4 Best Practices For Nonprofit Leadership In 2021

Kristine HolfertyJanuary 14, 2021

Header image for nonprofit leadership best practices showing leader at head of conference table

Last year was challenging, to say the least. Luckily, a new year brings new hope for organizations looking to make the most of the situation at hand and to strengthen internal operations. However, to make this possible, nonprofit leaders need to be on their A game and willing to work hard to lead the team in a positive direction.

This includes all nonprofit leaders, from the executive director to board members to senior staff members who the newer employees look up and report to. As we enter 2021, nonprofits should focus their attention on ensuring their leaders are set up for success in their leadership roles.

Here at the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance, we’ve helped over 15,000 individuals strengthen their leadership skills at their own organizations. From this experience, we’ve compiled some of the top tips and best practices that leaders like you can implement going into the new year. These best practices include:

Ready to dive deeper into the world of leadership? Let’s get started.

1. Understanding the difference between management and leadership

In the majority of research on the topic, people lump management and leadership under the same definition. While many leaders tend to make effective managers, managers need to adopt very specific skills to become effective leaders. Here’s the difference:

Management is the process of supervising a team and holding them accountable for the tasks they’re assigned to do. You’re also meant to support them in these tasks, answer questions, and generally ensure the goal of your team is accomplished. In order to manage people well, you need to recognize and appreciate the differences between your team members and encourage them to play to their strengths at the organization.

Leadership is the process of identifying the vision of the organization as well as any team decisions that lead to the accomplishment of that vision. This means that anyone on the team can be a leader if they adopt the mindset and attitude of a leader. While you need to recognize and appreciate the differences between team members to be an effective manager, to be an effective leader, you must recognize the similarities on your team instead. This way, you can rally everyone behind the same mission.

Let’s look at a couple of examples:

Timmy is the manager of the development team at a nonprofit. He considers himself to be hands-on as he discusses fundraising opportunities with his team, supervising them and ensuring everything gets done. However, his method of “supervision” is looking over the shoulders of fundraisers as they reach out to prospects and taking over when he worries they won’t succeed. Timmy may be a manager, but he’s not acting like a good leader. He’s micromanaging his team and likely doing too much.

Meanwhile, Susie is a development team member at the same organization. She knows that the nonprofit is conducting a capital campaign soon in order to build a new community center for increased programming at the organization. She recognizes this goal and takes the initiative to craft a draft of the timeline for the campaign that will help the organization reach their goals even though it’s not a part of her usual workload. As Susie presents her work, she is seen as a leader on the team, ready to take initiative and do what it takes for the nonprofit to reach its goals.

Understanding the difference between these two terms helps managers understand that they still have opportunities to lead more effectively and staff members to rise to the challenge of leadership tasks without being an official manager.

2. Providing learning opportunities for staff growth

A good leader doesn’t only ensure the regular workload tasks are being accomplished at the organization. Rather, a good leader makes sure to stretch their team and ensure growth opportunities are available. As your team members grow, so can your nonprofit.

There are a few different ways that your organization can encourage learning amongst team members, all of which require open communication with your staff members. Be the first to ask them about their interests and goals. What do they want to pursue as individuals? Once you have a clear understanding of what they’re looking for, you can provide the necessary resources that staff need to reach those goals.

Some of the different opportunities you can offer to your team members include:

  • On-the-job experience. Give your team members additional responsibilities and real hands-on experience in the fields that they’re most interested in. For example, if someone is looking to improve their relationship-building skills, ask them to take on some of the major donor stewardship tasks.
  • Organization-designed courses. If your nonprofit offers online classes as a part of your mission or your volunteer program already, offer those same courses to your staff members free of charge. You can also design new courses and host them on a learning management platform, giving you an opportunity to expand the audience of learners. Make sure the courses you create have a wide applicability across the organization so that you can make the best use of the time it takes to design them.
  • Offer courses designed by a third party. This is one of the most efficient ways to offer courses for your nonprofit staff members. Look for a platform that works specifically with nonprofits so that the course materials are directly relevant to the work your staff members are engaged with. The Nonprofit Leadership Alliance guide to nonprofit courses provides examples of the courses that you might choose to offer for employees.

