We’re all familiar with great leaders. From popular culture to UN council meetings, to articles about CEO’s, images are emblazoned in our minds. They are great champions on the big screen, in the boardroom, and in the oval office. They tend to be strong, confident, charismatic, outspoken, and, well… men.

Yet a new leader is emerging. A leader with an integrated skill set, a varied background, and a whole new look. These leaders are more and more often women, people of color, LGBTQIA identified, young, and often a whole mix of these intersectional identities. They bring a breadth of experience and a set of skills and perspective less commonly seen on the leadership stage.

Yet very few nonprofits know how to prepare the way for these new leaders, and we have yet to develop a set of best practices for hiring them.

Nonprofit boards are often the ones tasked to hire a new leader, be it an executive director or CEO. They are dedicated volunteers who care passionately about the mission of the organization and often value a leader that they imagine shares similar values. While in most cases dedication and passion compliment a new hire, they are rarely the “crucial” characteristics needed in a forward-thinking leader.

In reverse order, here are the three most important characteristics, values, and skillsets of an emerging leader:

#3: Fundraising, Money Management, & Financial Literacy

The truth is, I love spreadsheets; the logic, ease, and the fun (yes, that’s right!) of creating, tracking, and recording data, especially financial. It’s my language. It is so much my language that I find it perplexing when much of the world doesn’t speak it, or is even intimidated by it. Unfortunately, this often holds true for leaders. Many directors feel insecure and intimidated by numbers and this is bad news for any organization. Without this skill in a leader, nonprofits risk running into serious financial trouble.

What to look for: Nonprofits must have leaders with financial literacy. Look for experience in annual budget creation, monthly and yearly financial reports, and a general comfort with accounting systems, especially software systems (not paper ledger systems). Also hire for fundraising skills in the form of planning, grant writing, donor development, and of course, actual fundraising. Ask about sponsorships, both regionally and nationally, and ask your candidates for a specific list of how much money they’ve raised and what percentage of their organization’s income it represented.

#2: Solid HR & Management Skills

An organization is only as good as its staff. That means a happy, engaged, and dedicated staff is the biggest asset a nonprofit can have since for every staff turnover, your nonprofit will spend an extra 30% of that person’s salary to train and replace them. So, having stable staff cannot be overstated. I currently work with an excellent group of people who are underpaid, uninsured, and don’t have many benefits. Our scrappy and small nonprofit just can’t afford more than what it gives. Yet they are hard-working and loyal team players, and extremely good at what they do. And despite all indicators pointing to the contrary, our staff turnover is quite low. What can explain this? The key to minimizing turnover is creating a family-like, high-trust, and appreciation-full environment. The management structure is collaborative and everyone has a voice and a strong say in the direction of both day-to-day activities and of the organization overall. Staff matters. And they feel it.

What to look for: Effective management is an invaluable asset in a leader. Look for a track record of high performance, high satisfaction, and highly-motivated teams. If possible, ask candidates for a reference from a previous employee. Look for collaborative and transparent oversight, yet with clear and established systems of responsibility and diverse, positive feedback loops. There should be strong systems in place such as annual reviews, a task management system, compensation structure, and mentoring protocols, as well as high levels of respect, friendship, and ease among the staff.

#1 Capacity Building & Systems Design

From my perspective, the number one, most important skill in a nonprofit leader is the ability to think strategically, build systems, and design for greater capacity. Boiled down to the essentials, nonprofit leadership is one long, diverse, and ongoing project management endeavor. And all nonprofits are tackling more “project” than they can handle. Without systems in place, your organization will not evolve or will exist in chaos (or both). Unfortunately, this is the state of affairs at many nonprofits. And evidenced by most of the executive director job descriptions I’ve reviewed, most organizations aren’t looking for this trait. It’s the classic case of “they don’t know what they don’t know.” Yet it’s the very thing that will determine the level of growth, expansion, and stability of your nonprofit for years and decades to come.

What to look for: You want a dynamic and innovative problem solver with strong vision and a passion for good systems. Look for a strong history and track record of system design and internal capacity building. Examples include a revamp and implementation of the IT, accounting, database, donor, website, branding and style guide, HR, evaluations, and any other systems. You want a leader who can both understand the 30,000 foot view and wade into the smallest details of a project.

Honorable Mentions (a few other things that really matter):

  • Understanding the Media Landscape: Make sure your leader is savvy when it comes to media, marketing, and communications, including websites, social media, search engine optimization (SEO), and other new media outreach. This is where the world is headed.
  • Board Collaboration: Look for a leader who can handle and stand up to the strong personalities on your board and, more importantly, who can forge solid relationships through collaborative engagement, direct communication, and elicitation of strengths from everyone involved.
  • Partnership & Coalition Building: These are the days of the collective impact, the strength of partnerships, and “we’re only as good as our allies.” Make sure your candidate has a career marked with strong and ongoing partnerships as a core tenant to their leadership style.

Thankfully, the emerging leaders (women, people of color, LGBTQIA folks, and youth) tend to be Jill’s and Jack’s of all trades. They offer as much “behind the scenes” as “in front of the podium” skills. They’re as likely to be introverts as extroverts. They may have never worked in a sector to which they are now applying. I believe that’s all to be embraced, as long as the foundational skills mentioned above are firmly in place.

In summary, look for the candidates who ask the hard questions, because they are as serious about the commitment as you are; be willing to entertain candidates who might be less flashy but have the systems design orientation that will serve your nonprofit; and consider candidates without sector-specific experience, as long as they have the core criteria to stabilize and expand the organization.


Lee WarrenLee Warren has been the Executive Director of Organic Growers School, a 501c3 nonprofit based in Asheville, NC, since 2013. She is a sustainability professional with more than twenty-five years of experience in visioning, designing, and living innovative solutions to sustainable food systems, dynamic community, and holistic education. As a director, Lee provides project design and planning, funding development, leadership, oversight, and mentoring, as well as strategic systems development. Lee is also a co-founder of School of Integrating Living (SOIL) and Manager of Imani Farm, both in Rutherford County, NC.

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