If you research leadership trends in the for-profit space, you’ll see that much of the focus is on interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence. For-profits have learned that the key to their success is to manage well, be tuned into their staff, and focus on retention.

When you look at leadership trends within the non-profit sector, you can see a pretty stark difference. Non-profit leadership trends focus much more on the management and technical sides of leadership – events management, being mission-driven, transparent storytelling, etc. In fact, when you search for “non-profit leadership trends” on Google, the entire first page of results is all about general non-profit trends, with no glimpse of what you’d see if you were looking in the for-profit space.

So, why does this matter?

We’re all more aware, now than ever before, that our work is getting more complex and technology is rapidly changing the way we live and work together. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many leaders, in both the non-profit and for-profit sectors, to realize that the old, top-down style of leadership was no longer sufficient. Employees are no longer willing to just receive goals, projects, and tasks that are created for them without their input. Leaders now need to pursue a collaborative approach that brings the whole team together.

We must keep moving forward, instead of trying to revert back to “normal.”

Doing things differently is always hard. But by trying new things, continuing to learn, and persevering through our own self-development, we can radically transform non-profit leadership in a way that will help us all truly make a lasting impact.

We believe the following leadership trends are vital as more leaders embrace the opportunity to grow, innovate, and step into more of what we are capable of as individuals and leaders.

  1. Acknowledge and Own that Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion are Critical Elements of Your Work

    Data shows that having a diverse and inclusive workplace improves the quality of decision-making and encourages a more creative and innovative environment. The problems we’re all working to address are complex and challenging. Diversity of perspectives and experiences can fuel new ideas that will be needed if you truly want to solve the problem your organization is working to address.

    A colleague of mine just shared a perfect example of when a culture squashes innovation and possibility. While she was new to her non-profit, in a fundraising role, she was called into a colleague’s office (someone who had been with the organization for years) and was bluntly asked, “Do you tend to come into an organization and start sharing ideas right away? I recommend you be quiet, listen, and learn for a while.”

    She had come into the organization with a lot of energy and even support from leadership, but the culture from the people who had been there a long time shut her down. Let me add that this colleague is deeply thoughtful about any ideas she proposes, and she’s brilliant. Yet still, that culture made it clear that they wanted control, not innovation or growth.

    But it’s not enough to just bring in diverse perspectives. We must move toward a more inclusive culture that is aware of potential micro-aggressions and areas where we discourage diversity. Consider how you can create a place of safety and support so there is an avenue for addressing issues.

    We also need to see diversity, equity, and inclusion as a journey that goes beyond just internal staffing. How are you reaching out to more diverse donor bases? Are you bringing the voices of those you are serving into your organization?

  2. Make Employees a Priority

    Even before the pandemic, turnover in the non-profit sector was abysmal. Major Gift Officers were leaving positions after about 18 months, and retention is still a great challenge for our industry. Now, the post-pandemic period has spurred even more challenges with retention, and some believe this is going to be the most significant turnover we’ve seen. A significant factor is that burnout has increased significantly during the pandemic. However, there are other critical factors at play.

    In a recent study by Nonprofit HR, they found that 45% of individuals surveyed will be seeking new employment over the next five years. A recent Forbes article shared that, “Of the 45% who said they’d seek other employment, a plurality — 49% — said that nonprofit organizations do not pay enough. Additionally, 19% said that nonprofits do not offer good long-term career opportunities, and 12% concluded that nonprofits are not well-run businesses.”

    It’s more important than ever that we are truly focusing on making our employees a priority. How can you create a sustainable pace to reduce burnout and stress? What resources and support can you provide to help your employees feel more balanced?

    We encourage you to consider where you can create space to support the well-being of your employees. Some ideas to consider are: allow for remote work; ensure there isn’t job role creep, which will keep your staff focused on the actual work of their job description; be respectful of boundaries and encourage them; reward performance; and remove policies that are negatively impacting your staff.

  3. Change How You Do Things

    The fact is that philanthropy is changing not only the way we do the work, but also the emphasis on donor. The pandemic forced many organizations to think differently about philanthropy – and you’ll want to continue moving in that direction. We’ve all learned how to engage in virtual communication, and we understand the importance of offering digital options to donors. In fact, many of our donors now expect this. We encourage you to not revert back to how things were always done but look at what you should continue to do that was successful during the pandemic.

    As a leader, moving back toward what you’re comfortable with can be very tempting. These strategies worked for years before, right?! We encourage you to think differently about your role in the future of philanthropy. How can you advocate for the systems that work best for your donors and fundraisers? What do you need to be thinking about as your non-profit continues to develop and move with the times?

    It’s also important to recognize that the overall landscape of donors is shifting. Some changes, like the increase of crypto donors, are ones your organization will need to start addressing, but the biggest change is actually something we’ve known for years. Donors will give more, and continue to give during a crisis, when they are giving to something they are deeply passionate about.

    And they’re demanding that the non-profits they support directly and promptly report on the impact of their giving. This isn’t new, but the organizations who were not operating this way suffered the most during the recent crisis, and it’s clear that donors will continue to expect and want information on how their gift made a difference.

    Leading in innovation and creating a culture that encourages new ideas, without completely throwing out the systems that are working, will help you move your team and your organization forward.

  4. Create a Culture of Learning, Adaptability, and Digital Transformation

    Leaders must charge forward to create a new kind of non-profit culture that is grounded in learning, adaptability, diversity, inclusion, and innovation. Culture change is hard, long-term work, but the right culture can make a tremendous impact. A positive culture of philanthropy is one that better retains donors, keeps staff, embraces new ideas and perspectives, and is able to make a real impact.

This list may feel overwhelming, or perhaps even terrifying, but we’re all on our own journey. Stay focused on the areas you can impact and where the priorities are for you and your organization. Take a moment to reflect as you consider how to approach these leadership trends:

  1. What trend do I feel I’m already making good progress in? How have I achieved that?
  2. Which trend(s) do I need to focus on for the next month/quarter/year? What are my strategies for addressing this area?

Effective, purposeful leadership is a powerful thing and is transformative for non-profit culture. And we can all continue to learn and grow as leaders no matter what role we have within an organization. You have the power to make a significant impact. Now, let’s get started!