How Great Nonprofit Leaders Build Winning Organizations

How Great Nonprofit Leaders Build Winning Organizations

As an executive search consultant, leadership coach, author and keynote speaker with more than thirty-five years of experience working with nonprofit boards and CEO’s across the country, I am often asked to describe the traits of highly successful leaders. How do you identify the professional who has the traits, energy and competencies to build a winning organization?

Every leader has his or her particular style. Still, after observing and coaching hundreds of nonprofit professionals, I can assure you that the most successful ones have some very important traits in common. When you are searching for a new CEO for your organization, give your most serious consideration to the contenders who:

  • Have a way of making people feel good about themselves
  • Listen to others’ concerns
  • Are willing to work to earn the trust and respect of colleagues at all levels of the organization
  • Communicate their vision and strategic goals in clear and accessible ways
  • Make decisions in a thoughtful yet timely manner
  • Are passionate about their mission
  • Have an entrepreneurial spirit
  • Understand what it means to have a positive brand identity, and know how to build one
  • Demonstrate confidence, competence, and courage

Leaders bring out the best in others so that stakeholders at all levels, from entry-level workers to executive committee, feel valued. Smart leaders understand that everyone has a role to play in building a winning organization. Great leaders engage the entire organization from the ground up, so that every employee and volunteer sees how individual goals tie into the broader organizational mission.

Your organization deserves a leader who wants to know what your employees think. You want someone who will ask thoughtful questions, and who will take the time to listen to the answers. Not only is this a valuable practice in your executive search, it will also build loyalty throughout your staff, it is a great way to uncover creative ideas for improving your organization’s work!

Loyalty goes hand in hand with respect. Successful leaders don’t rely on formal authority. They earn high regard by being sincere and passionate about their work. They earn trust by consistently making decisions that benefit the organization.

An effective leader envisions a future for the organization, and then builds a strategic plan that will lead to this new reality. The vision should clarify the organization’s purpose and direction, set standards of excellence, inspire enthusiasm, encourage commitment, and be well articulated and easily understood. A properly communicated vision motivates people to contribute to the organization’s success.

Have you ever worked for someone who just couldn’t make a decision? Frustrating, right? Strong leaders know how to make executive decisions in an appropriate and timely way. If a member of the team isn’t performing as expected, it is the leader’s responsibility to address the situation with that person regardless how difficult the conversation may become. Your organization needs a leader who is willing to make decisions that are best for the 98 percent by removing the 2 percent. When you remove a few weeds, you make room for flowers to grow.

Great leaders are extremely passionate about their organization’s mission. They are not distracted by daily challenges or discouraged by difficulties because they have faith in the future. The most successful nonprofit leaders today have an entrepreneurial spirit as well. In the for-profit world, CEOs are paid for increasing their stock price and improving the net worth of their investors. Nonprofit leaders must build their “nonprofit stock price” by generating a positive impact in their community, communicating their results to stakeholders, and by fostering a winning attitude throughout their organization.

In the past, nonprofit leaders were expected to inform stakeholders about size of their budget, the number of programs and services offered, and the number of clients served. Today, funders are investment-minded. They will respond positively to a leader who effectively communicates your organization’s achievements, outcomes, and impact in the community.

Finally, successful leaders demonstrate what I like to call the three C’s: confidence, competence, and courage. They are likely to inspire the same qualities in those around them and before you know it, your organization is achieving new heights.


Dennis C. Miller is the Founder & Chairman of DCM Associates who works with nonprofit board leadership and chief executives across the country to recruit executives who can inspire their organization to achieve greater levels of success and measurable achievements. Dennis is also a recognized expert in board governance, leadership development, and philanthropy. In addition, he is a sought-after motivational speaker and retreat facilitator.