the concept of “the end justifies the means”. Non profits should hold themselves to a higher standard than for profits, and not mimick the greed and bottomline mentality of for profit entities, but should exemplify the character of social responsibility in more than just the monetary sense, but also ethics and virtues.

March 12, 2013

This is great – so on point.

My only addition/adjustment would be that the new kind of nonprofit leader might be a “they” instead of a “he” or a “she.” I think that promoting the idea that tight, balanced teams at the head of an organization can push forth this kind of vision and change is key to making this kind of vision and change much more achievable (and sustainable.)

Nell Edgington
March 12, 2013

John, I am not suggesting that nonprofits mimic for-profit entities. Rather, if you go back and read my “Perils of Nice” blog post you will find that I encourage nonprofits to get out of the trap of mollifying funders, board members, etc and instead focus on mission and outcomes. When I encourage nonprofits to stop “playing nice” it is referring to the sector’s tendency to get along for the sake of politeness instead of doing the best, harder thing in the interests of their mission and the outcomes they are trying to achieve.

Nell Edgington
March 12, 2013

Trish, you make a great point, it can’t be just about one person at the top, but rather a team of people, and I actually include staff, board and external stakeholders in my broader view of sustainable leadership for the sector, see this post on that:

Elisabeth Weston
March 12, 2013

This post reminded me of the great sense of entitlement that some nonprofit orgs cultivate and maintain. The woman who asked you for solutions to the “problem” of fewer resources and more competition needs to take a broader viewpoint. Your response to her was right-on, but there was one thing that perhaps you should make more explicit: not every organization is supposed to go on forever. This is true in all sectors–public, private, and nonprofit. Too often, leaders simply assume that they are supposed to continue in existence because that’s where they are now, or because their mission is still a good one, or because they still have a staff and followers/members.

When these types of leaders bemoan the increased competition, they often do so at the cost of their own mission. My organization’s (abbreviated) mission is to promote and provide high-quality child care to families in mid-Michigan. If another organization formed to compete with mine, I should be glad–because more high-quality child care would be available in the world, and that’s my mission! If there aren’t enough resources (from wherever) to keep us both afloat, perhaps I should just join them in order to maintain my mission. If I’m unwilling to join them, perhaps I’m not really “for” my mission as much as I’m for my BRAND of my mission…

Certainly, this is an overly simplistic analysis. Most nonprofit orgs have a lot of baggage in the form of boards, staff, and beneficiaries, making it difficult to build consensus and move nimbly. But you’re correct in pushing leaders to ask tough questions–just include the question, “Is it time to call it quits or join another group?”

Nell Edgington
March 12, 2013


I think you make an excellent point. You are absolutely right, the mission must be the most critical element and the organization (whatever form) secondary to that.

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Douglas Clayton
March 25, 2013

This list is somewhat surprising to me, if only because it doesn’t seem to outline ‘new leadership’, but rather standard ‘good leadership’ as has been researched and defined in the world generally. Good leaders have to watch for environmental changes, consider the marketplace, be willing to stand up for things, make tough decisions, balance priorities, grasp and integrate messaging and finances, etc etc.

If the problem is just that, generally, we’ve got a system that installs poor leaders, then that is a big big problem – not just something that is evolving to a new era. And if that is the case, I suspect it has to do with the way non-profits were designed in the beginning, overseen by a Board who are asked to do way too many different things all at once, including hiring executive officers.

But these ideas just outline standard good leadership – though it leaves off a few other factors – things that nonprofits do well, like inspiring their employees, etc.

Nell Edgington
March 25, 2013


You can call it “good” leadership instead of “new” leadership if you want, perhaps it’s just semantics. But I do think this is a new day for the nonprofit sector. It used to be enough to just “do good work” and donors and accolades would follow. But in an environment of diminishing traditional funding sources and increasing demand for nonprofit services nonprofits must adapt. And that means that their leaders have to understand and act in new ways, in ways that traditionally the nonprofit sector has not.

lindy beatie
April 16, 2013

Spot on! All VERY valid and important points…after 30 yrs in nonprofit sector, i find too many whiny leaders…”woe is me” does not cut it! Thx Neil!

Nell Edgington
April 17, 2013

Thanks Lindy! I’m glad the post resonated with you. Yes, it is time to move away from blame and toward action.

Janet Kranz
April 18, 2013

What I love about this is that we’re having the conversation. It’s complicated out there and nonprofits have to get the part right about integrity, transparency and doing good things for humans. Seems to me that whenever nonprofits screw up the basics or get lost in trends and easy language, bad stuff happens. Congrats to everyone for even caring about the quality of our nonprofit future and being passionate about the big issues.

Nell Edgington
April 18, 2013

Janet, I agree, we must be able to have these kinds of conversations in order for the nonprofit sector to get better a creating change. Thanks for adding to the conversation!

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