The 10 Traits of Effective Nonprofit Leaders

Categories: Blog
Why This Matters: Effective leadership is necessary for any nonprofit organizations to thrive. And effective nonprofit leaders exhibit these traits observed by nationally-recognized nonprofit leadership experts Andi Stevenson and Dianne Chipps Bailey.
By Bernie Petit
Communications Manager
Andi Stevenson (left) and Dianne Chipps Bailey created a master class in trends and best practices for nonprofit board chairs and leaders.
Andi Stevenson (left) and Dianne Chipps Bailey created a master class in trends and best practices for nonprofit board chairs and leaders.

Nonprofit leadership is uniquely different than that in the for-profit sector.

“It’s not just your customers or your market” in the nonprofit world, said Andi Stevenson, executive director of The Lee Institute, a nonprofit that strengthens and supports organizations and individuals that build community.

“You’re changing an entire community for the better.”

The civic-minded nature of nonprofit leadership makes it crucial for those in governance positions – particularly those in volunteer board positions – to understand their roles in advancing the mission of the nonprofits they serve.

That is why Stevenson and Dianne Chipps Bailey, who provides legal counsel to nonprofit organizations nationally as the Robinson Bradshaw practice group leader, created a master class in trends and best practices for board chairs of ASC- and United Way of Central Carolinas-affiliated organizations.

The purpose, Bailey said, is “to abbreviate the learning curve so that (volunteer board members) can amplify and accelerate the missions of their organizations.”

It’s about helping new nonprofit leaders develop the traits effective nonprofit leaders demonstrate. Here are 10 key traits that Bailey and Stevenson have observed in effective nonprofit leaders:  

  1. They have a clear destination in mind. Nonprofit leaders define how to advance the missions and visions of their organizations. They explain the course of direction in a way that inspires staff and volunteers to follow and to be the best versions of themselves along the way.
  2. They are mission-driven. “Without financial profit as the organizing force of the sector, mission has to be central” in the nonprofit sector, Stevenson said. “It’s entirely about the mission of the organization and community betterment.”
  3. They are comfortable in their own skin. The most successful nonprofit leaders are self-aware and own their strengths (and weaknesses). That provides their staff and volunteers the space and freedom they need to do their jobs effectively.
  4. They are like Curious George. Like the eponymous children’s book character, if you’re in the nonprofit sector, you need to be naturally curious.
  5. They’re not know-it-alls. The best nonprofit leaders are humble servants that lean on their staffs and then use their passion, experience and expertise “to engage in that strategic, generative, creative decision-making process that will propel the organization forward,” Bailey said.
  6. They’re always game to grab a coffee. Successful leaders build and maintain relationships with peers and civically-engaged individuals. Their carefully curated networks challenge their thinking and expand their perspectives.
  7. They don’t let others drain them of their energy. High-achieving leaders carve out space to commit to nonprofit service and care for themselves.
  8. They’re not afraid to be audacious. And they know what audacity looks like for their organization. If a leader doesn’t have some goals that make them feel uncomfortable and require them to call upon their courage, then they won’t find their next level.
  9. They embody a spirit of gratitude. For nonprofit volunteers to give up their scarcest commodity – their time – they have to feel that their time is impactful and appreciated. Effective leaders understand this and seek to make a spirt of gratitude part of the fabric of their organizations.
  10. They’re not missed too much when they’re gone. When an exceptional leader leaves, the nonprofit doesn’t panic because the leader worked to make the organization stable, sustainable and succession-oriented.
Andi Stevenson (right) and Dianne Chipps Bailey created a master class in trends and best practices for nonprofit board chairs and leaders.
Dianne Chipps Bailey and Andi Stevenson.

Andi Stevenson and Dianne Chipps Bailey are nationally-recognized experts in nonprofit leadership who also are deeply and personally committed to Charlotte’s nonprofit community. Stevenson and Bailey both have served on numerous local, state and national boards.

Stevenson’s extensive professional experience in the nonprofit sector includes governance and strategy consulting. She also has served in key executive leadership roles in visual and performing arts nonprofits in Fort Worth, Dallas, Philadelphia and Charlotte.

As an attorney, Bailey counsels nonprofit organizations throughout the U.S. on a wide range of management, governance and compliance matters. Her breadth of technical knowledge is complemented by her volunteer leadership – she has chaired six nonprofit boards in the last decade.