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Leadership Published Date, 2022

Cultivating The Next Generation Of Nonprofit Leaders: Dos And Don’ts

Created By: CJ Orr
November 3, 2022

Although I have learned a lot about leadership from classic texts like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) and more recent books like The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership (2015), most of my education comes from watching nonprofit executives in action.

The people at the helm of Orr Group’s partner organizations have shown me that supportive leadership depends on timing and intentionality and that leadership often comes down to what you don’t do. Here are a few key lessons I’ve absorbed.


Put the work into relationships. Mission and strategy matter for nonprofits, and there’s certainly no shortage of worthy causes in the world today, but in order to have an impact, we need to team up. Nobody does this work alone. Finding common ground with others, sharing experiences, and recognizing the value in one another—these are skills that can and should be cultivated at every level of an organization.

Be curious. What type of leader do I most look forward to partnering with? Respect and drive always matter, but curiosity is the quality that engages me most. “We keep moving forward,” Walt Disney once said, “opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” New paths bring us to surprises—and I like to be surprised.

Be the example. Executive leadership is different from parenting, but in both cases, you are being watched, and what you do matters more than what you say. Being present counts more than being right. When you remain calm in a crisis, when you show kindness and forgiveness, these behaviors are noticed and replicated throughout the organization. In nonprofits, where mission is a key motivator for performance, the whiff of hypocrisy can poison morale.

>>> Craig H. Shelley: The Five Skills Nonprofit Executives Need To Lead Change

Trust. Leadership is a muscle, argue Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Made to Stick and other business best sellers. Allowing those around you to try and fail builds up their leadership muscles and builds trust in your team. Face it, you won’t always be around to clean up the mess, so you’d better start trusting them sooner rather than later. This lesson also applies when it comes to developing and sustaining your organizational culture. Culture imposed from above won’t stick. Instead, let it grow around you, and support efforts that most resonate with your mission—even if (especially if) they weren’t your idea. Cultivating leadership within organizations starts with trust.

>>> Stephen K. Orr: Meeting Crisis With Innovation

Appreciate. Employee recognition programs only get you so far. Appreciation needs to be part of your culture. Expressing faith with your words and demonstrating it with your actions will make young leaders in your organization feel their hard work is being noticed. This gesture can happen privately by phone or email, or, to make it even more special, in front of the department or organization.

>>> Shaby T. Rosales: Diversity Should Be A Leadership Priority, Not A Human Resources Function


Micromanage. Great leaders don’t double-check spreadsheets or rewrite speeches unless asked. They don’t second-guess the decisions of the people who report to them. Think of all the effort you put into recruitment and interviewing. Now you’re going to make that hire feel disenfranchised, humiliated, and belittled? This is the quickest route to coming full circle, finding yourself reposting that job.

>>> Regina Cialone and Ryan Grosso: Situational Strategy Planning

Chase shiny objects. There’s nothing wrong with staying current in your field and keeping an eye on what other organizations are doing, but that doesn’t mean changing course whenever a new trend arises. Ask yourself and your colleagues whether a nonfungible token, for example, is relevant to your mission and values, and recognize that juggling a new ball might mean dropping one that’s already in the air. According to self-described Fundraisingologist Jeff Brooks, “That focus on the new, often at the expense of doing what actually works, is widespread in the fundraising world,” though he also warns against the opposite mindset that trying new things is never worth it.

Let problems fester. If something is going wrong that can sap the strength of an organization, leaders need to address it. Respectful, open, and honest communication can bring teams and people together and make them stronger than they were before the challenge arose. A Fast Company post from early in the pandemic outlined ways to “Compassionately Communicate from a Distance.” I especially like the word ‘compassionately’.

These rules of thumb shouldn’t interfere with leaders developing their own style and their own voice. Over the course of my career with nonprofits, I’ve seen our partner organizations rack up amazing accomplishments in spite of serious challenges. I look forward to continuing my leadership education by the side of the best. 

Great leaders are essential to every organization’s success. Orr Group can provide you with the executive coaching, training, and leadership development you need to strengthen your team. Get in touch today to learn more.

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