Individuals who are always trying to better themselves and learn new skills make the best employees for nonprofits. They’re driven by both your mission and their personal ambitions. Help them along the way by providing opportunities to expand their skillsets.

3. Encouraging team-building activities

One of the greatest struggles during the coronavirus pandemic felt by both nonprofits and for-profit organizations is the physical distance between team members. As your team members are likely working remotely, you’ve all had to learn to adjust everything to the digital sphere.

Your team members might now be feeling Zoom fatigue from all of the work calls and may be getting lonely trapped in their own homes. As many organizations shifted to the virtual world, they left behind the different activities that brought the staff together as a team.

As a leader, it’s your responsibility to re-engage your staff members with team-building activities that bring them together as a united front while maintaining a socially-safe distance from one another.

Online and remote team-building activities are a great way to carry on the culture that your organization has fostered among your team members before the pandemic began. Some activities that you might try with your team include:

  • Step challenges. Challenge everyone to count their steps each day and post their progress on a shared digital board. Then host a weekly check-in to see how everyone is doing with the challenge. This keeps everyone entertained while encouraging a healthy lifestyle.
  • Online games. Many traditional board games have digital alternatives now so that people can play from different households. Gather your team together for one of these online gaming opportunities and encourage some healthy competition between staff members.
  • Gamify learning opportunities. Incorporate training opportunities into your organization and encourage staff to take advantage of them with gamification. For instance, you may offer a points system based on who accomplishes different courses offered at the organization. Then, the winner of each week or month receives a prize.

Team-building and culture-fostering activities are vital for the increasingly digital world. Leaders should make sure to incorporate some aspect of their old culture into this new virtual-dominated reality, especially if you recruit new team members to join.

Astron Solutions’ employee recruitment and retention guide explains how important work culture is to the success of attracting and keeping staff members. They specifically suggest cultivating a culture of learning and development, so look for opportunities to encourage that in addition to fun activities.

If you are looking for new ways to build and grow as a team, we suggest looking into training opportunities for your top leaders such as The Nonprofit Leadership Alliance guide to building team capacity. This type of guide can help you spark conversation, develop talent, and drive your entire mission forward.

4. Not trying to do everything yourself

Remember our example of Timmy from the first section of this article? He micromanaged his team. In one survey, 79% of respondents were found to have experienced micromanaging at their workplace and 69% considered changing jobs due to micromanagement. When you try to do everything yourself as a leader at an organization, you’re bound to end up micromanaging your team.

Micromanaging causes a whole slew of negative impacts on your organization, including:

  • Depleted morale
  • Discouraged employees
  • Decreased productivity
  • Stress and fatigue
  • Decreased employee retention

Trust is what builds the foundation for strong relationships between managers and employees. And trust means that you believe in your staff members to do their jobs effectively. You may ask for a reporting system so that staff members are able to manage their projects effectively, but that doesn’t mean you should track all of their movements within that system.

We recommend that you carefully analyze your strategic plan and break it down into bite-sized portions. Be sure you know who is in charge of which portion of the plan and give those people deadlines for when tasks should be completed.

Make sure it’s easy for staff members to get hold of you in case they have any questions about the tasks at hand. You may even host occasional check-ins (not more than once per week) to ask them how things are going. Remember, you’re acting as their support but not doing the work for them.


Being a true leader is hard work, but it can bring everyone together, unite staff members under a common mission, and help everyone grow as a team. Leaders not only make sure all tasks are accomplished at your organization, but they also offer new opportunities for staff members to continue developing their own skills.

Continue your research to lead your team in the new year. This guide on nonprofit professional development is a great place to start. Not only will you learn about development opportunities available to you or your staff, but you can also read up on the advantages of continuous growth.

Then, implement that research into your nonprofit’s strategy. When you act as a good leader should, your staff members will emulate your good example, creating more leaders who are driven by your mission and ready to help others achieve and grow.

Schedule a live demo with our team, and we’ll show you how easy it is to create and automate reports, utilize online and offline fundraising tools, quickly integrate and access all your data, and ultimately create more time to engage your donors.

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